Victor Kennedy (1895-1952)
‘when tropic calls ring clear can southern pleas prevail?’
Victor Kennedy was a journalist, poet, literary figure and family man. He was a staunch labor supporter, and his commitment to his principles contributed to the hardship that he and his family suffered during the worst times of the 20th century. His career as a journalist took him from Bendigo to Geraldton, round the continent to Cairns, and then down the east coast to Melbourne. Somehow in his 14 years in Queensland he found the time to craft fine, much neglected poetry, that begins to capture the essence of North Queensland.
Martin Victor Kennedy was born in Eaglehawk, Victoria in August 1895, the third of five children. He was descended mainly from Irish and convict stock. Like so many children of his time, he was sent out to work after he finished primary school. However, the young Kennedy was entranced by literature, and by the age of 22 he had published a book of verse, The Unknown Anzac. By this time he was working as a pharmacist’s assistant, a member of his local labour league and a vocal anti-conscriptionist. Kennedy sought to educate himself and enrolled in an arts course at the Ballarat School of Mines. Through his interest in literature and the visual arts he met his future wife. The young Kennedy found that writing was his true calling: by his late 20s he had been formally trained and was working as a journalist, in Shepparton, Bendigo and Geraldton.
By 1926 he had taken a job on the Cairns Post. Upon his arrival, he pretty much fell in love with the place. He went back to Bendigo to marry and then bring his new wife back to Cairns, where his children were born, and he embarked upon his most fertile literary period. In addition to his duties as chief reporter, Kennedy and his young family travelled widely, he published books on the tropics and a biography of the owner of the Cairns Post. During the difficult years of the Great Depression Kennedy started up and edited a periodical devoted to North Queensland called Northern Affairs, which lasted almost 18 months.
But the lasting legacy of Kennedy’s time in Cairns is his poetry. Some poets before Kennedy had attempted to capture the feeling of the north. For example, in 1909, Mabel Forrest had endeavored to evoke Magnetic Island, near Townsville:
To the citied South have set my face, as the rocking boat speeds forth,
And yet the cry in my soul today, is a cry for the green-isled North!
From The Call of the North
But to bring a place to life in a poem, it is not enough (at least since the invention of the camera) to describe the geographic features of the place, or even describe how one feels about the place. In a pamphlet published in 1943, Kennedy wrote: ‘The question that does stare us in the face is that we have to let the sunlight of this land into our souls.’
To my mind, language like this sounds like the tropics:
But I have walked upon the streets
Of a far out jungle town
Where, when the ‘wet’ comes in
The rain in steel-broad sheets
Drops like a shutter down
With rasp and din.’
From ‘Man, Building’.
When Kennedy finds a way of describing his feelings, he does so in way that captures the place. In Tropic Sun, he compares the north to the ‘upland ridge’ in the cold uplands of the Victoria of his birth, where ‘straight falling’ rain was ‘vexing the white boled box’. There, in his old home, he finds that the sun ‘we had mourned….seemed never to have lived at all’. However, when he turns to north Queensland, he says:
They say a heart falls sick for what was home;
But I have felt/The surges of this tropic sun in mine,
There is a place far kinder than the upland ridge
With rain straight-falling/and vexing the white boled box.
Best of all, Kennedy does this with a positive, almost hedonistic spirit that is never twee, or holding out false hope. In a poem written for his eldest daughter he beseeches:
Thus when walking in flower-lit ways
Bright toned-to the sky’s broad arc,
Grasp, my darling, the crisp June days;
Hold their warmth for the sun’s last rays
Are Stabbed to the creeping dark.
From ‘For Bernadette’
But the sun didn’t shine on Kennedy for long. He suffered serious kidney problems in his mid-thirties, fell out with his editor at the Cairns Post over the fair treatment of staff, and found himself unemployed. He toured the east coast of Australia lecturing on the Barrier Reef, worked as a free lancer in Brisbane, where he and his family suffered great financial hardship, and then moved in pursuit of work to Gympie, Murwillumbah, Casino, Newcastle, Mildura and finally Melbourne.
Through a bewildering series of moves, deteriorating health and financial struggles, Kennedy remained devoted to literature. He was an active and well regarded book reviewer, and served as secretary of the Queensland Authors and Artists Association (now the Fellowship of Australian Writers), as president of the Australian Literature Society, and as a staunch advocate of the Jindyworobak movement. When he moved to Melbourne he made a big impact on the Melbourne art and literature scene. Kennedy passed away, too young, in January 1952, much mourned by the literary and journalistic community.
Best book to buy: Kennedy, V. Cyclone, Selected Poems, [Melbourne] Jindyworobak Publication n.d. .
Further reading: Cavill, M. ‘Victor Kennedy In Pursuit of Sunlight’, Waverley, Cavill Press, 2004.