Often called one of Australia’s finest and most important modern poets, Kenneth Adolf Slessor was born on 27 March 1901. After attending school, first at Mowbray House in Chatswood and then at the Sydney Church of England Grammar School, he chose not to attend university but to study shorthand and typing at the Metropolitan Business College graduating to begin work as a cadet reporter for the Sydney Sun in 1920.
Slessor married Noela Senior in 1922 moving to Melbourne in 1925 where he worked for the Herald as a feature writer and was chief sub-editor of Punch. A return to Sydney in 1927 saw him join Smith’s Weekly, and he become the associate editor in 1936 and editor in 1938. The outbreak of war in 1939 took Slessor overseas as Official War Correspondent with the A. I. F. (Australian Imperial Force) serving with the rank of captain in the United Kingdom, Greece, the Middle East and New Guinea. Slessor resigned in 1944 and returned to the Sydney Sun as a special writer before becoming literary editor in 1947. He continued journalistically with papers such as the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph as well as editing the literary magazine Southerly until his death, from a heart attack, 30 June 1971.
Slessor published his first collection of poems, Thief of the Moon in 1925, limiting the edition to one hundred signed copies. It was embellished with a drawing and three woodcuts by Norman Lindsay who Slessor admired immensely. He declared for ‘Modernism’ in an address “Experiments in Modern English Poetry” in 1931 before the Australian English Association. It seemed that Slessor intuited one of the great truths of modernism, that the seemingly incongruous need not be feared, though techniques and concrete images did remain vital to him. In 1944 Slessor published what was essentially to be his definitive volume, One Hundred Poems 1919–1939. This volume is significant in that it represents a bringing together of all of his poems from his other collections, Five Bells (1939), Cuckooz Contrey (1932) as well as about twenty five of the poems from Earth Visitors (1926) and three new poems, which he divided into three separate sections according to composition. .
As a pioneer in the development of modern Australian poetry Slessor’s poems, while being formal in style, are recognised as elaborate, decorative and distinctly visual. Slessor’s is an Australian voice, using the locales and situations familiar to Australians, though much of his poetry (in particular “Five Bells”) was not provincial in style but looked to experimental European models. His poetry had an elegant sense of world weariness and his themes included loneliness, beauty, the city, death, despair, immortality, but the theme Slessor returned to most often was time.
Slessor broke new ground in language and form using strong rhythms and intricate rhyme schemes to push the boundaries within formal verse, nevertheless critics have agreed that his experiments with form only went as far building a form that would reflect the shape of the emotion which produced it. This stifling of Slessor’s natural talent was due to many contributing factors, which include, Norman Lindsay’s influence on his work, the backlash from the Ern Malley affair (which set Australia’s literary advancement years behind the anglo-european world) and a sense of cultural insecurity (the Australian Cultural Cringe) which Slessor shared with many other Australians. Nonetheless Kenneth Slessor can be counted as one of Australia’s first strong modern poets, putting him in the company of the likes of Eliot, Yeats, Owen and Edith Sitwell.