People who go in for the arts are often advised: Don’t give up your day job. But what’s a suitable day job for a poet? A century ago many Australian poets made a meagre living as freelance writers for newspapers and magazines. Some even took up journalism full-time, writing their verses on the side. The old Bulletin, one of the wellsprings of Australian literature, was populated by them. But, as most newspapers ceased publishing poems, by the 1930s the careers of poet and journalist began increasingly to seem like strange bedfellows. The combination was no more strange or contradictory than in the case of Kenneth Slessor (1901–1971).
As a poet-journalist Slessor reported on his beloved home town, Sydney, in numerous poems. Among the most well-known – not least because it’s been a favourite of high school curricula – is ‘William Street’, which evokes the thoroughfare leading up to Kings Cross; as louche a locale in 1939, when the poem was written, as it is today:
PETER KIRKPATRICK is an award-winning poet and senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, specialising in Australian literature. Having been shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize in 2008, he has been previously awarded the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2004 and was the joint winner of the William Baylebridge Memorial Prize for Westering in 2007.