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Experimental and Obscure

John Tranter reviews

«The Barbarous Sideshow» by John A. Scott

Gargoyle Poets (Makar Press), $1.20.
This review was first published in The Australian on 10 April 1976. The review was titled by the subeditor. Provenance: this text was scanned and edited by John Tranter in 2008.

The poems, therefore, are often both awkward and almost perfect, and thus approach clumsiness and sterility at the same time.

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Writing book reviews is a strange and thankless occupation. The work is difficult and irregular, the pay meagre, and the results ephemeral. To praise a great and well-known writer is to labor the obvious, while the abuse of feeble and obscure talent is like self-abuse, a fleeting and pointless satisfaction.


Contemporary Australian poetry is a particularly stubborn field to plough. Our established writers offer little real variety and though the pickings are plentiful enough, the flavor is sometimes monotonous and the texture often indigestible.


The cultivation of the younger crop is an equally dispiriting task. The weeds are plentiful and hardy and it is rare to find a plant worth pausing over. It is a special pleasure, then, to find a first book as promising as John A. Scott’s The Barbarous Sideshow.


His poems have appeared in various magazines in Australia and Britain (where he was born) for about the past ten years, and this collection is worth the long wait. More than any other young poet now writing — Scott is 28 — the poems show both a strong talent and a fully developed self-critical sense.


Many of them could be called experimental and obscure. The verbal structure is sometimes over-wrought and many of the references are so personal as to be inaccessible, but behind the occasionally elliptical syntax and fractured surfaces lies an intellect concerned with precision.


It would seem Scott feels that if an emotion is at all excessive, then its expression must be justified by a scrupulous attention to the balance and definition of its presentation; if a theme is personal, then it must be held it a proper distance; if a concept is complex, then its complexity should not be betrayed by false simplicities.


The poems, therefore, are often both awkward and almost perfect, and thus approach clumsiness and sterility at the same time. What saves them more than adequately on every occasion are the two outstanding qualities of this writer — a rare sensitivity to the use and control of language and a corresponding gift for seeing the world in genuinely poetic terms:


. . . Outside,
You see the children bend and bathe
Their wrists in the floodwater. Evening
Unclasps them from the skyline and abandons them.
They are adrift again, with the white gulls
Throbbing gently in their throats.


There is no mush or sloppiness in Scott’s work, nor has the academy sterilised his gift. He is flexible and adventurous — my favorite words of praise — and very much his own man, with a style that owes nothing to fashion.


Gargoyle Poets are to be thanked for publishing this excellent book. It is to be hoped that they can survive the recent slashing of their grant by the Literature Board, as they publish nothing but excellent and inexpensive books of poetry and, unlike the bigger publishers, have nothing else to keep them afloat.


In the atmosphere of financial gloom that now envelops many “wasteful” areas of government spending, the Australia Council could do well to focus its attention hard on the one criterion that justifies its existence, and that is demonstrated abundantly in The Barbarous Sideshow — quality.

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