“A Guide For Poits” by C. J. Dennis – A Deconstruction

July 12th, 2014 | C. J. Dennis, Poems for adults

My favourite Australian poet is C. J. Dennis, and one of my favourite poems of his is “A Guide For Poits”. It was first published in the Bulletin on 18th March, 1915 (nearly one hundred years ago!), and was subsequently published in “Backblock Ballads and Later Verses” (Angus & Robertson, 1918).

It is a long poem, and somewhat archaic in its expression at times, which means that this absolute gem is generally overlooked, or at least misunderstood, by most contemporary rhyming poets. This is a real shame, because the poem still has a great deal to offer contemporary practitioners of this somewhat exacting craft.

I will therefore attempt to explain – or deconstruct – the poem.

Dennis begins by outlining his general philosophy on the arts, and his reason for writing the poem. He makes the point that he does not see himself as an elitist in any way, but rather, would love to see a flourishing of community artists, so that inner city precincts such as “The Rocks” in Sydney, and Little Lonsdale Street in Melbourne, became centres of poetry and music. In a broad sense, with the development of government sponsored community arts projects, this has come to pass.

He explains that he would like to contribute to such a movement by sharing some of his poetry writing ‘tricks of the trade’. (Remember that shortly after this poem was written, his book “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” was published – easily the most successful book of poetry ever published in Australia.)

Dennis gets down to tin tacks in verse eight, instructing poets to choose a ‘swinging metre’ and ‘sling in a bit o’ slang to ev’ry line’.

The next few verses discuss various rhyming patterns. Verse nine covers the simple patterns of ABAB and AABB. Verse ten demonstrates AABA.

The next verse introduces an effect that Dennis is especially famous for – the short line. One of the common criticisms of rhyming verse is that the regular rhyme and metre can become a bit tedious – even soporific. Dennis is very sensitive to this. He often throws in a shorter line to give the reader a bit of a jolt, and grab their attention once more on the chance that it might have been waning. He also, in this verse, introduces a rhyming pattern he is once again very well known for – ABABCC.

In the following verse he demonstrates yet another rhyming pattern, this one quite unusual – ABABBA. (I wonder, though, if he has made an error here. I think he means the final line to rhyme with the first and third, but it actually doesn’t.)

He pauses in the next verse to make the point that it is very difficult to produce large volumes of such exacting rhyme unless you put in a lot of time practising!

The following verse is especially clever, explaining the added difficulty of finding triple rhymes, while also demonstrating them, with a rhyming pattern of AABABB.

He then extols in some more detail the virtue of the unexpected short line – while simultaneously providing a demonstration, once again.

The last three verses return to philosophy once more, as he laments a simple fact that all poets know – it is very hard to make money writing poetry!

These verses are worth quoting in full:

Aw, ‘Struth! It’s pretty; but you take my tip,
It gives a bloke the everlasting pip
‘Oo tries to live upon the game and gets…
Corns on ‘is brain an’ melancholy debts!

Wiv sweat an’ tears, wiv misery an’ sighs,
Yeh wring yer soul-case for one drop of bliss
To give the cold, ‘ard world; an’ it replies,
“Prompt payment will erblige. Please settle this.”

The rarest treasures of yer ‘eart yeh spend
On callous, thankless coots; an’ in the end
It comes to this: if you can’t find a muse
‘Oo takes in washin’, wot’s the flamin’ use?

The full text of the poem can be found here:

© Stephen Whiteside 12.07.2014

8 responses to ““A Guide For Poits” by C. J. Dennis – A Deconstruction”

  1. Vic Jefferies says:

    One of my favourites too Stephen and should be required reading for all who want to write poetry. ‘Twouldn’t it be good to have this read and explained in schools!

  2. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for this ‘deconstruction’, Stephen. I just read and enjoyed the poem, for he first Imelda. I suspect that the ‘midtake’ you mention is a typo, and not in the original poem: the rhyme word should be ‘begun’ not ‘begin’.

  3. Michael Sharkey says:

    Thanks for sending this to Australian Poetry; I’ve just reviewed Philip Butterss’ biography of Dennis, for the Association for Study of Australian Literature (it will appear online in due course). Dennis’s metrics are interesting. He’s far more crafty and knowledgeable about prosody than many people give him credit for. There is, of course, no reason why rhyme-schemes should NOT be regular. Poets are not metronomes, and as Dennis illustrates in just about everything he wrote, the thing is to sound as if one is talking ‘naturally’ — or, at least, that was the case when he was writing.I won’t get caught up in that business — Wordsworth opened a can of worms when he spoke about the speech of living people — a can of worms that is still writing. Dennis’s ‘hero’ John Masefield was another fine technician in the sense that he wrote sophisticated verse that had popular appeal. Michael Sharkey

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for getting in touch, Michael. Yes, Dennis managed to be very sophisticated without getting bogged down in technicality. I am much less familiar with Masefield’s work.

  4. John Gough says:

    This is great, Stephen.
    I like the explication.
    Incidentally, what Dennis refers to as a triplet is only the use of three lines with the same rhyme, somewhere in the stanza.
    This is something I point out in my forthcoming eBook “The Annotated Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”, with the following annotation.
    “Expanding on the simple paired rhymes of couplets, Bill uses the word “triplets” to mean a verse that contains three lines using one rhyme and three lines using another. Typically, couplets rhyme in pairs of adjacent lines, AABBCC, or AABBAABB, … But if the rhyming is not in adjacent pairs, such as ABABAB, we do not all them “couplets”. We would expect triplets to rhyme with three adjacent lines at a time, such as AAABBBAAA, or AAABBBCCC, … But Bill suggests we use the term “triplets” when the trios of rhymed words are not adjacent. Maybe.”
    Best wishes, and congratulations for your thoughtful appreciation of Dennis, a sadly neglected figure in Australian literature, in my opinion.
    Also, I haven’t read Buterrmass’s biography.
    Is it any good, do you think?
    Do we have a definitive biography of Dennis yet?

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