the age - thomas shapcott

Spirited performances that jump off the page

The Age - Thomas Shapcott, 21/9/91

KOMNINOS, by Komninos Zervos

(UQP, $10.95, with cassette $19.95)

LIVE SENTENCES, by four performance poets (John Ashton, KerN, Scuffins, Myron

Lysenko, Lauren Williams)

(Penguin, $14.95)


(Angus & Robertson, $12.95)




AUSTRALIA has a long tradition of poetry as a community experience, a

sharing. Early in this cen- tury the 'Bulletin Reciter' was a best-seller and

even the advent of radio took a long time to kill the old bush ballad tradition

of recitation in pubs, around the camp fire, and anywhere else at the drop of a


Radio and television, though, profoundly affected how we responded to

incantation, to the mysteries of rhyme, and to the other hidden sub-texts that

made the old oral traditions potent for so long. Slnging Commercials overtook

the Nursery Rhyme, and later, television ads were turned into an art form in

vldeo clips.

Poetry became sequestered, an art form for meditation and personal introverslon and, later, an academic exercise or a scoreboard of the new Everyman

(as In Everyman's Library). It became accused of being obscure, although I think

the real charge was that it seemed often enough more a boast than a votary


In the 1950s the American West Coast Beat poets made a cocktail with jazz additives and performance poetry, as we know it now, really took off.

Two of these books are dexterous illustrations of how far it has come In

Australla. The past 25 years have been a lively training ground and have thrown

up the odd disc, tape and published book along the way, for the archives, but

there seems to me a range, a spirit, and an assurance in this new generation of

performance poets that jumps up out of the grid of the printed text.

The tradition by now is quite. Iarge and various, from the "us against you"

cheekiness of Pi O and the early poolroom laconics of Garrie Hutchinson (now

speechwriter to the Prime Minister) to the American inflections of Jas H. Duke

or the word-Cages of Chris Mann.



Komninos has in recent years emerged as an amiable grizzly bear of a poet, great

with kids. His UQP book reflects the development in his skills, From early fun

wlth sounds and repetitions to genuine verbal fireworks in "the bombay cafe"

and sharp social comment in "i'm convinced that a.i.d.s. is a c.i.a. plot" or

the funny and touching poem that begins "once/ i thought I was a lesblan".

What comes through, in fact, is a warm and generous spirit, not a karate-

chopper hit and knock. This is a poetry of the new tolerance, and all the more

effective because when it makes a target of bigotry or racism it does so not

wlth anger but wlth pity.



'LIVE SENTENCES' the work of poets John Ashton, Kerry gcufflns, Myron Lysenko

and Lauren Wllliams, Is an altogether more meaty collection.

Each poet Is given sufffclent space to demonstrate voice, personality, ap-

proach and particular skills. You get four books for the prlce of one. Myron

Lysenko has a touching vulnerabillty as disarmlng as Komninos, but his verbal

dexterity is greater.

Kerry Scuffins has a real inner-suburban angst and anger but it is tempered by

a genuine Iyrical voice. Lauren Willlams, also, knows how to blend protest

wlth personal pleasure. I particularly liked her poem "local" which begins

"Sydney got my sister". John Ashton has a wonderful ear for the junk food of

signs and ads. He turns these into more a collation than a collage.

In all these four poets the printed page does not hold back our enjoyment of

what are demonstrably "performance pieces". They work well in text because

they have worked well among audiences. Poetry needs to be taken out ot the

garret or the blackboard-room and given such an airing. These poets certalnly do

that. It is the most exciting anthology In a long time.

Like the old 'Bulletln Reclter', 'Live Sentences' invites readers to get up and

read the poems aloud. If I were a teacher, I would grab it and try it out with

my class tomorrow.

GEOFF GUESS is a South Australian poet who has been making a name for himself as

a qulet observer of the domestlc and small-town scene. His 'Selected

Sonnets' have a haunting quality and add to his achievement, but they are poems

"for the page".

Poems of medltation, terse and succinct. They Intend you to return to them, or

to lines and images in them; they are poems for the bedslde table. There is

space for those, too.