Biography of Kenneth Slessor

Kenneth Slessor, one of Australia’s most prominent twentieth-century poets, celebrated the beauty of the Australian landscape and emphasized a respect for nature throughout his long career. Stylistically, his work is marked by the use of irony, creative rhyme patterns, and themes of melancholy, dissatisfaction, and nihilism. The literary critic Terry Sturm has described Slessor as the "first authentically modernist voice" among Australian poets.

Slessor was born in New South Wales, Australia in 1901. He began writing poetry while a young student, receiving attention from Australian newspapers. He published his first poem in 1917 in the prominent Australian literary journal The Bulletin. After graduating, Slessor worked as a journalist for much of his career, first for the Sun; for the Herald from 1924 to 1925; and then for Smith’s Weekly from 1927 to 1940. Slessor described his stint as an editor for Smith’s Weekly—a humorous and satirical tabloid newspaper—as the happiest period of his career.

Slessor published his first poetry volume, Thief of the Moon, in 1924, followed by Earth-Visitors (1926); Cuckooz Contrey (1932); Darlinghurst Nights (1933); and a book of children’s poetry, Funny Farmyard (1933). Slessor’s best-known work, “Five Bells,” was published in 1939. It is a haunting elegy that responds to the death of his friend Joe Lynch.

Slessor was appointed as the official Australian war correspondent by the government in April 1940 and was charged with writing the nation’s official histories documenting World War II. Notably, Slessor only published two poems about World War II. These include one of his most celebrated works, “Beach Burial,” which alludes to Australian troops that perished in the Gulf of Arabs. While a correspondent, Slessor chafed against wartime censorship and the bureaucracy of the military structure. He was forced to resign in 1944 after he was accused of inaccurate reporting. That same year, an anthology of his work thus far—One Hundred Poems, 1919-1939 was published to acclaim, leading to a later reprint.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Slessor continued to contribute to the Australian literary world as an editor and journalist. He also continued to oppose government censorship and agreed to serve on a censorial board, the National Literature Board of Review, solely in order to take a contrarian role.

Slessor passed away in 1971. Several of his works, as well as his war diaries and dispatches, have been published posthumously. Slessor’s modernist style continues to influence poets today and his work is often taught in Australian schools. Specifically, Slessor is credited with breaking new ground through his use of visual symbols and intricate rhyme schemes. The Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize, awarded annually for a full-length volume of poetry, is named in his honor.

Study Guides on Works by Kenneth Slessor

"Beach Burial" is a poem by Kenneth Slessor that details a scene from a World War II battle in Egypt that Slessor witnessed in 1942. Slessor worked as a war correspondent during World War II, which offered him an opportunity to see the world...