Untimely Meditations - Poem by Ken Bolton
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,
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 . . .
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
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,
It seemed an equally
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,
some opinions . . . that make
a history of opinions,
and of equivocations, lapses,
To be truthful, moments when I
'had a rest'
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
as if poems were a sandwich
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
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
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
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 -
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 -
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
(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
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 phoney revelations -
about the pitfalls one's soul had met,
in moments of duende.
Robert Adamson did this.
But he was only kidding.
But there I am,
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
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 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 -
(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
visible, but none higher
and (and here again, it is
relative) He only likes him.
I ignored them -
Les and Adamson -
In their different ways
as tiresome as each other.
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 -
seem reduced -
of some real Australia
of the population,
citizens born here
or born elsewhere -
who don't care
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
they make a nice pair.
'cultual imperialism'. . .
and ideas 'too French',
versus 'Spirituality' -
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'
all that cruel or cold,
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
Like our landscapes
we avoid History.
Time produces it.
Laurie Duggan's New England Ode,
through its specificity,
to Murray's mythology
(The latter a poet
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
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
even now goes on,
as I sit here,
the best unspiritual ploy to offer,
the unspiritual 'first move'.
I wonder what
the other unspiritual people
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
a long, long belch like a bellows,
his swollen stomach
and his ribcage
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?
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
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
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
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?
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,
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 -
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
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
skepticism and relativist's buoyancy
I think were deemed modish
(or modern) : They spoke
We could see how we
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
Why don't I see them as interesting?
I liked Pessoa, for instance, or
I liked, well, lots of
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
became Baroque: Ludovico went down to the
coffee shop - & ordered up;
Annibale entered & said,
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 -
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.
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
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
'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
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.
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.
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 -
Comments about Untimely Meditations by Ken Bolton
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