‘The Nostalgia of the Style’ (Americano)
‘Thin Ice’ is a poem the late John Forbes wrote ‘for Ken Bolton’. Like most of Forbes’s poems it would take a couple of dozen pages to unpack it but its first words are ‘Frank O’Hara’ and one of the things it’s ‘about’ is where an Australian poetry is to come from. The poem ends, ‘I think our sense of timing’s / the most important thing / O’Hara taught us / don’t you Ken?’ Whether ‘our sense of timing’ is on or off—whether, indeed, being ‘off’ is the new ‘on’—is something the poem leaves up for debate. Bolton’s poetry has always had a fairly large and unembarrassed debt to O’Hara but part of what the new book does is to make the precise nature of that debt much clearer.
The crucial passage about O’Hara comes in a poem called ‘Some Thinking’ which is a variation on one of Bolton’s favourite scenes: the poet putting music on or writing with music on. Here Bolton remembers how he first came across the jazz pianist Mal Waldron (1926–2002) in O’Hara’s poem for Billie Holiday
… with the great last lines
where she whispers to him across the keyboard—
“& everyone & I stopped breathing.”
The great thing
about the line is the uncertainty: is it “everyone
& I stopped breathing”? or that Holiday whispers the song
“to Mal Waldron & everyone”—& it is then O’Hara
It makes for a pause, a hesitation, a number of them—
that evokes the magic & tension
of her timing.
Timing again and not just Holiday’s but Bolton’s: the way the ampersands—not in the O’Hara original—have the effect of speeding the quotation up, the way the dashes interfere with that speed, and the repetition of ‘stopped breathing’ which is like a bell reminding us that the original poem was an elegy and that neither O’Hara nor Mal Waldron are with us anymore either. But what’s really important in the passage is the word ‘uncertainty’ because it’s a distinguishing feature of Bolton’s poetry.
Uncertainty is not something you find much of in the work of Bolton’s better known contemporaries i.e. poets who’ve written through the same time he has. Take John Forbes. Once you get past the initial crackle and fizz of the surfaces of his poems, it’s clear that a lot of the time he was writing as some kind of Catholic moralist manqué. The opening lines of many of the poems in his last, posthumous collection Damaged Glamour have a sense of long days and nights of reflection brought to bear with enormous force masked as lightness of touch: ‘I am a layered event… ’, ‘vernal belief’, ‘You meet your daemon’, or ‘horrible Europe invented pride’. The poems can often look and feel surprisingly slight but there’s no doubt about where they’ve come from and what they’re about.
Similarly, take John Kinsella. As I’ve written elsewhere in a poetic response to his ‘selected and new poems’ Peripheral Light, there’s something like Robert Smithson’s sense of rust as a fundamental property of steel at work – indeed, the surface of the language is almost literally mineral. It’s hard and bright and it catches the light like the flecks of mica in the footpath tar in John Forbes’s poem ‘Sydney’. And because, like many experimentalists, Kinsella’s subject is care/harm, his poems often feel precarious and contingent at the same time as being tightly worked. But Kinsella, too, knows where he comes from and where he’s going. His project now is hugely simple and simply huge: to use the view from wheatlands to revitalise the pastoral form for the new century; and then to use the view from that newly enabled pastoral to remind us what’s in our care and how we continually put it in harm’s way.
What Bolton’s often poems lack, in comparison, is that sort of sense of themselves as made objects. His uncertainty, then, is not a reworking of O’Hara’s poem-as-telephone-call or just going on your nerve so much as leaving things unmade through embracing and letting into the poems what ‘Catching Up With Kurt Brereton’ calls ‘an absence that keeps the whole / unsettled / provisional suggesting a moment, not an hour’. And when you think about it like that, absence is O’Hara’s great subject or the subject of his greatest poems. There are the obvious elegies like ‘A Step Away From Them’ and the Billie Holiday poem but there are also ‘Having A Coke With You’ (who isn’t there) or ‘Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean Paul’ or ‘Joe’s Jacket’ (‘when I last borrowed it I was leaving’) or ‘Biotherm’ and its heady oscillations between delight and yearning.
Absence, moments, uncertainty or any combination of them are what Bolton looks back to in O’Hara. ‘The nostalgia of the style’, as the Kurt Brereton poem has it, is a way of avoiding not only the heroic excesses of modernism but also the late twentieth century idea that poetry focuses on the moment in order to discover a lesson about life, the universe and everything and, having found it, nails it with a dying fall. The dying fall is, of course, one of the ways that poetry gives pleasure but it can also be revoltingly easy to do and revoltingly easy to turn into a pose, a kind of narcissistically apologetic heroism that’s actually just the same old reaching after authority and gravitas.
‘Being Australian… Being Modern’ (Cappuccino)
The full passage is towards the end of ‘Traffic Noises, Cups, Voices’:
Funny, to be training
for Rome at The Flash, where being
as often as ‘being modern’—
been my main preoccupation.
One’s life resembling an oyster’s:
breathing in, breathing out what is
close to hand—a meditation
on (duh) Time, and History, Style—and
Subjectivity—from The Flash!
Basically, a guy who reads a lot
is reading, having a think: —What
Is going on here?
‘Modern’ is certainly a preoccupation in this book: the word occurs at least seven times. You’d think from all the preceding discussion of O’Hara that Bolton’s poetry exemplifies Philip Mead’s description of post-war Australian poetry as a history of ‘the varying inflection of… narratives of influence’ which represent ‘a facet of what has been, for Australia, probably its most important cultural encounter of the post-war period: the engagement with America’. And, of course, some of that is in there but the passage from ‘Traffic Noises, Cups, Voices’ is doing something much more complicated too. In typical Bolton fashion, it’s alluding to that large, ‘inflected influence’ narrative and then undercutting it by refusing cultural anxiety. It is merely ‘funny’ — whether ‘haha’ or ‘peculiar’ doesn’t really matter — to be in a relation with the Old World. From a coffee bar in Adelaide to Rome: no big deal. But the passage also refuses cultural anxiety in another way: it implies ‘basically’ that ‘being Australian… ’being modern’’ may mean watching oneself being both those things and being aware of watching oneself. Maybe being a ‘modern Australian’ is synonymous with asking ‘What is going on here?’, with making a space in which to think for yourself. And if the place you start from is always that question then this may be as useful as Phillip Mead thinks American Language writing is in enabling ‘resistance to crudities of critical discourse that oversimplify the relationships between the contemporary political and poetic.’
Once you’re clued in to Bolton’s ‘What is going on here?’, you realise how many questions there are in his poetry. At The Flash… is full of them: ‘Don’t the Velvet Underground do? (say things twice)?’(56); ‘If he can lie why can’t I?’ (112); ‘Is that just lack of traffic?’ (170); and ‘is My Sarcasm registering here? I mean is it registering as sarcasm no matter what?’ (220). There are even questions in the ‘Notes’! This isn’t just a quirk, it makes you realise two things: just how many poems are written as answers to questions and just how many poems don’t ask any questions at all. There is another way of saying this, of course, and Laurie Duggan says it perfectly at the end of ‘The Front’: ‘the imagination erects one locality, government / erects another.’
‘Some Thinking’ (Macchiato)
The imagination in the process of erecting its locality is another way of thinking about what Bolton does in his poems. This also seems to relate to ‘being Australian’. In ‘Horizon’, the Eliotic narrating ‘you’ of the poem is
no longer like your father, a man
in an open necked shirt eating an icecream (& just,
perhaps, ‘going for a walk’), but in a shirt I bought in Melbourne
made by migrant Vietnamese late at night, yet in which
I feel Australian, whatever that is
—a point mapped by coordinates
you momentarily ‘keep your eye on’, or don’t, being
yourself or a moving target…
There are questions of descent here and of how ‘you’ suddenly find yourself in the late modern—or as Bolton has it—’modern’ condition. But what’s interesting about the passage in terms of Bolton’s oeuvre is the use of scare quotes. Once you start to look for them, you realise that, like questions, Bolton’s poems are full of them: reported speech, quotes from songs and poems and other texts, and ironising inverted commas. This means that Bolton’s poems are often negotiations between competing voices and behaviours that, like ‘keep your eye on’, are simultaneously natural acts and self-regarding constructions. Sitting down to write a poem means doing ‘some thinking’, means sitting down to find out who ‘you’ are today.
‘A Diagram of the Penny Dropping’ (Latte)
One way the penny drops is the realisation that there may not be much of ‘you’ that isn’t already in someone else’s scare quotes. What choice do you have? And that’s a serious question and a rhetorical resignation. In an interview with John Kinsella, Bolton said that putting ideas and opinions into poems was a way of inviting scrutiny of them. The scare quotes do that too but they also emphasise the poem as process, as what might be called incident music. So a Bolton poem is the process of the penny dropping even though it’s not always clear what the penny is. And sometimes the penny gets lost down the grating of the poem halfway through.
Reading back through the preceding paragraphs, I’m aware that I’m looking at the same ground from different perspectives. My own penny dropping, I guess. But I think that’s because in At The Flash & At The Baci Bolton is much clearer about what he’s up to. John Forbes was probably right that a lot of his earlier work was preoccupied ‘with the impossibility of practically every verbal gesture or rhetorical strategy that the idea of ‘Poetry’ (big p) implies.’ The impossibility is still there in the new book but throughout Bolton’s trying to put it into a wider context. And in doing so he catches brilliantly what you might call a style of will that’s circulating in English-speaking cultures just now. A big part of that style is bathos but it’s also to do with something Bolton notes in ‘(Pinkham)’: ‘give me Manet // any day, if I had / to choose. Tho, um, you don’t.’ The way that ‘um’ manages to be dull-witted and pleased with itself at the same time is a fair measure of Bolton’s ability to get inside that style. The necessity of choice and of making discriminations has been removed and that lack has itself become a kind of heroic pose. It’s the latter-day equivalent of the Caspar David Friedrich painting of the frock-coated figure staring out over infinity. These days, though, the figure would be sitting down. With, um, a coffee.
The titles of this review’s subsections – but not the coffees! – are all taken from At The Flash & At The Baci.
Laurie Duggan’s poem ‘The Front’ is in New and Selected Poems 1971-1993 (University of Queensland Press, 1996)
John Forbes’s ‘Thin Ice’ is in New and Selected Poems (Angus & Robertson, 1992); and Damaged Glamour was published by Brandl & Schlesinger in 1998. His comment about Bolton and impossibility appears on the back cover of Bolton’s Penguin Selected Poems 1975-1990. The source is a review article by Forbes in Meanjin, number 3 of 1984.
John Kinsella’s Peripheral Light was published by Norton in 2004. My poem in response to it is in my collection The Roads (Salt Publishing, 2004) and also in Jacket 22.
Philip Mead’s overview of Australian poetry’s engagement with America is in ‘The American Model II’ in Assembling Alternatives: Reading Postmodern Poetries Transnationally, edited by Romana Huk (Wesleyan University Press, 2003).
John Kinsella’s interview with Ken Bolton is in A Salt Reader (Salt/Folio, no date).
David Kennedy’s most recent collection is The Roads (Salt, 2004). Newer works,in collaboration with Christine Kennedy,can be seen at ‘LitTeR’ http://www.leafepress.com/litter/ and Ahadada websites. A book on elegy is forthcoming from Routledge.