Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Response to Nigel Beale's Review of Ken Babstock's Methodist Hatchet

Nigel Beale’s recent review of Ken Babstock’s latest poetry release, Methodist Hatchet, is available online at guerilla, issue 34, vol 9 winter 2013.

Round one sees the reviewer rush to centre ring at the bell and throw a series of haymakers at his virtual opponent. This is where the analogy breaks down, of course, because it’s up to readers to decide whether or not the punches connect.

Beale believes that Babstock’s attitude is a “fuck you” to the reader. Many people, (me included, in this example) “applaud without knowing why”. But I’d just as easily turn this next analogy around and say that those shut out of Babstock's specific poetic territory are simply using the wrong key(s) in their attempt to gain entry to a different kind of house, not a prefab Canadiana block structure, not even a charming hut or an accomplished mansion (the minimalist or maximalist idiosyncrasy that leaves no influence), but an unexpected interior, a house by turns fun and haunted.

My review of Babstock’s volume was highly laudatory, and my chief argument, itself a critique of earlier reviews of the book, was that form and content were expertly merged. So when Beale claims that “[r]eaders aren’t invited into this erudite little game, and there’s scant incentive for them to join in; to make them care”, I’d counter that the mellifluous or knotted music (scaled to the particular mood or topic from which it plays off) is the first draw, as it should be of any worthy poem, or book of poetry. I don’t go directly to poetry for any of the contemporary topics Babstock explores. But, once energized and pleased by the sounds, I always look, usually on multiple re-reads, for the sense. And in Babstock, I frequently get that, too. If I’m avoiding examples here, Beale is, so far, also speaking in generalities, so that doesn’t help either side. But general statements have to be challenged on their own, too. We’ll get to some of those poem quotes soon enough.

Beale, to his credit, lays out his criteria in specific terms. “Memorability; authentic, original use of lapidary language; rhetorical power scored to important human themes; synoptic understanding of our complex human lives;  staying power … all of this seems rather quaint, slightly naïve, ridiculous even, in the face of such cool incomprehensibility.”

I’ve hunted up these passages in direct response:

Memorability: “Butane extracted/from filched Bics.//Car seat on springs/pulled up to a pit.”

Synoptic understanding of our complex human lives: “Configuring the small emptied/talismans of my own loneliness//so they stared back, hoping they’d inscribe/an identity onto what was left/after chewing away at the core for a decade.”  

Authentic, original use of lapidary language: “Wattle and Daub, a law firm of Newfoundlanders/or a crafts supply in keeping with the poultry theme,/smells weakness, softens its smuggest aspects/with miniature jingle bell over the gripey hinge.”

Staying power: “she chewed through/the fabric, a hole you could slide an arm into./Slide an arm right through/the surface of this picture,/into whatever spacial realm lies/behind the depth.”

(One can add -- when reading just these four examples and among many other qualities of good poetry not included in Beale’s list -- connective power, organic intelligence.)

The next section of Beale’s critique enlists the help of Wallace Stevens. This is a dangerous (though gutsy) ploy, since it takes a great argument to be able to plane  Stevens’ terse generalities (here) to fit Babstock’s poetry with any authority. Secondly, Stevens is a problematic example, perhaps even a contradictory one, to use in the context of clarity,  and to the “fuck you” to the house visitors. I’ve read many a Stevens poem (I think he’s the second greatest U.S. poet, by the way), and I’ve been baffled for long stretches with what can only be categorized as wilful diction, malicious connectives, philosophical speciousness and pseudo-elevation. All the things, in other words, that Beale decries here in Babstock. But – and here is, to me, a key contrast – I only persisted in reading Stevens because so many brilliant critics had done the heavy lifting (in an aesthetic sense, but to the importance of the issue at hand, in evaluative distinction) that I figured, “what the heck, I can soldier on, there’s supposed to be something to this guy”. Of course, the sound is there right away with Stevens, too, the rhythm, the crazy juxtaposition of cool anecdote with psychological suggestion. Kind of like someone else we’re talking about. It’s no surprise that Stevens was a huge influence on Babstock.

But now we finally get some quotations of the offending lines. Beale’s first choice from Babstock:

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.”

These are the first three lines from the hilariously wonderful (except for the horrid last sentence, not quoted here) poem, “Carolinian (Crosscut With Saw)”, with Beale’s commentary behind it. The first line is not random, not like a stoned sophomore’s gushings, not gibberish, but a delightfully inventive sound pattern (a giant hint should be taken from the title) that mimics the action of the saw in its repetitive hard Cs and alternatiing vowels. And what a remarkable “sense” choice to go with that sound -- “colander” --  which conveys the moving sunspots which colour the onlookers, as well as  the dividing word which eliminates, temporarily, its effects. Then, “contrivance” is another wonderful  choice which sets up one theme of the poem. Whose contrivance is it? The walkers’, of course, but also the poet’s. And instead of the usual postmodern moan and groan about the impossibility of accurate transcription, let alone Truth (always with that capital!), Babstock’s tone affects a curious, and  complex, authenticity. Who indeed hasn’t been jolted by conflicting moods in a walk, who (if one tends to make literary associations, as do most poetry readers) then go on to wonder about the traffic between danger (note the other main meaning of the non-hyphenated title word) and artifice or wonder. I could detail more of this excellent poem, but I’m just responding to Beale’s specific quotation.

“Babstock’s poems are hyphenated by frequent references to “difficult” philosophers and artists. Their names seem sprinkled in like flavourless pepper. Used for show. 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.”

This is Beale’s next charge. And it’s a serious one. And with serious charges, it’s incumbent upon the accuser to be much more specific, citing many examples. Because, unlike many contemporary poets to whom I think this accusation can and should be levied against, (pretentiousness often has more to do with introducing names and artistic movements the author can't follow up on than it does with inherently difficult material) I find Babstock’s use of names either charming, intriguing (and after a follow-up, appropriate), part of an extended analogy, or the (yes) impetus for an in-joke. To those who think that that latter admission is somehow a confession of defeat, try out some of Geoffrey Hill’s name-checks, or Dante’s. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional joke for those who’ve an encyclopedic knowledge of arcana. One doesn’t have to know every reference and meaning to enjoy the rhythms and dynamics, the stresses and tempos of those names (with their surrounding sounds) read aloud. And, if it’s really important for the reader, a consultation with Monsieur Google-ectomy is a much easier way of stripping things than the (only) twenty-years-ago option of a special collections library visit to the speculative science room. I didn’t get many of the winks and tricks in Methodist Hatchet. And I’m fine with that. But the book is like a fine buffet. I don’t worry about the exotic dishes left over when my stomach’s pleasantly full from the first class palette of appetizers, entrees, desserts and aperitifs. The references, in any case, aren’t all high-and mighty. There are plenty of associations involving sports stars (Butch Goring), central figures from realms usually off-limits (for some reason) to poets (Mies van der Rohe), and central (not “showy” or pedantically-inspired) artists (Don DeLillo). When checking those three names in the contexts of the poems they’re in, one will note, with even a surface familiarity of their import, how the names are tied in with the organic content of the line, stanza, poem. It’s not, then, a pretentious book bicep-flex, it’s an allusively savvy attempt to link literary history or architectural mores with how we see the world this day, every day, both in physical space and imaginative reverie.

Beale next moves to the brilliant opener, “The Decor”. This poem is a high-water mark, even for a poet with many highlight efforts to his credit. Here’s the reviewer’s quote selection, with his brief follow-up:

“ “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.””

It’s here I wonder if Beale is paying attention to the poem as a whole. In our time of shorties – 30 lines and often less – “The Decor” covers four pages, and has to be read carefully in order to make the requisite connections. One of the main themes of the poem (by no means the only one) is how depth is perceived, now, by all of us to varying extents, in what is presented by aggressive multiple media sources with their manipulative evils, by ingrained visual cues, and (in the immediately preceding, canny passage) by persuasion over result. (Even the dog, in its clumsy way, exposes the charlatans. Why can’t we?) Against this, a real human connection is increasingly a matter of effort, sometimes heroic effort, in order to break down the cynical walls we all have in place to defend ourselves from the ubiquitous scream of the surrounding stimuli. The illusion, then, is created by those shadowy figures. It’s not a who-cares ploy by a poet enamoured of passionless pomo smugness, but a denunciation and a call to see it for what it is.

Beale’s last quotation perfectly illustrates the frequent inability of readers to understand why a poet chooses to use the sounds he or she creates in a poem. Again, here’s Beale’s response, this time preceding the poem-snippet:

“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”)

Are these sounds unpleasant? Of course. That’s the point. I frequently recall, with amusement and deep respect, Shostakovich’s response to the members of the Beethoven String Quartet, for whom the great composer wrote his #11 and #13. During a first rehearsal, with Shostakovich in the audience, one of the musicians paused and said to him, “this passage would sound better as arco”. Shostakovich: “I know it would sound better. But just keep it as pizzicato.” Babstock, too, knew what he was doing here. The poem deals with the inhuman, infiltrating sounds in a circumstance difficult to get out from under. The harsh c and k quick repetitions, the puking (when also quickly repeating) “blue”, “fuel”, “Khartoum”, the expertly realized confusion of the two-line “Koons .../”: this is showing, not telling, at its best (though the telling is there, “slant”, as well.

I’ll close by coming back to Stevens. Here he is, in The Necessary Angel, agreeing with this quote by Dr. Joad: “”Every quality of a body resolves itself into an enormous number of vibrations, movements, changes. What is it that vibrates, moves, is changed? There is no answer. Philosophy has long dismissed the notion of substance and modern physics has endorsed the dismissal ... How, then, does the world come to appear to us as a collection of solid, static objects extended in space? Because of the intellect, which presents us with a false view of it.””

Stevens goes on, though, to refute that “[t]here is no answer”. Imagination was his only subject, his only theme. Babstock’s use of “reality”, whether through historical figures or landscape, dialogue or reappraisals of memory, keeps Stevens’ god in view. But for the reader to take that walk with him, it’s a good idea to carry a microscope, a telescope, a kaleidoscope, sight glasses, sunglasses, a steady use of peripheral vision, and, above all, a persistent mindscape.

1 comment:

Mark Sampson said...

For me, applauding "without knowing why" is one of the chief pleasures of reading poetry. Nice article.