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CJ Dennis: An Unsentimental Bloke

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In his heyday, CJ Dennis was the most published and read poet in the nation. He was particularly noted for his celebrated The Sentimental Bloke, The Moods of Ginger Mick, The Glogs of Gush and A Book for Kids.

Being talented or gifted doesn’t necessarily lead to success, and Adelaide University lecturer Philip Butterss’ detailed biography of Dennis – An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of CJ Dennis – is a fascinating portrait of a man who suffered severely from asthma and battled depression and the demon drink before achieving fame, celebrity and material comfort, only to lose it all in his later years.

As well as writing poetry, Dennis wrote for, and edited, journals; he particularly enjoyed attacking the wealthy and the hypocritical. More than 100 years ago he was critical of federal politicians who appeared to him to be more interested in loyalty to their parties and getting re-elected rather than putting the interests of the nation first. Instead of being seen as a poet from the past, he should be recognised as  being relevant for our time.

An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of CJ Dennis, by Philip Butterss, Wakefield Press, $34.95

An Unsentimental Bloke:
The Life and Work of CJ Dennis, by Philip Butterss, Wakefield Press, $34.95

Dennis’s poetry has been in and out of fashion, but Butterss makes an excellent case for him to be not only studied in schools, but revered and appreciated for the quality and quantity of work he produced. He captured a particularly Australian sense of humour and in his early days he was witty, satirical and not afraid to attack politicians, the rich and powerful, and those who celebrated all things British. Dennis was most lauded in World War I, when his works were read in the trenches as keenly as they were at home. At his best, he was “irreverent, egalitarian and affectionately funny”.

Butterss’s An Unsentimental Bloke is very readable, as Dennis’s story is one of rags to riches, personal fame, mixing with the elite and then a fall from grace. As he became better known and wealthier, his perspective on life seemed to alter and he became more concerned with materialistic things, siding with conservatives.

He found it difficult to deal with his popularity declining and, like all writers find, it was frustrating trying to follow up a best-seller. In his time he was regarded as Australia’s “unofficial poet laureate”, but in later years he has been out of favour, neglected or forgotten.

Butterss provides much more than a biography of CJ Dennis; there are excellent analyses of Den’s major works which are insightful, intelligent and highly informative.

Success didn’t come easily to Dennis. He worked hard at his craft and he often had to write while he was working long hours as a journalist. He was prolific, writing more than 3000 poems, and while his writing was rooted in the early 20th century, he has proven to have longevity and appeal to new generations. This is demonstrated in the productions of the Albert Arlen musical of The Bloke, ballet productions, television adaptations, recordings of poetry, one-man shows of his life and a more recent musical.

The Sentimental Bloke’s appeal is succinctly summarised by Butterss: “In its fictional world, class distinctions, sectarian differences, the divide between the city and the bush, the opposition between popular culture and high culture, and the clash between different models of masculinity, are all smoothed over or accommodated.”

I happily admit to being a CJ Dennis fan and I was very pleased to find in this latest work on his life an enormous amount of new material about his background, personal life, relationships with others and his struggles and achievements. Australians should know about Dennis, his writings and poems; Philip Butterss has provided us with an excellent study of the man, his life and work.

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