Ken Bolton: 2 poems

  Ken Bolton

  2 poems

  Funny Threnody; Two parts, a letter
  Funny Threnody

                                ‘Yours cordially’
                                        — Ron Padgett

I address Ron Padgett —
& sign off, ‘in fact
I am a wild palooka,
in a half-lit office,
hair crazed etcetera,
wind-up mice playing in the hall’

And Tony Towle —
whom I envisage, as
I always do, at a window —
a window &
small balcony
looking onto a view…
inkily black, white
curtains either side,
that move slightly in the breeze.
                        I stand beside
& behind, my hand
on his shoulder.

The unconscionable thing
about this stance — my mental hand,
not my real one — anywhere, any time —
is the implication the
person behind ‘sees’ the same thing —
philosophically — as the more forward figure
(why the latter,
              so often,
shrugs the unwelcome hand aside,           
turns indoors). Anyway this image
never gets beyond the single gesture.

(I don’t want a fight with
So I don’t ‘go’ there.)

(In my mind.)                     (1)

Who else do I address?
Am I really going to
‘address the poets’? The
‘Great dead’? Those ‘alive’?
(but major in my mind —
‘in my mind, at least’) —

                                  And why?
It is not as tho I haven’t done this before

& while it is true I am
happy to repeat myself,
is it one of my strengths — should I
‘play to it’?

And I have nothing much to say
beyond hullo & ‘carry on’ &
I like your work.
                    Plainly — tho I hope
it is not too plain — it claims a kind of
            ‘Bonjour M’sieur Courbet’
probably did the same, for the artist who painted it
— Gus himself.
                    Tho he had
the courage
of his illusion
                & pictured his landlord
greeting him.
              Do I imagine Towle, Ron,
anything but puzzled were I to make an appearance?

That’s as may be.

So whom?

the NY Schoolers — ‘the young’ —
tho the young are older than I am,
are now aged.
And not the first generation either.
Not Ashbery or O’Hara or
Koch.Jimmy Schuyler
I could almost address — we
feel we know him, his writing
so personal. Altho we don’t

(but everybody reads him, right?)

He wrote on,
into our time,

he kept his themes,

small — tho they weren’t.

                      The four
felt themselves
part of American Poetry —
a small field right then: Pound,
Williams, a Beat or two maybe.
Not Olson really, not San Francisco.
Maybe John Wieners. I am summarising
I suppose, O’Hara’s views

                      They thought
they were it &,
as such, addressed themselves
to the World,
maybe not with the expectation of a reply

The second generation, like us,
come into a larger field, of
many poets, a smaller stage —

a smaller share of the stage:

they would be ‘New York’ poets.
They published after O’Hara died,
the 60s & 70s & after. So,
our time.
As America’s true poets,
O’Hara’s friends addressed
world literature — Europe’s
(… barely England’s, but Continental Europe)

                      — where the young crowd,
by contrast, cleared their throats
& spoke up (Ron, Anne, Ted,
Tony, Bernadette, Kenward)
for local recognition, if that were possible —
& not with confidence — tho with cheek
& grace & humour
                      watched television
listened to pop music.
                                            Like we do.

Address Peter Schjeldahl,
the irascible? Not likely.
But Joe’s gone, & Ted.

              These people
are major to me — not the host
of Pulitzer Prize winners, dud
laureates, who ‘stride the stage’ over there.

Not the Faber Oxford Cambridge
candidates —

            ‘Faber published it
            so it must be good!’

                        or the Irish

                                    I am stating
allegiance here, or placing a bet
on the future: that the
truth will out.

I like the way each nation’s
literary establishment
rules the roost at home
but internationally are written off
& the real writers come into their own.
Billy Collins, Sharon Olds? Not for me.

Craig Raine? No way. Tom Raworth, Maurice Scully!



& the Individual Talent. Tradition
& the minuscule talent.

                (Tradition & mine)

my work be counted? Not really.


            [‘Powerful nations have great poets;
            small nations have tragic poets.

            They do our dying for us,
            whisper the powerful nations.

            In this way we produce great poets,
            whisper the small.’]

But this is a little ‘rich’ & mittel-europeany.


            Are there
points to be earned,
standing proxy for
‘Australian Verse’ —

enacting an anxiety
that may be my own
& not ‘the nation’s’?

            Are there, huh?

                  But ‘points to earn’?
What to do with them, how
cash them in?

In any case, I am not standing-in…

I hardly seem to be doing any
of this addressing, either.

Would I address Australian poets?
(aside from Cath, Pam, Laurie)
Probably not. And not the elders,

who — too obviously — relate
to no past, have no future:
the provincialism problem

            failing as we would fail,
            an imitation of life

            I am going to make that mistake, too
            better not watch too closely

Australian literary history will be
‘one thing after another’ (Henry Ford’s
phrase — or was it
De Mille’s? Anyway,
‘they had our number’): a succession
of styles or epochs focused on
action elsewhere, approval that would
never come.


                  (The Epoch of Rodney)


                  (The Rodney epoch,
                  the Les.)

            If I’m not standing-in,
            perhaps I represent no one,
            quite naturally?
            I went as a teenager once
            to a party & was too afraid to go in.

                        I stood outside.

            A suburban house in a North Shore
            lights in the windows, loud music,
            talk & laughter coming out.
            I am still that guy?

I suppose I do address Pam, Cath, Laurie
tho in the direct & literal sense. I send them
a letter — well, an email —
send them regularly. But —
as I mean it here —
I do this less regularly. (And do I address
the literary figure — ‘Pam’, or ‘Cath’, or ‘Laurie’ —
or the person I know?
            Mostly the latter, I think.
Do I attempt to gauge the difference?

Should I not ignore the first, address
the second?

How often do I address anyone?

            ACH! HAVE YOU SEEN
Ha ha.
Yes, ‘ha ha’ — tho anachronistic.

these days, uses stamps?


(On a TV show a night ago
a woman character said
‘the loneliness of men —
you can feel it coming off them’)

[[use pub library: the Scottish-Italian quote re human faces]]           (2)


So I’m not standing proxy.


How’s it going? — is that the question? —
asked supportively?
                        Am I, as charged,
fascinated                                     (3)
            by the distance between
us… &
America, the world? & do I ‘advert’ thereby
— (that is,
do I?) —
to the sensed oddness of our endeavour?

                                          ( ? )

(— For how, for whom, for why?)
(Mental?) Australia
pretends not to care — but it does, watching
‘casually’, as it waters the lawn, polishes the car,
brings the washing in, asking occasionally
how it’s going. Again I remember the guard,
on the bus in Lucky Jim: ‘Well run, whacker!’
as the hero — puffed — leapt onto the bus.

Am I fascinated — as that someone said —
by the distance between myself & America
(ourselves & America),
more than with America per se?

Maybe so. What do I know of America,
aside from details that attach
to special interests — popular music, some
old movies, details of the lives
of the poets I’ve liked, learned
thru repetition: I have no interest in the Southamptons
tho I know about it / them — know
very little, but some things — & so on —
(isn’t it where the rich go, to piss on, look
at their big abstract paintings, chill?) —
vague ideas about various locales, Bolinas,
Bleecker Street? Where else? Gem Spa? Not really.

            Where have they gone, the loafing heroes of
            folk song? asks Kundera

        I am like those Japanese soldiers,
        continuing vigilant, long after the war is over.

        Or the distant member
        of a far flung, minority religion.

        Hanging, in my hammock, lazily.

                Maybe I am too lazy
                to bother thinking about America

          There’s a distance between us & it,
          as between us & the horizon —
          with which it’s co-incident: a
          vagueness, luminously humming.
          Not the place, but the rumoured place
          just beyond, of the great


      I like to recall those who went before,
      I shun those who came after.

      Their heroic pursuit of tenure.
      I guess no more reprehensible

      than the bookish, as they
      used to do, taking orders
      or becoming a courtier — or,

      for that matter,

      grubbing for reviews,
      commissions, from the BBC et cetera…

      say opening a small mobile phone
      repair shop — or selling books like I do.

      Their books, even.
      Hullo there, Language School.


More & more I am decided — today, at least — I don’t like Michael Hoffmann
— his criticism is nearly always wrong.


                    ‘every word pronounced in the world goes on
               being heard forever. Has mankind always lived
               in such a resonating shell?’

                    & I address
these poets again
                            address ‘the idea’ of addressing them —

for who could actually bother
                         … ‘to do this thing’ ?
                                                                 ( Have you
seen the price of stamps!? )

               Ha ha ha.

I address them:

                                        tho it is months ago
a month a go
                    I began this address —
                         what did I
intend to say?
                            Kick on, Ron — How goes it, Tone? —
that sort of thing.

                    The neighbour,
the ‘peer’ in today’s language
                                             — (here indicating
a member of the House of Lords,
                                             but someone like me,
another punter) —
      before he bends, turns
the tap off,
                  drops the hose,
          to indicate Well done,
carry on
                              (If this were England, here
I would get off the bike — the figurative bike — remove
my cycle clips, aware maybe of pigeons
wheeling overhead, the small garden plots
attended nearby, a factory whistle —
(the last maybe still in the area) —

but this
is Australia.      And as it happens I do
get off my bike
                         — an anachronism?       a weirdo?
another punter?
                              chuffed tho.   


                         chuffed but
                         but chuffed
                         chuffed tho


& offer this little poem

          The Hamptons
          Consider your Rothkos!


                                                           We don’t use
‘whacker’ much,       never did
                              tho it would seem
Australian enough, would fit our mouths :
Why not?

                    (‘Wanker’, I guess, absorbed it.)

Whatever I was called, I accept it —
In fact, I think it was just a nod —
Nothing actually said

                                   reasonable approbation

(from the bus driver, a Sikh I think —
would he have called me whacker?)


Was it America so much —
so much as History,
and our distance from that?


Pam flies in today

I will talk to X in person!
Maybe write a letter to him,
or her — (let’s be
fair for a sec) —
at the same time
addressing them (an ‘open’ letter,
to ‘X’) a new,
funny kind of Personism,
lacking in authenticity

address it, check the address,
add stamps etc. Hang the cost!
They need never know!
But I digress.


Ah, the mice.
Out of the hall?
or wind them up again?


The ‘elders’ of my own time
fade into a kind of canonicity

Like abandoned billboards

The canonicity doesn’t look very stable —
Or very satisfying, if it comes to that

But I don’t care —
or I try not to.



Young Michael, a kind of
wistful, winsome
Bob Newhart figure:

Douglas Stewart was alright (!) —
who talks of him?

A billboard outside a country town,
advertising The Silkworms, blows in the wind

shudders, rocks back and forth
peeling, faded,

bullet holes in it,
brown bottles & broken glass scattered around,

long grass, a burnt out car.
Further out

similar buckled tin leans back from the sun:
faded lettering and imagery announce coming attractions

attractions that have come
& are long gone

A Weatherboard Cathedral, ‘Golden’ Builders,
The Alphabet Murders, A Cool Change, other
harbingers… of salvation, of rest, belief

And there’s the guy playing me!                         (4)
I look a little bit like Ben Johnson
in The Last Picture Show

standing for something
but I can’t tell what


George Szirtes is quoted, a review of two Hungarian poets


’In my mind —
which is the only place
I ever go anywhere!’

the Scottish/Italian quote
I could look it up, I could find it

‘Am I, as charged,’ (etc)
I don’t know if you’re
with me here

a bit part.
Bryan Brown seems to have the main role

He’s walking on his hands along a bar,
a drink balanced on his shoe.

(Editor’s note: cf. John Forbes poem, ‘Bicentennial Poem’ in Ken Bolton’s words ‘Memorably the poem includes the great image of the poetic vocation, as increasingly side-lined and redundant — and resembling “something you did for a bet / and now regret, — like a man / walking the length of the bar on his hands, balancing a drink on his shoe”. You have to laugh.’ Well, no, we don’t have to laugh.)

  Two parts, a letter

Hi Gabe

Writing to you in London, from work today.


Roger Bannister, a fairly regular customer,
comes in —

in pursuit of a particular book,
& finds it (as is usual with Roger).

Not even puffed. I have yet to joke to him
about the four-minute mile. Does the name

mean anything to you? He was a champion English miler
when I was young

or maybe a legend even then — the distant past.
Though what counts as distant for a ten-year old? Anyway

his name makes me think ‘England!’ & then, in consequence, ‘Gabe!’.

So there you are.

Yes, there you are.
But where are you?

In England, but have you two found a place to live yet —
the one we were talking about? or no?

I’m supposing ‘Yes’.
It seemed a sure thing.

And thinking about you guys —
moving in —

imagining the kinds of London streets & houses,
has us thinking about our next trip. Next

‘trips’ in Cath’s case:
she could pop over in January or February. I’m

freer, probably, in the second half of the year,
after the UK summer.

maybe our usual September/October period.

We also have heard of places we could stay free — in
Southern France — or stay cheaply —

in non-tourist Greece —

so maybe we could all get together
as we did in Barcelona/Ceret?

I suppose none of this might happen.
But it might.

Maybe, on the other hand,
you’re thinking of coming back here. The

is out:

if you can get here in the next week or so. Two: George
will have a job for Stace: she’s

setting up her own practice right now. Good for a
few years —

five maximum, but likely fewer — & then Stacey
could take over. By that time I’ll be embroiled in trouble

(defamation cases, plagiarism, you name it —
a furious battle with the estate of Les Murray)

& will need a friendly lawyer!
So it won’t be all family law, you can tell her.


just as Bored To Death began to air on TV here, John
Jenkins (old Melbourne friend)

was able to send me the first two series:
which I’ve watched about 4 times

over the last week — home alone.

Cath, too, has seen it twice.
Is there a third?

Speaking of things to watch, Les Enfants du Paradis
is on in London cinemas, I see.

You know how Yanks always say
the Greatest Film Ever Made is

Citizen Kane? Europe always votes for Les Enfants.

I think it is terrific: wonderfully artificial
& very moving.

Cath dislikes it for being Shakespearean, or
would-be Shakespearian.

I’ve only seen it twice. Last time about ten years ago.
Maybe I’ve seen it three times.

I’d watch it again,
& seeing it on a big screen might be amazing.

(‘Children of the Gods’ means what it says,
about people & ‘fate’, & gods looking down, but also

the children of the gods are the poorer class of people
in the high up, cheap seats at the theatre.)

It was made during WW2 in France under the occupation,
& the heroine got a bad name as a collaborator,

or at any rate as a ‘friend’ of the Nazis.
Not bad enough, I think, to be punished.)

I wonder did you like Lucky Jim.

I always remember how hard
the first pages seemed when I

was sixteen & bought the thing.

It seemed hard
&, consequently, boring.

I tried it a few days later & it clicked &
I sailed thru it. I’ve read it maybe a dozen times.

I must have read it half a dozen times by the time I was 22.

I read it to Anna & Cath
when they were doing

sleepless, panicked nights
at one stage, 2007

or 2008: & then I would read
a chapter, or two, beforehand

to get it right when read aloud:
they would like it a lot

but fall asleep, then wake & demand it all over again.

It is still funny, tho mean, I think.
At any rate the ‘difficult’ girl is based on

Amis’s best friend’s girlfriend
(Philip Larkin’s girlfriend Monica) — putting the friend

in a bad position, & surely hurting her.
Amis was happy to be a bastard

& turned into an amusing but ugly old

The book has dated now —
in that the new sense of humour

it seemed to reveal
has become a standard English one

(& reminds me of Jeremy Clarkson!!
Which I hate.

But try to forget I said it).

Anyway, it was huge
in the late fifties,

reprinted over & over
(&, to cap it off, made into a bad movie).

Good luck with it.

I’ve been reading — still am! — must find it when I get
home — the travel writing of

Norman Lewis — great

on the Spain of the 50s & 60s. And therefore
of interest to you. Otherwise,

not very serious books, & Raymond Roussel’s

Impressions Of Africa.
He is seriously not very serious:

&, probably, literally, mad. Not easy

to breeze thru. I read his
New Impressions Of Africa a couple of months back.

(No, there’s no connection,
to Africa.)

That’s what I think I’ve been up to. Reading-wise.

This weekend I go up to Sydney — half the fare paid for
by Kurt —

to launch his book,

a launch
over lunch, launching to nine other friends.

So not too much pressure.
The book looks good & I could send it to you

as a document
if you liked: endless nutty or beautiful images,

some nutty and beautiful.

There’s a great pair of pages
where you see (photoshopped)

Kurt’s design for murals
that would transform his local fruitshop: the guy running it

loved it:
but his big brothers & family said nix:

Kurt made the shop look like a series of
house-sized cardboard boxes, vegetables & fruit spilling out.

$300 credit on his fruit & veg
was the payment.

Big Picasso show on in Sydney soon (because the Paris
Picasso Museum is being renovated). Hope I get to see it.

You should go & see Richter —
pivotal innit?

a once-in-twenty-years-type event?
Key works lent from NY etc etc.

T.J. Clark (who is very good)
raving about it in the LRB — or raving

about his ambivalence
& inability to be objective. ‘In the face of the work.’

And so on.

Dinner with Chris & Anna tonight. And the final of
Junior Masterchef! It’s all happening!

Love & cheers to you guys!


I wake, around 8.30?
I’d gone to bed early, exhausted, but too early.

I puzzle
at the view out under the cupola (?) Tho,

do we have a cupola? No, but the vines —

grape vines — now make a ceiling, outside the window:
leaves, vines, trees, streetlight —

& I remember where I am.

Wind gusts, then still. Light streaming in.

I suppose there is not long left.
I think of a review of McKenzie Wark, a

quoted line — & of Kurt — my life
(that I’m not unhappy with) …

I might get to see Anna when she’s forty
I imagine her happy & coping with a lot

(usually it means teenage kids),
& get to see you, Gabe


‘the virtues of our vices’
(mine?) —

a book title — or
the subtitle maybe.

One’s art.

(worry worry worry)


launch of Kurt’s book
went well: restaurant in the Cross

no one there but us: Sal, Jane,
Pam, Denis, Arnie, David,

George & Marie — & their son, Blaise

‘Church?’ I said to Marie, surprised — ‘What were you saying?
I thought you meant the planet!’

She’d been saying something about ‘mass’

(going to mass)
with her French accent.

So that I heard ‘Mars’.

I laugh — Marie

Kurt is amused at Picabia.

Out the window of the plane, right now:
blue; & just below the wing —

for miles & miles — a flat white that glows,

as if we are taxiing along an endless salt pan:

Leaving Kurt’s is odd
I miss the moment, as always, so our goodbyes are low key …

But the last time I will see Bulli

see Wollongong, see Coalcliff (?)

‘The non-reflective life is not worth living —
But the life unlived is not worth thinking about’?

The Wark quote

Lunch with Sal
Her theories of her brother — her

brother being Kurt.

And a small gift from her:

small, exquisite, & very carefully
selected —

engineered, even. The references it makes
stack up: a tiny thesis

in itself,
or maybe a character reference.

Sydney was train trips & buses —
the transport system in a scramble.

The Verona theatre (a movie there —
Kurt & I go to it, killing time).

Beautiful light, leaves — the
vision from above looking down (from Berkelouw’s bookshop, the cafe)

(Run by two sweet young Jewish people, a
couple, very loving, Kurt notes.) I’ve spent

many hours, alone, thinking, drifting
in his studio — & time with him, talking, drifting —

laughing, listening to music. Slept there. Stayed there with Cath.
Gone now —

Soon. I will remember it. An email from Kurt
arrives: a picture of him entering the studio

The light from outside so he is back-lit,
& the foreground is the studio space. An advertisement:

buy my pictures, cheap: I’ve
sold the house, I’m

going, the image declares. I remember the landing outside
when you opened up those doors,

sitting there with Kurt

the night pleasantly soft & dark, the jungly,

sseau-ish mass of leaves & vines & limbs above us.
It was peaceful & amusing: a tall, thin Balinese figure — a

short metre in height — sat atop the central pillar
of the railing, its head worriedly in its hands — or thoughtful? —

but it looked amusingly worried as time & the climate & the local parrots
got to it

& as its head began to rot & deteriorate — tho the
head ‘shape’ remained.

And as it became rattier, suggested
explosive ideas, lots of marijuana, jokes — & its surprise —

at the Jehovah’s Witnesses next door —

who would arrive in identical Winnebagos, with little children dressed identically, the women large in 80s party frocks, the

men in white business shirts, carrying identical little suitcases.
(Like a liberal American’s nightmare, circa 1952 — a science-fiction

dystopia.) These fruitcakes loved it, I guess. Kurt didn’t.
Normally they weren’t around. ‘The man in the grey flannel zoot suit,’ I tell Kurt.

He laughs.

(Not my joke originally — Peter Bakowski’s.)
Tonight there is a moon, some distant street light,

a truck or car, occasionally, coming past,
breaking into the turn, accelerating out — the long

& peaceful silence, wine & tea. Selling up, gone.

Ken Bolton with grandson Max Barnes
Ken Bolton with grandson Max Barnes

Ken Bolton lives in Adelaide where he has until recently managed the Australian Experimental Art Foundation’s Dark Horsey bookshop and runs the Lee Marvin reading series. His most recent collection is Threefer (Puncher & Wattmann). Shearsman (UK) issued his Selected Poems in 2013. Vagabond published the long poem London Journal in 2015. He wrote the art monograph Michelle Nikou (Wakefield Press) and edited Homage to John Forbes (Brandl & Schlesinger) and More Is Plenty on artist Kurt Brereton (Jellied Tongue Press). His art criticism has been collected under the title Art Writing (Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia) and can be read at Sly Mongoose (a book of poems) was published by Puncher & Wattmann in 2011 and is reviewed by John Tranter at


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