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Sport 16: Autumn 1996

Gregory O’Brien — Running Dog — The Poetry of Ken Bolton

page 150

Gregory O’Brien

Running Dog
The Poetry of Ken Bolton

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

Exemplary pluralities

Rather than being singular or exemplary, the experiences of the poet, as far as Bolton is concerned, are part of a democratic, communal flux. The page 156 ears and voice of the poem are tuned to everyday conversation, the throwaway phrase, the mumbled rejoinder. A television in the next room can divert the poem; so can passers-by, complete strangers, or the unan nounced arrival of friend or pet. The poems chart a naturalistic movement through time as well as space. Like a journal, they inhabit the present tense, itemising experiences as they happen, not picking them up in hindsight.

The poem is not allowed to fulfil itself, to settle into its own pristine, fully formed surface—it has to keep moving; it has to operate. Bracketed thoughts, memories and asides flicker in and out of the poem, asserting its very ordinariness. Romanticism and idealism might enter the poem as ideas but never as working principles. The writing refuses to be a sideshow or to divorce itself from the circumstances of its making. The flat left untidied in one poem is still untidy at the beginning of the next one. And, at about this point—with Bolton’s demotion and asset stripping of the Western Tradition also in mind—a curious strain of Marxism can be seen wafting through the atmosphere like steam from a caffe latte.5

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’.

Beginning and ending every day

One of my favourite drawings by Ken Bolton is of a dog running with a stick in its mouth. Just as a New York Times reporter once rhapsodised over Meredith Monk’s music: ‘Monumental in its minimalism!’ So it undoubtedly is with Bolton’s drawing.

At one time, or so I’m told, Bolton was flatting in somewhat cramped conditions and had to sleep on a top bunk with his face only two feet away from the ceiling, to which he affixed the original drawing of the running dog—directly in front of his sleeping and waking face. And I think that is a useful metaphor for Bolton’s poetry: a bringing to consciousness, a call to various sorts of attention, and also a losing of consciousness—a fabulous, disorientating, irrational, intoxicating ballpark of ideas. A presence and an absence spanning the distance between the dog on the ceiling and the Mona Lisa.

1 Quoted in The Connoisseur Crimes—Great Art Thefts of the Century (Drive Publications,
London, 1981)

2 Born in Sydney in 1949, Bolton has lived in Adelaide since 1982, where he runs a
bookstore at the Experimental Art Foundation. Books by Ken Bolton include: Blonde
and French
(Island Press, 1977); Talking to You (Rigmarole, 1983); Blazing Shoes (Open
Dammit, 1984); Two Poems (Experimental Art Foundation, 1990); Sestina to the Centre
of the Brain
(Little Esther, 1991); Selected Poems (Penguin, 1992). Bolton has also
collaborated with John Jenkins on the following: Airborne Dogs (Brunswick Hills Press,
1988); The Ferrara Poems (EAF, 1989) and The Gutmann Variations (Little Esther, 1993).

3 An A.F. Drawings (aka Ken Bolton) comic strip in Magic Sam #4 ends with the lines:
there is only the wallpaper, & the chintz & carpet
Note: how did ‘Art’ come into this?
Art was in a big book on the coffee table.
In a similarly playful conflation of the realm of art and that of life, Bolton exclaims (in
‘Bad Mood with Wordsworth’):

I love Sal. ‘You
art book you’ I was thinking
as a joking compliment …

4 Taken from Gibson’s perceptive critique of Ken Bolton in the UTS Review (August 1995),
‘Mere Gesture—“Lecture: Untimely Meditations (Tentative Title)” ‘.

5 Refer to the author photograph on the cover of Bolton’s Selected Poems (Penguin 1993)

6 The experience of reading Bolton is dimmed and somewhat ironed out by the Penguin
edition which isn’t as ‘excellent—cool’ as the earlier more immediate, at times ramshackle, books. Since then, Bolton has largely resumed his earlier publication procedures (The Gutmann Variations (co-written with John Jenkins), an offset-printed poem was published by Little Esther books in March 1993), although it should be noted that in recent years, his poems have appeared in such establishment journals as Meanjin, Scripsi, Southerly and Landfall, reflecting a noticeable shift on the part of the mainstream to accommodate the poet rather than the other way around.