The Forgotten Works of Australian Poet C. J. Dennis

I recently stumbled across the works of Australian poet C. J. Dennis (1876 – 1938) and have been enjoying his poetry and writing from The C.J. Dennis Collection – from his forgotten writings edited by Garrie Hutchinson. You may have come across his most well known work, a humorous verse novel called The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, first published in 1915. Selling an astonishing 65,000 copies in the first year of release, Dennis was the most prosperous poet in Australian history.The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke cover C. J. Dennis

In 1922, he began writing for the Herald in Melbourne, and wrote daily pieces until his death in 1938. He wrote about the bush, farming, small towns, cricket, horse racing, football, local crime and of course politics. Dennis wrote a prolific variety of poems and prose, many of them about ordinary Australians and which included slang and phrases of the day.

Reading his work now, it does take a little while to acclimatise to his phonetic spelling, particularly his work through the character Ben Bowyang, “rural filosofer and spelin reformer… from the bush.” (Page 5 of The C.J. Dennis Collection edited by Garrie Hutchinson). Having said that, once you adapt your reading to his writing style, you’ll no doubt find his rhyming verse addictive.

Dennis clearly had a love of words and language and was an impressive storyteller, capturing every day characters with humour and precision. His work around the ANZACs and ANZAC Day (such as A Song of Anzac and A Message) is touching and really captures a time gone by.

C. J. Dennis also wrote for kids, including A Book For Kids and A Bush Christmas, still funny today.

During his career, Dennis worked with Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, and despite being just as successful, his name isn’t as well known as his two contemporaries. If like me, you’d like to re-discover the works of this legendary Australian, you can begin with The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (click here to purchase), or with his children’s books mentioned above (each in print and available for purchase).

For some of his more obscure writings though, you might need to do some digging. I managed to source The C.J. Dennis Collection – from his forgotten writings edited by Garrie Hutchinson (published in 1987) through my local library. Your efforts will be well rewarded, I guarantee.

Do you remember reading books by C.J. Dennis as a kid? Do you have any of his books on your bookshelf at home? Let me know if you have your own connection to this ‘lost’ Australian poet.

Review – The Billy That Died with its Boots On

Grade Four Brief: fill an entire exercise book with a collection of poetry based on the theme ‘Don’t’. ‘I hear don’t much more than do. I think that’s sad, how about you?’ was my interpretation of the theme. It featured on every page.

TBTDWIBOOutcome: I filled the book, each page boasting original arrangements of strangled rhyming verse duly supported by hand drawn illustrations. A masterpiece in my mind and possibly the last time I wrangled poetic devices into meaningful arrangements. Picture book writers like me, are advised to avoid them at all cost unless your name is Julia Donaldson.

So when The Billy That Died with its Boots On and other Australian Verse slid into sight, I immediately baulked. How does one comment on something she professes no expertise in? Am I even entitled to opinion? Could I appreciate this oral and written art form of storytelling despite my long absence from it?

Answer: Well, of course I am and I do, very much as it turns out because poetry above all else can cut straight to the heart and I’ve definitely got one of those.

Stephen WhitesideI’ve long known of Stephen Whiteside but had never had the pleasure of reading his work, hearing his recitals or understanding the man, until our recent encounter at the SCBWI Sydney Conference earlier this year.

From beneath his trademark straw sun hat, which incidentally is equally at home in a frosty marquee or crowded suburban watering hole, radiates a man of admirable intellect, quiet charm and palpable talent.

He’s been rhyming verse for over thirty years, sustained by the inspirational works of his childhood influences, poets; Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and CJ Dennis – all remarkable pens of the bush.C J Dennis

Whiteside’s work captures the essence of an eclectic variety of subject matter but harnessing the unique tenor and spirit of our Aussie bush and life style is what anchors him most firmly to his art and maintains his involvement with various folk-art festivals throughout the land such as the Toolangi CJ Dennis Poetry Festival.

Adults enjoy his poems but he has found his true metier writing and performing for children, particularly primary-aged youngsters. The Billy That Died with Its Boots On represents his first collection of poems for children garnered over the years and embodying our iconic outdoors, sporting life and flora and fauna, with the obligatory alien thrown in for good measure. It’s an absolute joy to read.

Much but not all of Whiteside’s rhyming verse favours a pleasant anapaestic metre, which he comfortably mixes up with longer, lyrical story lines and short snappy four-liners. Nearly all of them raise a smile; some will have you chuckling out loud. Occasional paper cutout illustrations by Lauren Merrick add pep and character. Enjoy them all with a cuppa in one session or better, at random, one or two at a time whenever your fancy calls. Great for tapping into the short term attention spans of young minds.

Personal favourites are; Dad Meets the Martians, The Saucing of the Pies (in time for the footy finals), The Ice cream that Hurt and Eating Vegies; all adroit mirth filled mirrorings of minute slices of everyday life. Other titles, Two Little Raindrops and The Mane of a Horse for example, are sensitive metaphoric masterpieces written from the point of view of their inanimate subject matter; a raindrop, a puff of wind… quite lovely.

Stephen Whiteside 2It’s poetic magic that should be gobbled up by young readers while their creative hearts and minds are still open to this style of sustenance. The Billy That Died with its Boots On and other Australian Verse would make a beautiful addition to primary class room book shelves too. Only one thing could improve this collection – to have Stephen Whiteside himself read each poem out loud, as intended. Now that would be worth sitting through Grade Four all over again.

To loosely quote French poet Charles Baudelaire: ‘It is the hour to be drunken! To escape being the martyred slaves of time, be ceaselessly drunk. On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you wish.’ For readers under 18, I recommend you begin with this, poetry.

Find this book here.
Walker Books Australia May 2014