Francis Kenna (1865-1932)
Free radical, or chardonnay socialist?
The story of Francis Kenna shows the dilemma faced by historians. If contemporary sources cannot agree on a character, how can we find the facts now?
A good number of facts about his life are undisputed. Kenna was born in Maryborough in 1865, and was educated at the State School there. After completing his education he worked variously as a teacher, in the State Lands office, and, from 1884, as a telegraph operator for the Queensland Post and Telegraph Office. One of his early poems echoes with the sound of the telegraphist’s morse keys:
Pattering and pattering and tirelessly clattering,
Swifter than ever the swift winds blow,
From The Telegraph
His poetry began to appear in Australian Journals from 1885, and by the early 1890s, he was a regular contributor to the Sydney Bulletin. One of his best remembered poems comes from that time:
I am tired of reading prattle of the sweetly-lowing cattle
Stringing out across the open with the bushmen riding free;
I am sick at heart of roving up and down the country droving,
And of alternating damper with the salt-junk and the tea.
From Banjo of the Overflow
His view of the bush was definitely unromantic, his outlook proletarian. From1899 -1902, he edited the Queensland left wing newspaper, The Worker. In 1902, he was elected as the Labour member for Bowen in the Queensland Parliament. But in 1907 Kenna and 22 other members of the Labour party defected with their leader William Kidston to form a coalition government. This was the first great Labour party split, and Kenna was in the middle of it.
Kenna left Parliament in 1909, and returned to journalism, working in Charters Towers, Bangalow, and at Southport, before returning to Brisbane. Late in his life, he became a regular columnist for the Brisbane Courier, one of the predecessors to the present-day Courier Mail. His columns there showed he maintained sympathy for the working man to the last:
The workman lifts his busy pick,
And swings it high and drives it in,
And who and what the gazers are
It matters not to him a pin.
From Man digging in Queen Street
Kenna continued publishing poetry throughout his life, but only published two books of verse, Songs of a Season, (1895) and Phases (1915). Belinda McKay, perhaps uncharitably, calls the first of these books, ‘slight poems in the Celtic twilight tradition’. First, in some of the poems there is a political theme that is not simply nationalist or federalist in spirit:
Singers to thunder at thronings of kings-
“What of the hungry and what of the sore?”
This is the need of the world as it swings.
From A Villanelle
But at a time when so many poets were romanticising the landscape, it is the absence of a physical connection to the landscape that it interesting about these poems. Instead there is a kind of disconnection from the physical, a fascination with the inner world that contrasts with much of the poetry of the time. For example, Ten of Us, which I have reprinted on this site, reminds one of EE Cummings’ All in green my love went riding:
And three of us stayed at the edge of a wood,
Where the bevy of beckoning women stood:
Leaving of all the ten, but me,
Riding alone to the distant sea.
When he died, in 1932, both sides of politics tried to claim Kenna as their own. The Courier wrote that in ‘his politics Mr Kenna had a decided tendency towards complete independence’ and quoted some of Kenna’s recent verse to support their views. By contrast, the Worker quoted a late piece of Kenna’s pro-proletarian verse, and noted that though he had withdrawn from the Labour movement a quarter of a century before:
‘his intimates knew that he always regretted his action, and at heart he remained a democrat hopeful to see the working class movement make progress against all obstacles’.
Which side was he on? To try to answer that question now would be to speculate. Then we would need to speculate on the value of that speculation. It’s best to read the poems for their own sake.
Best book to buy: Kenna, Francis, Songs of a Season, Melbourne, Melville, Mullen, and Slade, 1895.
 Murphy, Denis, William Kidston, in the Australian National Dictionary of Biography http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kidston-william-6949, accessed 4 August 2012.
 Brisbane Courier, 27 December 1930, p6
 McKay, B., Natural Imaginings, the literature of the hinterland, in Buckridge, P. and McKay, B., By the Book, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 2007, at p 98.
 Brisbane Courier, 24 June 1932, p13.
 The Worker, 29 June, 1932, p3.