He was born in Cadiz, Kentucky. He completed a master's degree at the University of Florida in 1988. In 1990, after completing his Master of Fine Arts, he committed suicide. He published three books of poetry.
Bolton's work represents the convergence of several important currents in American poetry and culture. In methodology, he represents a continuation of free-verse that runs from Whitman, through Eliot, and very importantly, through the post-Eliot American poets who wrote a free verse that sought to purge itself of the eltism inherent in the Eliot-Pound school of Modernism. In the sense that Bolton wrote of ordinary life and ordinary people, his work shares qualities found in the work of William Stafford. That Bolton's work appeared in the now-retired Kentucky journal Plainsong which championed Stafford's work, is evidence of this kindred spirit. Plainsong was published by Bolton's former professor at Western Kentucky University, Frank Steele and his wife Peggy Steele, co-authors of Singing into That Fresh Light. Bolton's work, in its concern with nature and ordinary people, shares many qualities with the late twentieth century American poetry published outside of New York and California.
Bolton's work is regional in that the southern locales of the poems, his upbringing and education in Kentucky, and its rather southern gothic quality add a Faulkneresque quality that is absolutely authentic.
Bolton's long-lasting value, however, is not in his free-verse or regional influences, but rather, a quality that was fresh in his work and the by-product of his times, the 1980s. This "certain mixed-attitude toward life," as one critic described it, may be described as post-modern, or even late-Imperial American. If Bolton were writing in New York City, he might have been marked as an all-American poet, but Bolton extrapolated from the American South, not Whitmanic Brooklyn. Bolton was writing about the south, but really, America, and doing it with a vision more akin to punk-rock, sub-pop, and indie-rock than high-academia. In this sense, he resembles the Beats or Charles Bukowski. Had he lived long enough, he would almost have certainly added something to the blogosphere. Bolton is perhaps the greatest representation of the white American gen-xer male in poetry. His attitudes were "mixed." The high arts are referenced in his work, but so are garage bands and Hank Williams. Although salutatorian of his high school, he had been a baseball player, a jock, but the speaker in his poems is usually "metrosexual," and Bolton wrote decades before the term came into popular use. Within this "mixed," postmodern aesthetic, there is a split with the post-Eliot writers like William Stafford or Robert Bly, or even the plutonian James Wright. Bolton's vision embraces the gaze into the abyss, and probably no fact proves it better than his suicide.
Bolton, in his work, seems to see the American century as nothing to celebrate, although he recognizes the fleeting beauty that enraptured John Keats—and with far less existential optimism. Although his methods, locales, and subjects seem almost bucolic at times, careful reading yields Bolton's sense of shame about American life, a sense that a minority of Americans, especially within the arts community, have shared since the Reagan years. Bolton's work is a grasping toward meaning and beauty in a society that traded meaningful beauty for posturing and empty style, much the way young Rimbaud recognized the inauthenticity of Napoleon III's France.
Bolton's life and work is the subject of a graduate thesis by Joe Schmidt, Joe Bolton and the Postmodern archived in the library of Spalding University, in Louisville. Tommy Womack, a Nashville songwriter and guitar-player for the 1980s/90s MTV one-hit-wonder Government Cheese, wrote a song about him. In his native Kentucky, certainly, Joe Bolton remains something like a cult classic.