Untimely Meditations Poem by Ken Bolton

Untimely Meditations

Looking back,

on my recent past,

on my present -

that is continuous

and heads, on my right,

if the left is the past,

into the future -

with none of the aplomb

if that is the word,

with none of the confidence

of Samuel Johnson,

with none of the elan of Frank O'Hara,

with only a guilty and apprehensive grin

because in part

I belong to that school that says

if you see a leg pull it

I begin this tour of my attitudes

and my attitudes

to the attitudes of others -

the Big Issues as they affected me,

or, even,

as they failed to get my notice,

got my notice belatedly, got

only my notice

and as I reacted to them

and to the reactions of others.

And some weren't all that big

but anyway . . .

Viz -

modernism, the Australian landscape,

our identity, post modernism, various

poetic movements -

and I do it . . .

to be interesting,

efficacious and liked -

though to be liked

one must be slightly scandalous

and a little charming (Can I do it?)

And because I was asked.

And I hear somebody remark

What's so important

about YOUR attitudes?

somebody who hoped I would not just

state my own

but take this opportunity

to be an expert

responsibly talking

in the voice of reason and platitude

- enunciating views

that are not my own?

Is that responsible?

Then talk naturally!

Though theory has taught us

there is no such thing

that even prose

is rhetoric, is untransparent -

though it is mostly prose

it has taught us that in.

Theory sees my point -

though I'm sure it doesn't like it.

Meaghan Morris told me once

she 'couldn't read' poetry -

because of the short lines

and all the wasted white paper :

I told her

I couldn't watch films -

unless they were on TV

with lots of ads - or video,

so one could talk

and yell with all one's friends,

and think.

It seemed an equally

small-minded answer.

Though true!

Though in my case

it is a preference,

in hers an inability.

I don't think of my ideas

as Truth, though I hope

some of them are accurate,

perspicacious, interesting -

freighted a little

with insight, why not?

But I 'offer' them -

regard them, report them -

as historical themselves,

as determined:

some opinions . . . that make

a history of opinions,

and of equivocations, lapses,

what else?

To be truthful, moments when I

'had a rest'

looked elsewhere,

grew distracted, con-

fused, came thundering back,

my mind having woken

with another opinion.

Here goes. . . . .

In the mid 70s

I became aware

of an irritating irregular din,

becoming quite insistent

- things beginning with 'I'


It was Les Murray

Les told us


the beef?'

as if poems were a sandwich

and his

had dinkum verities

and content, while ours were that relativistic nonsense

you learn at unis,

not very sustaining.

This was 'The City and the Country' theme.

Les assured us the Country was

'more Australian'.

It was different. I could see that.

So I could see how it

might be 'better'.

- Well, actually, I couldn't,

but I could see

that someone might say it.

Though, really, I wished they wouldn't.

At the same time there was around

another faction.

I hear them shout -

as though it were today -

'WE'RE for feeling!'

& 'The brain's a bad guy!'

- not quite their diction,

but their base position.

(And for a while,

women, for example,

were only allowed

to write of feelings

- or got accused


'not writing from female experience.'

The best ignored this -

and those days

are gone, except

poets who stamp their feet,

get cranky, report on

the 'dark side',

seem always to feel

- not just truculent -

but more authentic.

I can't see it.

Did I say 'Diction'?

The New Romantics

were for Belief

and Feeling.

They believed in Myth

and wrote of myths they didn't believe in.

Or am I giving them too much credit?

I see myself,

a New Romantic -

'foot in the stirrups I mount

the heavily gilded saddle -

of the white horse -

the steaming white horse -

of my imagination

- and set forth -

the characteristic


of the New Romantic.


I set forth,

in the middle of my life,

lost in a dark wood,

at my kitchen table -

where I might as well be playing

Dungeons & Dragons

for all the good

I will do anybody -

when the Angel addresses me -

and I am caused

to lift my helmet's visor,

and my head,

and gape awfully -

and in admiration.

(She is really beautiful

- she, too, is dressed in costume -

and I can tell she likes me

- this is a visitation -

and speaks

as though to someone taller,

and a good four feet behind me -

and her lips move.

Yet I seem not to understand,

till seconds afterwards

It is a little like TV,

where the subtitles arrive (late)

and linger, pointedly -

and she fades

(like TV also)

and I am plunged,

or I set forth, and the woods grow darker . . .)

which is like Romantic Poetry.

Which is the point!

You see, I am like those guys -

Shelley, and Byron

and the others, Keats

and Wordsworth

(is he okay?) -

I wonder if the Bottle Shop's still open -

I'm beginning something major.

What it turns out to be

is, the vindication

of my lack of Doubt,

and punishment for almost doubting,

but basically my vindication.

(Doubt is anathema to me.)'

'Doubt' for New Romantics

was inappropriate

to Poetry's 'calling' :

(Lots of people have never liked it.)

better to mount

and ride one's charger

into an imagined realm -

of capitalized Abstract Nouns,

gods and goddesses,

and Angels

and phoney revelations -

about the pitfalls one's soul had met,

and denounced

in moments of duende.

Robert Adamson did this.

But he was only kidding.

But there I am,

doubting again.

Now he just goes fishing.

(Still, never know what you'll find

just gutting a fish -

scales in your hair,

blood on your hands,

the eye of the old fish

catches yours,

and you look in : Dark Night

of the Soul again,

a renewal of faith!

- in one's spouse, the River, the

tides of life.

It's possible.

It's inevitable, seemingly.

I must go fishing.) And I am reminded -

as I was reminded then -

of the criticism,

given in the artist's time,

of Gustave Moreau

whose heroes all wore breastplates, and helmets -

the heroines in diaphanous silk -

to dance, or go maundering -

while Baudelaire would have

top hats, business suit and briefcase -

the Heroism of Modern Day Life!

(Which makes me think of Tranter. Always does.

I guess it is his franchise.)

(It now consists of a pool, a few


- drunk, eating pills, spewing -

and a lesbian - a word John depends upon

to ginger things up - what else? yachts,

cars, an overseas reference, the mention

of some disappointment, a wry twist

at the end - Marcus Aurelius in

shirt and shorts, somewhat suburban - as if

Mr Boswell from Happy Days was actually an

alcoholic - which, as John would point out,

he was! is! How surprising.

John's idea of modernity has always been

a little like the Pop artists' - an iconography

tied to a particular period, always

ten or so years ago - the sit-com soap

version of reality, of bad designer shirts

(and airhostesses - yes, I know - drinks,

the repertoire . . . )

While in real life

Bob drove an Alfa,

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.

He used to 'intimate' -

is that too light a word - he was more Australian


than the rest of us

and went on a lot -

about his Celtic blood, and

a disappearing Australia.

This was his Mystic Wing of the Country Party phase

- an interest in guns, and

'the blood of men'.

Multiculturalism, but, had become

the Next Big Thing:

So he called his book Ethnic Radio -

but in a last ditch move

has taken God as an imaginary

friend -

imaginary, in-

visible, but none higher

and (and here again, it is

relative) He only likes him.

I ignored them -

Les and Adamson -

twin stars.

In their different ways

as tiresome as each other.

Opera Bouffe.

Though you could see then

which was likely

to become established.

One was marketable

as a kind of Truth

about the wider world.

Bob, on the other hand,

might be accepted

as truly a poet,

if not a poet of truth,

for believing things

sillier than anyone sane believed.

(Each is an embarrassment.)

Sillier than what I believe in.

Each of us perhaps

will admit to a silly belief.

Who will admit to one?

Whose job is it

to hold them, these beliefs?

Surely a poet's?

Who is that person, out there,

beyond the pale,

frothing and ranting - a poet?

As for Australia disappearing -

well, things have changed -

social justice

and democracy

seem reduced -

and invocations

of some real Australia


large portions

of the population,

citizens born here

or born elsewhere -

who don't care

what happened

on the River Kwai,

who the Queen is

or who was the guy

named after the biscuit

- or why.


At university I found,

in visual arts,

'the landscape tradition'.

( Thematically, here, I 'hop about'. )

I believe if I went back there,

they might still be doing it.

But it is an academic thing:

No one paints them anymore.

Which is a great solution.

Though its prominence -

as a debate at least -

is in its relation

to the 'idea' of Australia, our need

to be independent culturally,

and to resist

ideas and styles that are foreign,

not produced by authentic Australians :

We Should Paint Trees.

- Which are not ideas,


but the idea to paint them is,

and is only one

(which is better).

In fact it is an English, Romantic idea -

or a German one.

You see, I think, the

parallel with Les.


The feeling / ideas debate

has its equivalents

in conflicts between

various styles of art -

Minimalism versus Expressionism for example -

and (again) in the

'theory' versus 'getting on with it' standoff that is more recent

And Relativism versus

Responsibility -

they make a nice pair.


'cultual imperialism'. . .

and ideas 'too French',

too 'American'.

'Cruel Theory'

versus 'Spirituality' -

that one

has re-surfaced -

here even, in Adelaide!


Everything that's happened to me

has happened in Australia.

One of the good things

is the way the cook sings Perfidia

- whistles it - over the noise of

cups and conversation at Al Frescos

- where tout le monde

rabbit on - a song I heard as a child,

on the radio.

I loved it then

and I love it now,

its inflated delicious

romanticism and cummerbunds, big hats -

trellises of roses, the moon. Clouds.

Does Les Murray know that song?

I feel sad and happy at the same time.

Is it unaustralian, that song,

because it's so moustachioed?

. . . the 'Cruel Theorists'

didn't feel

all that cruel or cold,

the Relativists

didn't feel irresponsible.

People (the too American,

too French) didn't feel it was

Australian to be dumb.

Cultural-imperialist vanguard-internationalist intellectuals

rarely seem to speak up.

Now why is that?

Yet P.P. McGuiness and Les Murray,

with the tone

of a rearguard action, dream on:

wet feminist lesbian left semioticians,

one might think,

rule the world

- or are colonizing it,

for a terrible Cloud Cuckoo Land

that threatens.

Like our landscapes

we avoid History.

Time produces it.

Laurie Duggan's New England Ode,

through its specificity,

provides antidote

to Murray's mythology

(The latter a poet

of State

and Nation,

and one with advertising :

false, hectoring, corrective,


I was sitting in Al Frescos one day

overcome with an abstract emotion

at the singing of Perfidia, *

people banging cups

and yabbering, when one of them

detached themselves

came over to tell me I was

'Cruel Theory' and 'not Spiritual enough'.

I don't have a Cruel Theory

in my body.

Plainly, I would have thought.

Personally I don't feel


tied to these dichotomies

but somewhere in-between

or unaware of them -

except when forced to focus.

It seemed an unspiritual

thing to do,

to approach someone

and inform them

of their unspiritual status.

Unless you belong to the Inquisition.

But I focus, in these situations -

we are picking sides,

perhaps the whole population

in Al Frescos

is finishing their coffees up

in order to divide and

properly have the

slanging match


even now goes on,


as I sit here,


I estimate

what is

the best unspiritual ploy to offer,

the unspiritual 'first move'.

I wonder what

the other unspiritual people

are saying.

Some faces look grim,

some romantic - is that

how it divides up? The woman

who has told me this

resembles Madame DeFarge

as a finger puppet -

How do I look?

I feel I look

like my sister's dog, Whiskey,

after she had pulled it by the tail -

from its breakfast,

a massive bowl of milk and Ricebubbles,

so she could then watch the dog

burp enormously,

a long, long belch like a bellows,

his swollen stomach

and his ribcage

going down,

as the air was expressed. Rice-

bubbles and milk he ate

in one long, in-taken breath,

lapping and lapping.

Like the dog in Gertrude Stein.

For a second

he would seem nonplussed

and stand -

staring straight forward.

Then the burp would begin -

to my sister's jubilation.

Just similarly I burp, my eyes


Sort of unspiritual,

sort of not. And stare forward.

I am on the unspiritual team.

Have I begun well?

an own-goal?

or begun decisively?

[Pauses For Drink Of Water. Drinks it.]

In truth I never cared about these things -

or cared about them as they occurred specifically:

I worried about my own authenticity

in relation

to the great art of elsewhere

and the past. Ignoring or denying it

seemed not the way to go -

and anyway, I liked it: the fabulous clouds

of Guardi and Tiepolo, the silky greys and whites and silvers

of the skirts in a Gainsborough - like the winter skies

of Adelaide; the beautiful surfaces in the poems

of Frank O'Hara, Ted Berrigan, and later

James Schuyler - and the work of

some of my friends - which was great

in relation to that. And the client state delusion

- of connection, of place

in an unreal schemata . . . -

no objectivity I can attain has ever allowed me

out of that world's attraction. If this is 'The West'

and The West is doomed,

the problem is not with its art - and the alternatives

were no less Western,

though they had less leverage - colonialist doxa (Les Murray)

and the pretence of spiritualized emotion (out of context,

as far as I could see) (Adamson)

and in any case I did not believe them:

I was born in a city

with a cultural background that constituted me as

- that word!

or any rate, here I am -

relativist, self-doubting, glad

of whatever knowledge this threw up, though hard won

and fleeting. Which sounds 'heroic' -

so it can't be true.

(I won it in the library, admittedly,

and hanging around - as I have done

the rest of my life - watching what other people do

& reading.)

The vectors 'placed' you - inescapably -

with all your class, and cultural,

and historical specificity. Damning,

contingent, real - about as liberating and breathtaking

as it was 'final'.

Was it interesting, breathtaking - was it

final? Another sort of romanticism.

I sit in the same spot, at

the same table, at the same coffee shop

every day

and think the same thoughts.

That's the vectors.


I have paused so often, taken

so many of these little drinks. (Drinks glass of water.) And I


I resemble, a little, my sister's dog.

I have lapped up, indiscriminately, ideas like these: the


as epistemes and Egos clash, and -

the expression theory of art - here I 'bring it up'.

Is this evidence? a symptom? the talking cure? -

a public self-denunciation and - Chinese-style - re-education?

Is it




Les Murray's new book has appeared -

interestingly, in connection with the Inquisition,

under the imprint Isabella. In it

I think he talks

to the Natural World - 'things' and animals

talk to him (rabbits, rocks, plants, perhaps the air,

'The River', 'The Tree') and interestingly, I bet,

they tend to think as Les does,

their view squares with his.

Another kind of silent majority -

who you can bet

are not intellectuals, feminists, or ideologues.


Of course a landscape squares up pretty interestingly

if you're a formalist - and I don't want to 'preclude' anything,

but 'the landscape tradition' surely does, is nothing but that,

for a lot of happy people -

who find depiction of social relationship, social station,

social interaction,

to be uncomfortably, depressingly, political - the real world -

where they want distant hills, innocent muzak,

or the counter myths of Australianness and nation.

The empty landscape, I can't help thinking, bears

some relation to strike breaking, shooting people, the police,

legislation against assembly,

impatience and disdain.



Well, there is an element of that

in much great art

- an escape

to real sensory formal engagement -

Cezanne, say!

I don't think

the rich are capable of it. (How

unfair, to say that.

And it is unfair - tho I saw one

the other night

at the opening

- ridiculous when they are identifiable -

appearing unwilling to be soiled

by the riff raff of the rest of us, requiring

the gallery owner's attendance

- lonely, perhaps? -

to reassure her

her discriminations were not as ours -

living in a fantasy world. Well, we all do.

Different from mine.


Question : Why worry about

National Identity and then sell the farm?

- the policy of our ruling class.

ID is only useful vis a vis other nations: as resistance

to external power and values - or else it's something

someone else complains against -

the New Guinea resistance fighter, the

Asian tourist industry, Aborigines.

Do the rich stand corrected? Ever? Does

investment? I hope she bought some

bad art. She looked like Carroll Baker -

dressed 'subtly' in all white. Her bloke

the sort of bourse functionary

who might express his personality

through a sportscar. Grey pants, striped shirt.

Maybe he wore a tasteful belt -

of, say, lhama hide, or fine plaited gnu.

Do people buy

anymore to shore up, or vote for, the

National I.D.?

Or just to register their social distinction ('I think this

is cute,' 'I think this is funny,' 'See, this

is my sense of humour.')? Do people

buy landscapes anymore? Mandy Martin's

I guess - but that's the Impersonal Sublime:

'I'm a tough guy - I'm Romantic.' 'Lacerating,

isn't it?' the artworks say.

(What's she ever done, to me

[aside from the paintings] ?)

National unity of a 'higher kind' is promoted

against sectional interests (except those of Wealth,

which are identified with Nation)

and the important sorts of identity -

class, gender, locale, individual -

and the contest of values, are all to be precluded -

by Authoritarian Admonishment

that says Landscape = Nation = Patriotism and that's


Does Arvi Parbo ever have to demonsatrate his patriotism?

I just wondered.

. . . Is Arvi Parbo

a great guy? Is the art-collecting


I don't know.


post / modernism

about which I am

'happy to be swayed'


and have no heavy opinion, insight,

or contribution to make

to the debate about the exact nature

of Post Modernism

or its consequences

In writing, the divide between what my friends and I were


and the others

was that they - the others - wrote of Belief

and as Celebration

or maybe despairingly

of a loss of faith

- which we bore with

equanimity. Our

skepticism and relativist's buoyancy

I think were deemed modish

(or modern) : They spoke

for Tradition

We could see how we

related -

to mostly US models in my case -

Williams, Johns, Rauschenberg, O'Hara

Berrigan and Minimalism, Robbe-Grillet -

in favour of intelligence more than touchstones

as if by touching them they might reactivate,

make, the old world live again

Tho what world?

Larkin's? that of Yeats?

(of Donald Brook & Noel Sheridan?)

or Geoffrey Hill's?

They seemed a kind of prayer

and a prayer is the dumbest thing to do

but out of touch - On the other hand, acting in

the real world,

of grants and publication, they must have been ruthless :

Murray's protestations of his innocent good faith -

guileless and plucky leader of

the Christian minority true blue genuine faction -

are hard to believe

Though meant, admittedly, for the non-literary world's


A professional face

to the world

and the exercise of power among the family.

It seems to me our poetry deals

with a world

of incommensurable (yike!)

and interestingly unsettling developments

that their poetry merely resisted -

a projection, or shadow,

of the past.

Well, maybe we are equally

an epiphenomenon, registering

what they resist,

and you can easily be interesting in

either way.

Why don't I see them as interesting?

I liked Pessoa, for instance, or

'in principle',

I liked, well, lots of

change-mourning postures

I was not unprepared to be

amused - or moved even, maybe -

. . . .


What tiring opinions!

I like thinking

about the opinions of others -

and then (!)

I have almost an opinion myself -

but not quite, or only briefly,

& there is no poetry in it - or there is,

but it is in it accidentally.

Here, I have affected to have

these opinions - to see what it was like -

Most Australian painting

was boring - I knew that: I was bored

by it! - Modernism:

I figured that was what was happening:

what we were doing seemed to come out of what had gone


logically enough. If it's turned out to be post-

modern, then a 'rupture', a shift of episteme

passed me by. The way it felt I guess

when Mannerism

became Baroque: Ludovico went down to the

coffee shop - & ordered up;

Annibale entered & said,

'What's new?'

Said Ludovico, 'You tell me.'



So much for my experience of it.

I love it as a theory.


What else was I talking about - notionally -

(a word of Martin's I love)

Our Notional Identity?

bad poetry? It gets written everywhere, I guess.

I've written some myself!

I regret mine - but it doesn't amount to

grand fraud like this other stuff -

(pious hope!)

though which is best ignored -

otherwise, I become agitated.

I feel I should say something totalizing about


though one can't of course (step out of it /

look down from above).

But Theory is obviously the context

in which this occurs. 'I am no theorist'

is true, & yet I'm unwilling to acknowledge

an ascendancy of theory over what I do

or recognize a divide - or a privilege, given,

to theory over poetry.

On the other hand, 'let it pass'.

I read it, of course. Poetry must make its own.


has no monopoly on theory.

Many, maybe most, who flock to poetry

pastiche the past

in their effort to evade the future. Very

modern of them (or

'perennially contemporary') I am

maybe more truly of the past

in placing any bets on poetry

for the future -

but 'it helps me feel modern!' -

the way, for a theorist, presumably, theory does.

Tho finally

this, this lecture, is mere gesture:

offering genre as an example of

'the materiality of one's practice' is rather

coarse-grained. Why a lecture,

even an ironic one,

if poetry is so flexible?

Perverse I guess.

- A modern, or a post-modern,



And why these

'untimely meditations'?

Why now?


when I look back

I see these 'events' - that were

publicly on the agenda

but not on mine.

These I can date.

But what was I talking of -

at the time? Were these thoughts resolved

& did I move on, think

something else, develop?

It seems I can't see myself

only what I was rejecting

Is it some failure, some

defeat, that they have prevailed?

But we don't expect

to easily see

our selves.

'Tiresomely one is

some sort of realist, it turns out, like everyone else' -

what else is there to talk about

but what is real - tho without,

in my case, either trying to put

my finger thru it ('take this chair,

take this table') or spin

some abstract notion about it?


my nutty friend! I have always imagined

you my goal, tho I have written often, maybe -

in moments of relaxation from your rigour -

the poem as 'consolation'

(terrible thought), the poem

as entertainment. Ah well.

A look - untrained - at

how we know, a kind

of analytical wondering

Have I wondered 15 years

& never found out (20, actually)?

Then what was I wondering?

I seem to have wondered - almost as

set pieces - what was a fitting subject for poetry;

what can you say about

contemporary life - that is not too conclusive

total, an assertion of system; and

- as a proposition -

something as useful as

Aren't people wonderful ('curious',

'odd', 'interesting', 'nice')? &

a hoping my friends

are alright. And returned

again & again.

I have mostly despaired

at not having the brain

to put this together - unlike Meaghan - to think forward to


or have, alternatively, not believed

that such were possible - & complained at the efforts of others

(The cavilling, querulous poetry

of the postmodern - or relativistic


In the late mid 70s David Antin's

was the usage of the term postmodern

that I first encountered - I could see

what it described: but since it seemed to stem


from Modernism

I could see no sense of break - it was modernity's

selfcriticism merely. ('A shift of episteme

passed me by.') His explanation

had nothing tacked-on -

of the failure of the Encyclopedists' program,

of the Enlightenment, & shifts

in the world's economy.

(The 'hyperreal'

was not present.)

One catches up

with one's time -

& finds the past unrecognizable

& the future pretty certain, though

undoubtedly packed with surprises -

& a little out of time

in one's marching.

Ken Bolton

Untimely Meditations: notes & asides, disclaimers etc

title page The Adorno quote is from Negative Dialectics, but I quote it from Martin Jay's book Force Fields: 'I have never felt comfortable with the school's reticence about exploring its own origins, an attitude best expressed in Theodor Adorno's remark that 'a stroke of undeserved luck...' [etc].'

'Thanks for the sour persimmons etc' comes from Daffy Duck and is spoken with his heavy lisp & withering sarcasm.


'(Each is an embarrassment)' - Tranter was a distant eminence grise - in the seventies - somewhere across the waters, who has since come home to roost.


the guy named after the biscuit - Reg Anzac? - for services to aviation? he drove a taxi? invented a biscuit?


'You see, I think, the

parallel with Les'

The insistence on

a locus of values

represented by its picturing

& a constituency - of volk,

silent, but he

speaks for them

not Junkers, not leech-gatherers -


Ken Bolton

Ken Bolton

Sydney / Australia
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