This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002
Kenneth Adolf Slessor (1901-1971), poet and journalist, was born on 27 March 1901 at Orange, New South Wales, second son and eldest of three surviving children of Robert Schloesser, mining engineer, and his native-born wife Margaret Ella, née McInnes, whose parents came from the Hebrides. Robert was born in London, where his father Adolphe had moved from Germany. The Schloessers were German-Jewish in origin, but without particular interest in Judaism; they were free-thinking, and included professional musicians in their ranks. Robert had studied at Liège, Belgium, and made his children speak French at meals. He changed the family surname to 'Slessor' on 14 November 1914, just after the outbreak of World War I. Ken's father encouraged him to love music, food and books, and instilled in him a European sophistication.
The family moved to Sydney in 1903. Ken, a voracious reader, began writing poetry as a child and edited a school magazine while at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). In 1917 his first publication, a dramatic monologue (spoken by a digger dying in Europe and remembering Sydney Harbour and Manly Beach) appeared in the Bulletin. Next year, when he won the Victoria League's prize for a patriotic poem, 'Jerusalem Set Free', his poetry received attention in Australian newspapers.
Gaining first-class honours in English in the Leaving certificate in 1918, Slessor joined the Sun newspaper as a cadet journalist, and studied shorthand and typing at the Metropolitan Business College. His early journalistic writing was full of brilliant description and poetic flourishes. In 1919 he had six poems published in the Bulletin and one in Smith's Weekly; they indicated his interest in satire. Three of his poems in the Triad—rewritings of translations from the Chinese by Arthur Waley—demonstrated his interest in poetic imagery, which would become the central pillar of his aesthetics.
In 1920 Robert's work took him to China, where his wife and younger children joined him in 1922. Ken remained in Sydney. As a young man, he was 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, with blue eyes, reddish hair, a ruddy complexion and a moustache. On 18 August 1922 at the Methodist parsonage, Ashfield, he married 28-year-old Noëla Beatrice Myee Ewart Glasson, who used her stepfather's surname, Senior. Theirs was to be a sometimes tempestuous relationship, but Slessor was devoted to her, even after her death. They were childless. Noëla, a slim brunette with grey eyes, was a Catholic—a source of anguish to Ken's Presbyterian mother.
That year Slessor met Norman Lindsay, Hugh McCrae and Jack Lindsay. He was to remain friendly with the controversial Norman, and loyal to some of his aesthetic and philosophical ideas. Many of Slessor's early poems were strongly influenced by Lindsay, but he had none of Lindsay's giant egocentricity, and was as devoted to experiment as Lindsay was opposed to it. Lindsay was anti-Semitic and aggressively anti-Christian, while holding to a vaguely Platonic view of an afterlife. Slessor remained agnostic to the end of his days.
He dismissed the poems of 'Banjo' Paterson, Henry Lawson and all the bush balladists. To Slessor, poetry had only begun 'any consistent growth in Australia' 'with the publication of McCrae's Satyrs and Sunlight' (1909). In 1923-24 he helped Jack Lindsay and Frank C. Johnson, a bookseller, to edit Vision: a Literary Quarterly, which ran for only four issues. It was strongly influenced by Norman Lindsay; it tried to jolt Australian writing out of the bush and into the city; and it promoted Nietzschean ideas, discussion of sexuality, debate about aesthetics, and writing about the inner life. Allied to the magazine, and creating the same sort of stir, was an anthology edited by the trio, Poetry in Australia, 1923.
While McCrae and Jack Lindsay were living out Norman's ideas of artistic purity and a consequent bohemianism, Slessor was getting on with his life as a journalist. In 1922 he declined the editorship of the magazine Art in Australia. He spent some time in Melbourne in 1924-25, writing satirical and light verse for the Herald and sub-editing Punch (where he met the illustrator, Joe Lynch). Late in 1925 Punch closed, and in 1926 Slessor returned to Sydney and the Sun. His first book of poetry, Thief of the Moon, had been published in 1924, printed on a hand-press by J. T. Kirtley in his Kirribilli bathroom. Its sales, though meagre, were aided by the inclusion of three Norman Lindsay woodcuts. Slessor culled what he thought the best of these poems and added many others, publishing Earth-Visitors (1926): it, too, was illustrated by Lindsay, and was produced by Jack Lindsay's Fanfrolico Press in London. The book included poems on Heine, Dürer and music.
Slessor joined the idiosyncratic Smith's Weekly in 1927 and remained there until 1940, serving as an editor from 1935. He enjoyed its unconventionality, interest in film and humour, and, probably, its 'knock-'em-down' vulgarity; he later described the period as 'the happiest chapter of my existence'. During these years he wrote most of his major poetry, the bulk of his light verse (which was published in Smith's, with illustrations principally by Virgil Reilly), numerous articles and film reviews.
Slessor's 'Five Visions of Captain Cook' was included in a booklet, Trio (1931), with poems by Harley Matthews and Colin Simpson. In 1932 he published his third major collection, Cuckooz Contrey, a collection of illustrated light verse. Darlinghurst Nights (1933) and a collection of children's verse, Funny Farmyard (1933), followed. In 1939 the small paperback Five Bells: XX Poems appeared. Norman Lindsay again provided drawings for Cuckooz Contrey and Five Bells, but Slessor's work increasingly seemed to belong to another world from that of Lindsay. The elegy 'Five Bells', a meditation prompted by the death from drowning of Joe Lynch in Sydney Harbour in 1927, is generally agreed to be his finest poem. It placed him among Australia's foremost poets:
I looked out of my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand . . .
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat's whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds' voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.
Appointed official war correspondent by the Commonwealth government in February 1940, Slessor sailed for Britain in May. He served, frequently with Ron Monson, in North Africa, Greece, Crete and Syria until 1943, and was in Papua and New Guinea for some months in 1943-44. Regarding the position as a great honour, he was loyal to the traditions and mythology of the Anzacs. He saw a good deal of action. His admiration for the ordinary soldier combined with his sharp eye and linguistic skill to make him a distinctive correspondent, but his dislike of military authority, and his frustrations with wartime censorship and military bureaucracy, led to disputes.
In November 1943 Brigadier (Sir) Victor Windeyer complained that an account attributed to Slessor and published in Fact 'of the operations leading up to the capture of Finschhafen . . . is most inaccurate'. Slessor defended himself and asked for an official apology. When he learned that the army had sought his disaccreditation as a war correspondent, he resigned on 21 February 1944 in protest against 'the whole of the present attitude and working of the Army Public Relations Branch'. His resignation was controversial and the matter was raised in the House of Representatives.
Slessor became an editor at his old newspaper, the Sun, in April. During the war he had written only two poems, 'An Inscription for Dog River' (a critique of Sir Thomas Blamey) and the powerfully elegiac 'Beach Burial'. Noëla had joined him in England and Egypt, but after Slessor was sent to New Guinea it was some time before they were reunited, in Sydney. He was devastated when she died of cancer in October 1945.
That year Slessor edited the anthology Australian Poetry 1945. In 1946-47 he lived with Kathleen McShine, the subject of the last new poem published in his lifetime, 'Polarities'. A selection of his poetry, One Hundred Poems, 1919-1939, had been published in 1944. The book was popular enough to be reprinted in 1947. After the addition of his three last poems, in 1957, it was reissued many times under the titles Poems and Selected Poems. It was the book by which Slessor was known for many years and it provided the basis for his steadily growing reputation. The first of his series of general interest books, Portrait of Sydney (1950), was commissioned by Sam Ure Smith. Other such books in the years that ensued included Life at the Cross (Adelaide, 1965), Canberra (Adelaide, 1966) and The Grapes are Growing (Sydney, 1960s).
At the district registrar's office, Chatswood, on 15 December 1951 Slessor married Catherine Pauline Wallace, née Bowe, a 31-year-old stenographer and a divorcee. Their son Paul was born in 1952. The marriage was unhappy, broke down in the late-1950s and ended in divorce in 1961. In the late 1960s Pauline Slessor, who was suffering from cirrhosis, returned to live in the same house as Ken, the old Slessor family home at Chatswood—but as a housekeeper. Paul, of whom Slessor had custody, attended Shore (1964-69) and resided with his father.
Although he did not write any new poetry, Slessor kept up many literary activities. He was editor (1956-61) of the literary magazine Southerly and, with John Thompson and R. G. Howarth, edited an anthology, The Penguin Book of Australian Verse (Melbourne, 1958), revised as The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Verse (Melbourne, 1961). Slessor served (1953-71) on the advisory board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund and in 1954 gave a provocative series of six lectures on Australian poetry for the C.L.F. In 1959 he was appointed O.B.E. Ironically, he agreed to serve on the National Literature Board of Review (a Commonwealth government censorship board) in 1967 because he had always opposed censorship.
A successful senior journalist and editor, Slessor had left the Sun in 1957 for the Daily Telegraph, where he stayed until 1971. He was president (1956-65) of the Journalists' Club, Sydney. With A. J. H. Macdonald, Edgar Holt, Cyril Pearl and others, he formed the Condiments Club. Nancy Keesing appreciated 'his wide culture, his enjoyment of people and situations, his wit that was both lusty and subtle'. She described him as 'a neat, fastidious man who chose pens and paper for his work with care and discrimination, who valued (and cooked) beautiful food and drank and offered fine wine. He was a connoisseur who loved and collected books, pictures, music, objects and created a beautiful and truly civilized background for his life'. After years of cajoling by Douglas Stewart, he published Bread and Wine (Sydney, 1970), a selection of his articles, literary essays, comments on his own poetry, and his war dispatches.
Kenneth Slessor died suddenly of myocardial infarction on 30 June 1971 at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, North Sydney. In accordance with his will, he was cremated after a secular service and his ashes were placed next to those of Noëla in Rookwood cemetery. His son survived him and inherited his estate, sworn for probate at $99 216.
Slessor's stature as a poet has steadily increased since his death. Posthumous publications included a collection of his light verse, Backless Betty from Bondi (Sydney, 1983). His war diaries and dispatches were edited by Clement Semmler in separate volumes, The War Diaries of Kenneth Slessor (Brisbane, 1985) and The War Despatches of Kenneth Slessor (Brisbane, 1987). A selection of his writing across all genres, Kenneth Slessor (Brisbane), appeared in 1991 and an annotated Collected Poems (Sydney) in 1994. There have also been a number of critical studies of his poetry and at least two biographies.
Dennis Haskell, 'Slessor, Kenneth Adolf (1901–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/slessor-kenneth-adolf-11712/text20935, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 31 August 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002