First appeared in Guerilla magazine
Be warned in time, James, and remain, as I do, incomprehensible: to be great is to be misunderstood.
In her poem ‘I dwell in Possibility’ Emily Dickinson compares poetry to a house; open to those with imagination, closed to those who can’t understand. When a poet fails to hold the house door open, it’s a challenge; when she slams it in your face, it’s an obstacle; if he yells ‘fuck you’ while slamming it and people applaud without knowing why, it’s time to complain.
The review that follows looks at poet Ken Babstock and his 2012 Griffin Award-winning collection Methodist Hatchet evaluating, among other things, tone and the relative merits of incomprehensibility. About half way through it recruits respected American poet Wallace Stevens to assist with the heavy lifting.
Poetry by its nature yields meaning tangentially, ‘on the slant’, as Dickinson had it; from the room next door. Words in poems are stimuli, symbols used to convey and produce feelings, movement, change…unreality and reality. Poetry contains the kind of opacity that courts attention; a chemical burn that produces pain or tears, pleasure or anger, or, over time, insight, maybe even understanding. It communicates in ways slightly mysterious, often more effective, or less cruel, than blunt, direct prose.
Inside ‘difficult’ poetry anyone can read anything into the lines. It’s as much about reader experience and response as it is about what’s on the page. Rorschach blots, as the late great art critic Robert Hughes once said of Andy Warhol’s work, onto which others can project their interpretations.
As I will illustrate below, there’s too much of a disconnect between context –the exploration, say, of art and culture and the splintering of grand, all-explaining philosophies and unifying narratives – and the poetry that’s made from it in Methodist Hatchet. The slant is too steep. Readers aren’t invited into this erudite little game, and there’s scant incentive for them to join in; to make them care. The conversation is too much within the poet himself.
Must poetry, in order to be new, of necessity also be incomprehensible?
If the poet’s objective is to head in new directions, make an original contribution to the world’s corpus of existing work, break language barriers, discover terra nova in the 21st century – must the result be entirely unrecognizable?
Speaking from the perspective of a common reader who seeks out, appreciates, and cares for verse he can connect with, the answer is no. While poetic risk-taking is laudable and has historically resulted in big rewards, it’s seldom successful when the ‘consumer’ isn’t offered anything recognizable to ‘buy;’ when he’s sold monologue instead of dialogue.
T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ at least had footnotes.
Paul Muldoon once told me that a poem may be called a success when it achieves objectives set out by its author. Fine, if the poet is the only member of the audience, but it’s very difficult to evaluate a work, or want to write intelligently about one, that both lacks beauty and makes no sense. Memorability; authentic, original use of lapidary language; rhetorical power scored to important human themes; synoptic understanding of our complex human lives; staying-power. In the face of Methodist Hatchet‘s cool incomprehensibility, all of this seems rather quaint, slightly naive, ridiculous even.
But it isn’t.
These are important judging criteria; their use is, however, precluded when you’re dealing with words that only their maker can understand or appreciate.
Perhaps some poetic genius or super-computer will reveal the intricate connections Babstock’s poems make with profound concepts and other works, thereby discovering clever echoings of wise and revered voices, hidden beauty, underlying structural brilliance. I, however, in my ignorance – my inability to read – just find them irritating. So much so that, as you may have noticed, I’ve yet to engage with them. I need help. So, from these failing hands, I throw the torch on to another, better qualified…
Wallace Stevens (1879 –1955), one of America’s most respected poets, was a great collector and coiner of sayings and proverbs. Many of his best found their way into his poetry. Here is a selection of them (in bold, taken from a collection called Adagio), poetically twisted in order to continue this critique:
‘All poetry is experimental poetry.’
That he is experimenting is, as I’ve said, laudable, and desirable. But just what Babstock is experimenting with in Methodist Hatchet is unclear. The poems may, in their slick, impenetrable fashion, be an attempt to mirror the superficial décor that seems to colour our current world and define its discourse. They may, in their cache-borrowing, high-brow celebrity name-dropping way, aim to expose a culture whose knowledge is fragmented, only wiki-deep – sounds and looks smart on the surface, but lacks truth, authenticity. Perhaps they lament the loss of past oracles now dumb in the face of secular, capitalist individualism – a desperate attempt to find lost or new answers. It’s possible they share Eliot’s frustration with mermaids singing not at him, but only to each other – his knowing that these voices might well teach life lessons, if only they could be understood– but this is all conjecture, the food that poets who write incomprehensible verse tend to live off.
Incomprehensibility in itself is neither new, nor for that matter, experimental. It’s been around for at least 100 years, as has Modernism’s uncertainty over a godless universe, its introspection, word games, misanthropic despair and solipsistic impenetrability. Methodist Hatchet’s message – with its mimetic account of today’s confusing world – seems to be modernism’s, without the redeeming virtue of humour. There’s nothing funny about these poems, they’re unmitigatingly humourless. Unless of course you find funny the possibility that they’re trying to push the boundaries of incomprehensibility to new heights (assuming that incomprehensibility can be measured in degrees).
In Les Fleur du mal Baudelaire sought to create beauty out of the ugliness and degradation that he saw in contemporary Parisien life. In Methodist Hatchet Babstock – knowingly or not – creates a repelling confusion.
As Jennifer Moore, poetry editor at Another Chicago magazine, put it in her review of the book:
“The reader is left with “the fuzz of bafflement”, surrounded by so much stuff, but with little understanding of the significance of the stuff. I wish I felt this was deliberate on the part of Babstock — that he’s making some comment about how hard it is to live in our bewildering contemporary moment — but the poems don’t resonate beyond their own boundaries. The effect of the book is kaleidoscopic, but there’s no center focus to hold the dazzle together.”
This failing is alluded to by Babstock in a Brick magazine [Summer 2011] interview with poet Karen Solie, who at one point suggests that he takes manifestations of commerce and culture and art and philosophy and politics as opportunities for imagination; treats them with the same kind of engagement he does feelings, or memories.
“So using quotation of commerce or reference or joke or dream, I wanted it to feel like it was an acceptance of material. Then one’s own position vis a vis those materials could come in implicitly. The critique will happen anyway. If there’s something missing in the poem, it’s that I may not have allowed enough in, all of these things that represent a wider terrain on which language can go and do something.”
In a discussion that touches on uncertainty, poetry’s virtual reality, the heartbreaking and obstinate silence of the world, parallel reading, speech games, and ‘morons’ who don’t like “the way I write about nothing,” Babstock at one point, referring to symbolic “named others”, says “I didn’t know they were going to flood in, I guess, but they have. What am I going to do about it? J.M. Coetzee’s gonna sue me. [laughter] Why is J.M Coetzee in my book? [laughs].”
Perhaps he sees writing poetry as a form of divine intervention, with himself, like Mozart, a conduit transcribing the voice of God. What is he going to do about it?
For one thing, he could think about the reader. For another, consult a good editor.
‘The poem reveals itself only to the ignorant man.’
Most of these poems seem designed both to show off how bright their author is – and how stupid his readers are – which isn’t all bad of course, because, as Stevens has it: ‘One’s ignorance is one’s chief asset.’
‘Poetry must be irrational.’
If, by definition, poetry is an attempt to express the inexpressible, then yes, at least some of it must be irrational, or supra-rational. Words – rational constructs in themselves – must appeal to something beyond their agreed upon meanings – to something emotional, instinctual, spiritual – if they’re to convey anything of reality. But they must do more than this. If they are rationally incomprehensible they must at least offer some ‘aesthetic’ appeal – beauty – or some other hook, incentive or intrigue – however exiguously discernible – to make the reader want to read them, remember them, return to them.
Babstock’s poems – forged though they may be from the smithy of the poet’s soul – offer little of this. They may be pure and unalloyed, but of what value is this if the world doesn’t trade in their currency, or wish to? If the world doesn’t wish to pay attention to how it pays attention?
In the entire book there are maybe three or four ‘word whiff’ moments, to use critic Carmine Starnino’s term. ‘Not enough totems, too many effigies’ to use a David Solway reference. These are not poems by which “we may try to locate ourselves in the tracklessness of contemporary life,” as Solway once, in another context, put it. More often than not they seem like dislocated, incoherent streams of consciousness. Here’s the opening stanza to ‘Carolinian (Crosscut with Sound)’:
Colander, canopy, colander. Contrivance
Of green light-spots we’re leoparded by.
Wild grape ampersand.
Fine perhaps as lyrics to a psychedelic sixties song – ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, say, but nothing that sticking a microphone in front of some stoned sophomore wouldn’t produce . These lines sound like they come out of a random word generator. Like free association. Gibberish. For more, see the poems ‘Russian Doctor’ and ‘Gives you cuddles,’ or just let the book fall open where it may. Crammed with dizzyingly dull wordplay, they exemplify disjointed futility. They don’t seem to go anywhere, or achieve anything.
Not that Babstock lacks the capacity to write well…
“If ducks aren’t taken by pike mid-thought;”
“Everything’s the colour of rabbits, scissored/from another world and pasted on thin”;
“No one occupies me like me. /And no one makes me lonelier.”
…these lines, scattered through the collection, are, in themselves, lovely and captivating. It’s just that there aren’t enough of them. Great poems are filled with great lines, nuggets that portend of veins. Here there are too few. Not enough lipstick to entice a search for satisfaction.
“People take the place of Thoughts”
Babstock’s poems are hyphenated by frequent references to ‘difficult’ philosophers and artists. Their names seem sprinkled in like flavourless pepper, used for show. There’s little context, just a muttering, some of it inaudible; a joke that only the poet seems to understand. High-styled, pseudo-intellectual lace, seductively placed atop the stanzas. Names, gratuitously cited, bobbing on the surface, orphaned, undefined, ill-fitted to any coherent whole. Without relevance it’s hard to see them as anything but pretentious props, the poet usurping cache, ripping off reputation.
I can’t help but think here of Warhol and the purloining of brand (Brillo, Campbell Soup), and celebrity (Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor) images for his art, and what Robert Hughes said of him: “he came to be credited with sibylline wisdom because his was an absence conspicuous by its presence…the paintings were all superficies, no symbol.”
This is not to say that Babstock doesn’t, I suspect, think deeply and seriously about poetry and the poems he writes; in fact, the context I’ve heard him provide [notably at the Kingston Writers Festival this past October] has always been much more interesting than the poems he subsequently reads, most of which arrive at dead ends…typically leaving you disappointed and annoyed, led on by the likes of…
…and so on. To what end?
This is a fine prostitution of cultural capital, quite a display; a roll call that reveals nothing.
Similarly, Babstock pimps the names of Canadian towns – placing them haphazardly throughout the poems, serving them up, as much as anything, it seems, to satisfy some Canadian content wonk at the Canada Council. Their presence seems farcical.
While there may be all sorts of interesting underpinning ideas and stories behind them, none, as I’ve said, make their way into the poems. Only a request to:
Slide an arm right through
the surface of this picture,
into whatever spatial realm lies
behind the illusion of depth, to hold
the hand of the person
wanting so badly to be seen precisely
as they feel themselves to be
(from ‘The Décor’)
The fact that depth is only an illusion makes it very difficult to want to decorticate meaning, or care about seeing this person ‘as they feel themselves to be.’
The central question then becomes, is it worth it. Will there be a pay-off. As Irish-born, Newfoundland-based poet Patrick Warner puts it in a recent Canadian Notes & Queries magazine review: “ I repeatedly asked myself: Is it worth the Google time to unpack this passage, this phrase? Will I find in it anything more than a series of effects, a cleverly ornamented quiff? Am I witnessing only the vanity of the poet as he stares into the mirror of his technique?”
‘The poet seems to confer his identity on the reader…’
If Babstock’s identity is defined by feelings of anger, cynicism and disgust, then he succeeds in transferring them – not so much because of content, but because of attitude, tone. When I pick up a book, I expect to learn something I don’t know, find insight, pleasure; get a laugh or two; discover new ways of appreciating the world, or seeing it, new words, new meaning, beauty. I want to feel something: admiration, stimulation, growth; a yearning for more; a desire to return, remember – “as if I’d had my skin ripped off,” to quote Irving Layton. Methodist Hatchet offers none of this, just a kind of nugatory sneer. A negation.
Because of this I do feel something, but I suspect it’s not what was intended: anger at being duped into thinking that something might be gained in the reading. Babstock is one of poet Timothy Murphy’s frauds ‘who hold their audiences in contempt.’’…it is easiest to recognize this when listening to music – I mean this sort of thing: the transference’. The only discernible rhythms or music in Babstock’s poems are wretched. Like a retching, gagging reflex, the words are frequently curt, abrupt, aggressive; projectile:
Scything the new, chilled air over Moabit –
Skeletal, balletic – the cranes insist
We graph it out
Form up in the EU yellow and blue. Cost
Of jet fuel per person, cost of Khartoum.
Egypt at the Pergamon. Jeffs
At the Hamburger Bahnhof, again,
Koons and Wall, or walyas and the man
In Mauerpark market
Raking crop circles in crepe batter
Over a heated skillet.
(from ‘As Lowell on the Ringbahn’)
Call it what you will – the despairing scream of an amateur – but reading this book was like living in a bad marriage; a via dolorosa. Stevens again has this covered when he says “In the end, the aesthetic is completely crushed and destroyed by the inability of the observer who has himself been crushed to have any feeling for it left.”