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Sport 16: Autumn 1996

The way things aren’t

The way things aren’t

up in the sky! in the best bookstores! in the best
homes! is that australian poetry? it that about
cows? yes & no!

is rhyme associated with reason? can you read
an australian poem & not see cows?
has metaphor died yet? has myth? look now.

(from promotional material for Sea Cruise Books, produced by Absolutely Furious Productions)

Some critics have considered, quite rightly, aspects of Bolton’s radical programme an insult to ‘the way things are’ within the Literary Establishment (which, I suspect Bolton would assert, is a far cry from ‘the way page 157 things are’ for most people). A constant scourge of the puffed up and the phoney, there is a combatative, even abusive, strain to Bolton’s poetry which, surprisingly, is the most traditional element of his whole endeavour. It puts him in line with Chaucer, Dunbar and Dante and the bards of old who, according to critic Hugh Kenner, were ‘retained to do two main things, praise the king’s friends, curse the king’s enemies, and if they knew their business their curses were efficacious; there are tales of rats rhymed to death. When the bard Senchan Torpest spoke quatrains against rodents who’d eaten his dinner, ten of them dropped dead from the rafters of the house.’

If the amount of annoyance Bolton’s poems have caused is any indication then he is a very effective poet indeed. Early in his career he managed to alienate many of the power-brokers of Australian Literature, who weren’t exactly in a hurry to let such a disruptive voice in:

…̈ they have given poetry a bad name
by making us all seem ‘too sensitive’
but you are changing all that …

it is like in that John Forbes poem
where it says
—I would

like to do it here
(it is ‘the stooge effect’)
great faces, from history,
are lining up to be hit by pies Attila the Hun, Hitler;
that bastard that ran the corner store.
Les Murray.
& Fatty Fin (whom Stefan says
he was always reminded of,
when he read Australian poetry).

(from ‘Christ’s Entry into Brussels’ or ‘Ode to the Three Stooges’)

page 158

Bolton’s poetry is a deliberate—although not unaffectionate—hijacking of Australian Literature. Like Vincenzo Perugia disappearing through a side-door of the Louvre with the Mona Lisa, removed from its frame, under one arm, it can be read as a statement of love as well as disrespect. Even if, at times—as in his notorious ‘Poets Drinking’ drawings (published in Magic Sam #4)—he seems intent on flogging Oz Lit off to the
lowest bidder. (Remember that in a similarly contradictory manoeuvre, Perugia unsuccessfully tried to hock his beloved Mona Lisa to a London antique dealer.)

page 159

Rather than have his artistic project impaired by an absence of grants and prizes from the Literature Board or by the absence of a sympathetic critical and publishing climate, Bolton has, since the late 1970s, turned such opposition around, transforming it into the very subject matter of his poetry, something which has become useful and, perhaps even, essential to him.

The fact that, until recently, Bolton’s poetry came dressed combatively in hand-drawn covers, accentuating the cartoonish and the irreverant, further underlined his status as interloper and saboteur. His most radical journal to date, Magic Sam, set out to undermine ideas of permanence, format, formality and hegemony. Gestetnered and mischievously ‘hand-done’, it incorporated screenprinted materials as well as a smattering of hand-drawn images and text in coloured pencil and crayon, with the end result that each individual copy of the magazine was unique. When Penguin published Bolton’s Selected Poems in 1992 it looked a very odd bird indeed compared to his productions of the previous 15 years. At last, page 160 and ironically, Bolton was being published in the very form his previous productions seemed intent on undermining.6

Author of a vast oeuvre of cartoons, Bolton adopts a raft of pseudonyms including A.F. Drawings, Raoul du Plicit, Fran Daddo, Howard
Climbing and Wulfe Hubermann. As well as affronting Literary History, Bolton, in these cartoons, gives Art History one in the eye (his drawings often parody visual art icons, from Bocklin’s ‘The Island of the Dead’ to de Chirico’s ‘The Song of Love’). Like his poetry, his drawings refuse to be an homogenous surface—to be ‘well-rendered’ or ‘well-turned’.