A Sly Mongoose, by Ken Bolton, 2011

  John Tranter reviews
  «A Sly Mongoose» by Ken Bolton
A Sly Mongoose is published by Puncher and Wattman, 192 pp., $25.00. This piece was first published in «The Australian» newspaper on 10 December 2011 in a slightly different form. It is 740 words or about three printed pages long.
Ken Bolton: cover image, Sly Mongoose
Ken Bolton: cover image, Sly Mongoose

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A persuasive literary mode, current in the British colonies for much of the post-war period, was Leavisism, based on the writings of Cambridge don F.R. Leavis (1895–1978). A wave of earnest Leavisite enthusiasm washed over the English departments of our universities in the 60s and receded in the face of a more muscular set of French-authored theories in the 70s.


The U.S. poets known as The New York School have been influential among English-speaking poets for a generation or more, and their approach informs the book under review. Their values are hard to judge from a British perspective: they seemed unaffected by academic fads, and they turned to European art and culture for inspiration, learning from Symbolism and Surrealism and modern European and American art and music. Their social world did not involve a cup of tea in the tutor’s rooms, as it did for some Leavisites, but a glass of wine in a French bistro or stiff drink in a New York bar.


The four major poets of the New York School took different approaches to poetic form. Kenneth Koch’s mock epic «Ko, or a Season on Earth» rhymes obsessively, sometimes obscenely and at great length — 3,582 lines and 882 rhymes. John Ashbery casually employs many intricate forms including pantoums and sestinas — indeed, double sestinas, when the mood takes him.


But their friends James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara failed to take much interest in traditional poetic forms, which had been commandeered by the previous generation of U.S. academic poets, and settled on a loose free verse as the most appropriate form for capturing their experiences. After all, life didn’t rhyme, and both work and play were largely impromptu performances. It was the age of modern jazz and action painting, where a talent for improvisation was demanded.

Ken Bolton, left, with US art critic Peter Schjeldahl, Adelaide, 1986.
Ken Bolton, left, with US art critic Peter Schjeldahl, Adelaide, 1986.


Ken Bolton, together with Laurie Duggan, Pam Brown and the late John Forbes, learned much from the poets of the New York School, and their work is interestingly different from mainstream Australian poetry.


Ken Bolton’s «A Sly Mongoose» is a generous book of loose discursive poems that reflect on life and art in a quirky way, and I only have space here to note a few favourites. (The title, by the way, is taken from a Jamaican folk song covered by many musicians including Charlie Parker and Lord Invader.)


The poem ‘Guillaume Apollinaire’ is a dry, very funny piece about a dream in which Bolton has a drink with the French poet in Paris. David Malouf’s thoughtful 1978 comment that Bolton’s work ‘amply repays the debt to O’Hara and through him to Apollinaire’ is raised by Apollinaire, who thanks Bolton for repaying the debt ‘after all these years’, then mournfully asks ‘When will John Forbes pay?’ Bolton asks about Pam Brown. Apollinaire ‘shakes his head slowly, No… No, he nods, sadly.’ The poem is strangely moving in its peculiar way.


Studying and teaching Art History is Bolton’s career; and his poem about it is a wry twenty-page essay that leafs through dozens of artists, modes, styles, periods and approaches: ‘Ah, Art History, you are / multifarious, / / like overcoats / on a hall stand at a party… ’ and he wears this patched overcoat for the rest of the poem.


In ‘Outdoor Pig-keeping’ the poet imagines that he is his namesake, a British farmer who has written an actual book with this title, published in March 2011. Bolton fabricates a life for himself as a widower who writes his pig-keeping manual in the back of his deceased daughter’s school-book, then Bolton contrasts this with the quite different facts of his own life.


‘Kirkman Guide to the Bars of Europe’ is an amusing tour of a dozen or so bars in Europe focussed on a bar in Rome, the San Calisto. The Lonely Planet Guide agrees with Bolton’s estimation, and says ‘Those in the know head to the down-at-heel “Sanca” for its basic, stuck-in-time atmosphere and cheap prices… It attracts everyone from intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals to keeping-it-real Romans, alcoholics and American students.” The poem is a mellow version of John Forbes’ well-known and brilliantly caustic ‘Europe: A Guide’.


This book is an enjoyable read: cool, informed, and amusing, with a flâneur’s curiosity about the world. It’s a shame, then, that Bolton’s erudite and rewarding writing is under-appreciated by many of our guardians of culture, who seem blinded by the headlights of Leavisism or the current tinsel craze for slam poetry.