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Sport 16: Autumn 1996


There’s nothing more popular than art except, perhaps, the absence of art. On 23 August 1911, the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre was announced. Le Temps had reported the disappearance in a tiny paragraph the previous evening. While the thief, Vincenzo Perugia, was admiring the painting in his down-at-heel bedsitter on the other side of town, crowds were queuing outside the Louvre to see the blank wall space where the Mona Lisa once hung, and gallery staff and police were combing the 49 acres of floorspace for any trace.

Perugia later admitting falling in love with the mona Lisa: ‘I fell a victim to her smile and feasted my eyes on my treasure every evening, discovering each time new beauty and perversity in her …’1 During the two years the painting was missing, the poet and art critic Guillaume page 151 Apollinaire was accused on a number of occasions and, at one point, even arrested in relation to the theft. (Apparently some French persons still believe Apollinaire was involved in the crime, despite his being cleared of any involvement whatsoever.)

It probably says something about the nature of poetry that the poet is accused, from time to time, of making off with Art. The iconoclastic Adelaide poet and art critic Ken Bolton has certainly followed in the French poet’s footsteps and been accused of such misdemeanours during the two decades of his career as writer, and editor of such radical journals as Magic Sam (1978–1982) and Otis Rush (1987–).2 Bolton’s poetry is concerned with what is left on the gallery wall once the paintig has been stolen. But as well as dismantling artistic/poetic conventions, his poems knowingly and often surreptitiously inhabit those conventions.

As both writer and occasional visual artist, Bolton has also made it his business to examine and, for the most part, undermine the various national complacencies or banal enthusiasms that masquerade as popular or national culture. On the subject of nationalism, Ken Bolton
cheerfully and incessantly disavows the grand and the inflated, the heroic and the hieratic. Australia, for Bolton, is an image on a teatowel, the logo on a tin of Fosters or a trademark on an Eskie. It can also be the interior of a rental flat, a desk with ashtray, coffeecup, an old radiogram and a heap of LP records.

While the writing teems with references to Literature and Art, the effect of this is never to elevate the poetry or strike airs. In fact, it works the other way, hauling cultural icons and figures/items of esteem down into the world of everyday objects, of things. Bolton’s poetry is never baroque, it is a poetry of deflation rather than elevation.

It is also a poetry of the hurried look—a torrent of trivia, misunderstandings, occasional insights, ambling about the home, killing time page 152 (‘Unemployed at last!’ cries the poet). The poet is saying that just as Life itself is composed of the throwaway, the ephemeral, it follows that Life’s best mate, Poetry, should be made of similar matter.

Bolton uses collage techniques—a kinds of multi-tracking—in his poetry, but the tone is always monitored, is flattened or (as Barthes would say) ‘cooled’. ‘It is like / an Alpine ad / or something by Matisse’, as Bolton puts it. The poems are sites of indecision as well as deliberation and, every once in a while, action. The characters communicate incessantly; they annoy one another; they interrupt, intrude, disgrace themselves, laugh a lot. They drink, they fall asleep, they indulge their Funny Ideas:

So I
should drop all this stuff about Romantic Love
tho of course
you know I was joking
: chuck-chuck-chuckling thru the

surrounded by my culture
(as Annie Bickford used to say, when the neighbours said
Turn it down! ‘But it’s our culture!’
& she was right.

(from ‘poem (where I live)’)

There are no lyrical flights—or if there are then Bolton ensures the reader is aware of the cranky machinery, the cogs and propellors of Tradition, at work inside them. He wants the reader to know how the poem is constructed, to be able to see through it. The process is one of demystification as well as deflation. Thepoet is confined to the world his feet walk
on—the furthest he gets from it is a speeding plane or car or bicycle:

page 153

… me in the wire basket

of your bicycle you pedal me to the picnic smiling

not at me but at the clouds little white Magrittes

against the quiet, loud blue so I can see your chin. you’re


(from ‘a e i o u (twice)’)



‘After you realise the “poem” is a bricolage of given signifying practices, a culture built around ignoring this then collapses and certainly it’s a bit of a shock. Bolton walks away from the wreck, amused at the intricate machinery of deception the crash has exposed and annoyed that so many people still think it is in operation.’—John Forbes, Meanjin

As well as inhabiting untidy flats, noisy bars, nightspots and the baskets of bicycles, the poet finds himself hanging around the Western Cannon. And from his precarious niche perched out on a limb or tip of that tradition, he adopts the lofty, exalted tones of High Art to address such contemporary versions of the Grecian Urn as the sardine tin or, in the following instance, the polystyrene cup:

little styrofoam cup
I really like you:
in my mind’s idea.
That sort of
page 154 round, inflated look
astronauts have

in that pearly light they have
inevitably to get photographed in, cup,
a look
you take almost with you,
wherever you go, the look of
a thing to which illusions don’t stick: the Idea

of the future as a rosy thing …

(from ‘Timeless Moment (little cup sestina)’—‘a true account of talking to a styrofoam cup, one night, outside the university architecture department’)

Philosophical asides—and Bolton’s poems are full of Big Themes— enter the poem by the same route as the most trivial thoughts, depending on what books are lying around the flat, what order suggests itself out of the general randomness.3 The poems drift, the focus of image and language moving from item to item, from room to room, as if in a state of day-dream. In the well-maintained anarchy of the poem’s setting, the reader is accordingly given the pleasure of moving around freely, without the author willing any particular response at any particular time.

The ordinariness of Bolton’s poetry is neither the Zen-like plainness of William Carlos Williams nor is it the finely honed, reductivist focus of the Imagist poets. In its insistence that poetry operate close to unmediated experience, bereft of poetry’s privileges and aloofness, his project harks back to Frank O’Hara and Blaise Cendrars (although Bolton’s poems are just as likely to be be sourced in the lyric sheets of Jerry page 155 Lee Lewis albums, the scripts of late-night B-movies and the speech bubbles of cartoon characters). In the context of recent Australian poetry, he is aligned with poets such as Pam Brown, Laurie Duggan, John Forbes, John Tranter and Gig Ryan (many of whom appeared in Magic Sam in the late 1970s), who have similarly reacted against what Ross Gibson has called ‘the faux-honesty of the bucolic-spiritualist school of folksy nationalism which Bolton shorthands with the name of “Les Murray” ‘.4