David McCooey Reviews Peter Rose and Ken Bolton

3 October 2012

Both poets are also concerned, albeit in characteristically different ways, with the intersections of life and art. In Bolton’s work, these intersections can be seen in the plethora of cultural references that occupy his poems. Millet, Manet, Howling Wolf, John Coltrane, Angie Dickinson in The Killers, Hanna Barbera cartoons, Manet, Bauhaus (the band), Baudelaire, ‘stupid, Anglophone / Clive James’, The Walker Brothers, Julia Kristeva , and others can all be found in these pages. Amid these are the repeated references to Bolton’s admired New York poets (especially Frank O’Hara) and his family and friends: Cath, Anna, Gabe, Yuri, Pam, Laurie, John, John, John, Tony, and numerous others, a number of whom are easily recognisable to those with some knowledge of Australian poetry. These figures comprise a virtual literary world one might call Boltonia.

Such a virtual place is recognisable not only because of the characters that inhabit it, but also because it so often attends to the basic conditions of the real world: time, place, memory, attitudes, and the endlessly changing conditions of one’s emotional state. We can see this interest in the quotidian moment, the here and now, in a random sampling of openings to Bolton’s poems: ‘At home’ (‘WATER’); ‘It is 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon’ (‘Talking to You’); ‘it is the 27th day of November’ (‘Triptych’); ‘I am sitting in the front yard’ (‘An Australian Suburban Garden’), ‘Here I am, flicking thru / the Frank O’Hara poems again’ (‘Mary’s Blues’); ‘So here I am, in the coffee shop, / with nothing to read but my poem, ‘Europe’’ (‘Hindley Street Morning with Philip Whalen Quote’).

The here I am opening calls to mind a similar strategy in O’Hara’s poems, which also bring together the quotidian and the aesthetic. Like O’Hara’s, Bolton’s poems are notable for how they appear to narrate their own composition, as if through time. (O’Hara, though, tends to move through space more than Bolton). Such a strategy is also related to the forms that Bolton favours: the diary, the letter, the tour guide, and the essay. Notably, these first two are profoundly concerned with the relationship between composition and time and space.

As these forms suggest, Bolton is not interested in the lyric mode, although like O’Hara he doesn’t simply reject that mode either. Instead, Bolton incorporates lyric practices into forms that are not (at least since the late eighteenth century) unproblematically associated with poetry. And his incorporation of the lyric mode into ambiguously poetic forms characteristically produces comedy.

Bolton is pre-eminently funny. His comedy is various in style and purpose. It can be surreal, as in the comic vision of poetry as being ‘like a giant fridge over the sea / but blurry round the edges & as tho it is composed // of / Vick’s VapoRub’. It can be satirical, as in the description of the poet Les Murray found in ‘Untimely Meditations’ (a ‘tour’ of Bolton’s attitudes):

I always imagined Les Murray
on a tractor

or pushing a one-furrow plough—

or seated
(this is more likely)

like an enormous bad fairy
behind the people, in a picture by Millet,

The Gleaners—
tormenting them with his poetry.

And, not surprisingly, the comedy can be parodic, such as the description of the poet drinking with a Scandinavian artist: ‘His eyes were pale, & staring in them I could see / an horizon line, of snow, with little wolves / running from left to right. Then I realized / it was the reflection of the greyhound racing / on the bar’s tv’. (This last example is from ‘Kirkman Guide to the Bars of Europe: their music, their service, views etcetera’, a comic masterpiece of surreal inventiveness).

Bolton’s investment in anti-poetic forms is to some degree ironic, given his extraordinary poetic skills (which he camouflages with a certain jazzy casualness). These skills are primarily skills of arrangement. His attitudes and memories are like notes in a scale, or colours in a palette, appropriately so for a poet so knowledgeable in music and art. (Bolton is, among other things, an art critic). But his skills can also be more traditionally formal. In ‘Double Trouble’, for instance, he surreptitiously rhymes ‘unkempt’, ‘appointment’, and ‘COIFFUREMENT’ (that is, if one can surreptitiously engage in triple rhyme). In ‘Some Photos for Gabe, in London, and a Photo for Yuri, Newly Arrived’ he shows his skills again with rhyme in a nonce stanza form (loosely rhyming xabba).

Writing about Bolton can be difficult. This is partly because it is difficult to briefly quote his poetry with its long, snaking syntax, associative energy, and self-doubting argumentation. It is also difficult because one can easily make too much or not enough of the comic qualities of his writing. Certainly, Bolton is not a writer of comic or light verse. Like the comic element in the work of his friends Pam Brown and Laurie Duggan, Bolton’s comedy is a form of critique and a mode of anti-sentimentalism. This anti-sentimentalism, which is based on a suspicion of specious poetic effects (especially those that make claims for transcendence), is probably the primary source of Bolton’s apparently anti-poetic aesthetic. It is also one of his greatest resources.

As a summary of his career, this Selected Poems undoubtedly works. One can think of poems that one would have liked to appear. My list would include ‘Guillaume Apollinaire’ and ‘Art History’ (from Sly Mongoose); the ‘Roman’ poems (from At the Flash & At the Baci); ‘Europe’ (from A Whistled Bit of Bop); and the rest of ‘Untimely Meditations’ (from Untimely Meditations and Other Poems). Most of these are, though, longer poems, so Bolton’s selection here – balancing longer with shorter works, covering repeating themes and styles – is undoubtedly judicious. And if it is in fact eccentric, then that is consistent with Bolton’s poetics. Impressively, this Selected Poems reads like a book, rather than a best of compilation album. I do, though, wait eagerly for Bolton’s Collected Poems.

If there exists such a place as Boltonia, we should also recognise the Roseland of Peter Rose’s poetry. Both literary worlds are instantly recognisable, and the experiences of inhabiting them are profoundly entertaining and unsettling ones. In turning the here-and-now of memory and experience into strange and richly aesthetic forms, Rose and Bolton make my here and now strangely and richly compelling.

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About David McCooey

David McCooey is a prize-winning poet and critic. His latest collection of poems is Star Struck (2016). His previous collection, Outside (2011), was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards, and was a finalist for the 2012 Melbourne Prize for Literature’s ‘Best Writing Award’. His first collection, Blister Pack (2005), won the Mary Gilmore Award and was shortlisted for four major national literary awards. McCooey is the deputy general editor of the prize-winning Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009). He is also a composer and sound artist. His second album, The Double, was released in 2017 as a digital download. He is a professor of literature and writing at Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria, where he lives.

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