amongst books

amongst books

Friday, December 21, 2012

In Defence of "Difficult" Poetry

In the most recent issue of Ottawa-based Get GuerillaMagazine, Nigel Beale lambastes Ken Babstock's "Methodist Hatchet," which he feels is incomprehensible, "unmitigatingly humourless" and offers little in the way of aesthetic appeal.

He cites the following alliterative excerpt from Carolinian (Crosscut with Sound) as an example of what he likens to psychedelic lyrics from the sixties:
[please forgive the spacing between lines; Blogger has decided to make its own poetic interpretations.]

Colander, canopy, colander. Contrivance

 Of green light-spots we’re leoparded by.

 Wild grape ampersand.

and says that any stoned idiot in front of a microphone could produce the same or a random word generator.

Beale finds the word play "dizzyingly dull" employing a "disjointed futility." He wants the poems to go somewhere or "achieve something."

 He doesn't like the inclusion of the names of  "difficult philosophers and artists," labelling their inclusion "High-styled, pseudo-intellectual lace seductively placed atop the stanzas."

 Beale cites other reviewers' bafflement and attempts to "unpack" a passage or a phrase.

He feels anger because he feels duped by the work, has gained nothing from it. Earlier on he refers to the reader as a consumer.

 I enjoyed Babstock's book quite a bit for its word play (I did not find it dull, but yes dizzy-making) and for its juxtapositions of unlike concepts, its use of colour and the pure beauty of its sound. I also found humour in the work.

What I'd like to address is the idea of difficult poetry. Is it ok for a poet to write something that someone might find incomprehensible? Does a poet have permission to play? Should a reader be able to "unpack" a poem and is the reader meant to be a "consumer" of poetry, with all the negative connotations consumerism and mass consumption bring to the meaning of "consumer?"

 In his preface to "Can Poetry Matter?" (Graywolf Press, 1992), Dan Gioia says

"Poetry is an art--like painting or jazz, opera or drama--whose pleasures are generally open to any intelligent person with the inclination to savor them. Critics, justly obsessed with the difficulty of interpreting poetical texts, often forget the sheer immediacy of the medium's appeal."

 The immediacy comes from joy in word play, harmony, disharmony, hearing unusual turns of phrase etc. But of course, Babstock's book offers more than just an immediate joy from the appreciation of his skilled word play and imagery.

Art such as abstract expressionism has been seen in the same dim light by the general public as poetry that isn't, to use the art term, "representational"."  The most common issue that arises has to do with consumerism. Tax payers outraged by the cost of Barnet Newman's Voice of Fire, for example.

Speaking as someone who tries to write poetry, what I gain from this play and experimentation is permission to write freely and to try and tap into areas of the subconscious which refuse obvious superficial explanation. It moves me away from pat answers, from cliché, from the propaganda forced down my throat by mass media and from public convention.

 Gioia goes on to say "A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it--be they politicians, preachers, copywriters or newscasters. "

The type of language play and push against the boundaries exemplified by Babstock's "Methodist Hatchet" is demonstrative of this skill. I disagree quite vehemently with Beale's notion that any stoned fool in front of a microphone could come up with Babstock's lines. There is turn-on-a-dime enjambment, there are painterly images, there is a poignant beauty to the text.

Much of it seems straight-forward to me. Take for example, "Five Hours in Saint-John's:"

What would you do? Turns out your flight's not

till five, and your plate's been licked clean

since ten. Along Water St. the harbour-

facing shopfronts glaze under the heatlamp

 I particularly enjoyed the whole concept of the methodist hatchet, an axe with two edges, the juxtaposition of popular culture with philosophies. Marxism, for example in the poem "Second Life." To me that was highly amusing. It's the way we are these days, thanks in great part to the Internet, we mix contemporary life with a superficial knowledge of history, philosophy etc. Our knowledge is in small bits.

Gioia points to the decline in North American culture of public interest not just in poetry but in all contemporary art forms, from "serious drama to jazz." These arts being consigned to the margins.

This is why I ask the question in these terms: should poets be allowed to play? Who or what can stop a poet, you might wonder. In my case, the viewpoint that poems should be accessible to all, immediately understandable and written with a consumer in mind or have some great purpose tends to stymie me and block my creativity. I feel like a fool and a wanker for even trying to write anything at all. But another part of me feels called upon to represent a different view, to attempt and to stumble along anyway. Because I know not all readers have this point of view.

I listened to Shelagh Rogers, host of the CBC Radio show "The Next Chapter" as she talked to Ken Babstock about "Methodist Hatchet." I urge you to listen to the extended interview here. She was delighted by his book. She'd never had him on the show before and questioned why not. While Rogers is an avid reader, I don’t see her as someone who is a poetry insider. or a member of some sort of intellectual elite. 

She had questions, but she didn't seem impatient or upset about the language. She was drawn to the hiccoughs and the line breaks, etc. She called his voice "vibrant" and "mercurial."  She mentioned the energy in his poems. The main tension in the book is that there is no longer any large coherent systematic world view because of the collision of various disciplines, such as evolutionary biology and human pyschology. Babstock is drawn to the rifts or schisms or places of resistance. He is easily convinced of contrary things. "Methodist Hatchet," puts these ideas in proximity. What's human is the voice trying to put these unlike realities together, the attempt. Rogers said that the world "is such a friggin' mess right now, we need poets more than ever."

Babstock's poems are powerful, highly specific, descriptive and visual. Take for example, "A Pharaoh In Moosonee - ONR's Polar Bear Express Out of Cochrane." The idea of resilience is there in many layers. And savour the lyricism of this description:

brattling over a high trestle, feeders to the Moose River

a brown-cocktailed from snake oil and stubby,

motor oil and cola. Fir

and jack pine of the hardening

drift into Siberian distance.

O biggest biome trekking poleward.

Orange vinyl bib.


In her "Globe and Mail" review of the book, Sina Queyras calls Babstock one of the most exciting lyric poets writing today and I agree. Lines like "Shadows bloom, stretch, cat-paw across the blank as/ a surfeit of you; spillage, black dew." from "Lee Atwater in Blowing Snow" are powerful and beautiful. They evoke an image that lingers long in my mind's eye and heart. The more I return to this book, the more I love it.

So as a reader and as a writer, I want Ken Babstock to continue playing with language, to continue eking away at poems that deal with the contradictions inherent in contemporary life because I have a kindred feeling about trying to live today. And I want others to do the same. I say to the poets, play on.

I think you can get all you want from poems themselves, but if, as a reader, you are curious and wish to understand more, these days there are interviews, reviews and often poetic statements written by poets themselves. If you want to learn, you can reach further.

In "Can Poetry Matter," Gioia makes six proposals to poets and poetry teachers to bring the art to the public. One of these is for poets to write prose about poetry, to write about their work. This book was written in 1992. Now there are a fair number of ways, a confused reader can learn about the work and the poet if he so desires.

I suggest that what frustrates readers like Beale has to do with consumerism once more. Babstock won the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize for Methodist Hatchet. That's a $65,000 prize. I suspect such readers want their money's worth and don't feel they are getting it.  But if you approach reading something as wanting some superficial gain or you treat yourself as a consumer of poetry, you're missing the point of poetry. You're missing the joy, the big picture of how things don't fit together in some easy obvious pattern. And what you're doing is sitting back and saying "feed me; I refuse to bring anything to your work."

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