The Change Artist
In Ken Babstock’s latest, the poet continues on a challenging course. On Malice is important, whether we like it or not.
KILLING A COUPLE OF HOURS IN A HOTEL BAR IN HAMILTON SIX YEARS AGO, I struck up a conversation with a rumpled, under-slept young man. A heavy equipment technician, he had just flown in from Fort McMurray to celebrate his best friend’s stag. When I told him I was touring with a new book of poems, he replied that he had found a poetry collection crushed between the rear seat cushions of a rig truck a few months earlier. I was intrigued. What kind of verse ends up in a tar-sands boomtown? Did he recall the poet’s name or the title? No. Did he like the poems? A few, yeah. Could he recite something? He nodded, paused for a moment, then reeled off the closing lines from Ken Babstock’s “Finishing.”
Babstock was already big news in 2008. Today, he bestrides the country. Blessed with Byronic charisma and buoyed by a readership that cuts through aesthetic camps, he is one of the most popular figures in contemporary Canadian poetry. Babstock finds himself revered by a younger generation whose collective ear has been shaped by his arresting voice, with its verbal jolts and snap-to-attention vernacular. In many ways, he seems the consummate CanPo darling: former House of Anansi poetry editor (now at McClelland & Stewart), perennial lit-fest headliner and, of course, Griffin Prize winner. And as my Fort McMurray friend demonstrated, Babstock enjoys that most elusive of bragging rights: crossover appeal. His stuff has been set to indie songs and adapted into short films. His poem “Essentialist” was even affixed to a plaque across from St. George subway station in downtown Toronto. And with his inclusion in a recent raft of doorstopper university anthologies—The Oxford Book of Canadian Literature, New Anthology of Canadian Literature in English and 70 Canadian Poets—his pithy, keyed-up, high-speed style is set to become part of our permanent repertory. Babstock is as dominant a Canadian poet as we have ever seen.
“Finishing” played a major role in winning that alpha status. Like much of Babstock’s early poetry, it’s a work of crackling wordplay that displays what we might call the everyday touch. The poem ventriloquizes a drywall drudge who sees himself as an artist-for-hire, someone able to turn “nickel-sized hammer dents / back into wood’s true profile.” From the jump, we’re captured by his swagger, his no-sweat attitude (“Every mitre only as clean as the chop saw / it’s cut on”), but we’re made to care because the form—a spool of out-loud sounds strung across ten couplets—does the hard work of making itself look easy. The poem’s voiceprint conceals the kit of effects used to build it. The idea and its illustration fit so seamlessly it’s a unified event:
Thin wainscotting strips are worthless poker hands you keep throwing back to watch land
at attention, soldier-straight, from the bathroom door right down the corridor’s
parade route. That easy. That fast.
Idiosyncratic yet clear, pyrotechnically plain, those three sentences are a fluent bravura of simplicity. Babstock isn’t making a big show of hustling some new trick into action, but heightening existing idioms and rhythms to a high standard of virtuosity. At the time, the zippy, talk-based music, grounded in satisfyingly solid sounds, served as a token for Babstock’s belief that poems merit a reader’s attention only if they reward that attention. Moreover, because of the way the couplets carry forward a single thought, much of the pleasure of reading “Finishing” lies in, well, finishing it. That means you can praise individual moments, but you can’t reduce the poem to them because how those moments join up, often fixed in place with a deftly turned internal rhyme, is the main point (“the framing’s well-built—/ no vicious lean, tilt, / or bad wow.”). Much like the speaker humble-bragging about how he can “render a bland, formless grief / into something at least sellable,” we imagine the poet’s own quiet pride in the “reliable” artifact he’s assembled. It ends:
Just finish. Get paid.
At night, alone, you’ll redeem or undo what your hands have made.
That sign-off brings us up short. It’s an odd note of ambivalence coming from a man who’s made much of his prowess. But it’s belied by the brisk self-assurance of two perfectly speakable lines, two staves in what Clive James might call the poem’s “singable scheme.” Any poet so hell bent on turning conscious artistry into a public and shareable act is bound to get lines—and maybe whole poems—into a rig worker’s head.
“Finishing” was one of many poems Babstock wrote after he dropped out of Concordia University at nineteen. For nearly a dozen years, he drifted around the country, picking up whatever factory or construction job he could find. Life among strivers, drunks and charlatans led to a poetry debut that was street-smart, high-spirited, and, above all, mouthy. Published in 1999, Mean was the acoustic equivalent of an adrenalin rush. Calling himself “a puffed-up pleb tightly / wound,” Babstock’s talent for making rich, gritty music out of local speech revealed a powerhouse ear paired with a down-at-heel sensibility. Mean was also a Canadianist’s nightmare. The book contained an armoury of international techniques stockpiled over years of close reading. “I can’t recall now if it was Armitage, Motion, Paterson, O’Brien, or Maxwell I first came across,” Babstock wrote in his foreword to the anthology New British Poetry, “but all were subsequently sought out and devoured.” The result—verbs turned out at full tilt, pungent idiom-coining, unflaggingly vivid images, hard alliterative clusters—delivered the killing blow to existing nostrums of how poems in this country were supposed to sound: timid, idiosyncrasy-free, derivative (what David Solway calls “standard average Canadian”). But for all that game-changing work, you rarely caught Babstock sweating. He was Mr. Cool.
The debut was, no surprise, a sensation. Everywhere you turned, someone was holding a copy: for months, it seemed the entire literary community became a radar wave picking up the ping of the book’s breakthrough. One reviewer described walking into a tiny Calgary bookstore—a place ordinarily indifferent to poetry—to find ten copies crowding the window. The owner’s explanation? “This guy’s a Canadian poet who’s actually good.”
It would be interesting to speak to that bookstore owner today. Babstock became well-liked because he wrote immensely likable poems. But over the last eight years, he has tested that likability, defied it, even tried to undo it. There were already hints of a push-back in his second book, Days into Flatspin (2001); passages that seemed to stoke the reader’s confusion a little too eagerly, lines that sounded lovely but had the air of something concocted for effect. In Airstream Land Yacht (2006), the celebrated Babstock manner had become an exercise in frustration, leaving readers by turns dazzled and utterly defeated. When Methodist Hatchet (2011) appeared, Babstock’s about-face was complete. The disorienting miscellany of registers in the opening pages—“Colander, canopy, colander. Contrivance / of green light-spots we’re leoparded by”—told us we were dealing with a very different talent: brazenly baffling, hyper-expressive and impenetrable. More evidence of the U-turn could be seen in the way Babstock, around this period, talked about his poems. He referred to their “thickness of contrapuntal noise.” He confessed that if “the results are a little anarchic and uncontrolled, I’m okay with that.” He described their composition as “pushing the wrong end of two magnets together.” Methodist Hatchet—named after a double-sided axe—was a watershed book, confirming a career starkly, maybe irrevocably, divided between compact early poems ravishingly streamlined for sense and later poems that aspired to throw readers off his trail.
Methodist Hatchet also triggered a central drama around Babstock’s reputation: a standoff between frustrated fans who believe that Babstock has relinquished too much of what they once enjoyed (“I repeatedly asked myself,” wrote Patrick Warner in his review of the collection, “Is it worth the Google time to unpack this passage, this phrase?”) and a seemingly defiant Babstock who has shown no intention of retreating (“Yeah, I’m sure it’ll annoy some people, there’s not much I can do about it.”). To be fair, his misdirection-rich style has picked up new admirers, and many supporters have freely reconditioned their expectations—Jacob McArthur Mooney called the book an “object lesson in the tension and the joy of a constantly expanding aesthetic.” But one wonders if Babstock’s fifth and newest collection may prove a threshold too far.
On Malice consists of four long poems, three of which are quarried from other sources. In some ways, the results are a revelation. Many of the most controversial features of Methodist Hatchet make a great deal more sense when understood as the opening stages of a growing interest in collage, found material, juxtaposed quotation, repurposed jargon and cliché. Seen from that light, Babstock hasn’t been running from his early work as much as he’s been moving steadily in the direction of poets—Ben Lerner, Peter Gizzi, Susan Wheeler—who covet fragments and the provocative and incongruous perspectives sparked when those fragments are recombined. “Perfect Blue Distant Objects,” for example, is derived from William Hazlitt’s “Why Distant Objects Please,” a classic essay that tackles the question of why distance heightens beauty. Hazlitt speculates that obscurity baits the imagination, so that pushing viewers away from an object, or idea, forces them to become creative participants in its completion. Here’s the opening sentence: “Distant objects please, because, in the first place, they imply an idea of space and magnitude, and because not being obtruded too close upon the eye, we clothe them with the indistinct and airy colours of fancy.” Seeing Hazlitt’s premise as an ideal description of his own procedures, Babstock fractures it thusly: “First imply the distant blur idea / to please. / Place objects / of magnitude too close in space, in fact / obtruding, not because / colour remains indistinct and with it / our clothes … ”
The “poetry” of On Malice, in other words, comes from Babstock loading up his lines with other people’s lines, and the net effect is of a book written in a range of lyric dialects. It’s an ambition that probably finds its most famous expression in Kenneth Goldsmith’s theory of uncreative writing. With the digital age making traditional ideas of originality obsolete, the writer’s real job, according to Goldsmith, is to curate the vast amount of text already available. Babstock’s innovation is in explicitly linking this assemblage aesthetic to the emerging genre of surveillance poetics—poems written in response to the American National Security Agency’s (NSA) efforts to Hoover up the 1.2 petabytes of data zipping across the internet every minute. Probably the most interesting insight to come out of this genre is the notion that the NSA is a kind of debased poet, one whose algorithms are seen as the most powerful, intricate and subtle study of language yet undertaken. In this scenario—of overhearing, of teasing meaning out of texts, of finding the “signal” in the “noise”—the NSA has out-imagined every existing conceptual project. It’s the apex avant-gardist.
This idea is, in part, what shapes the opening sequence of thirty-nine sonnets called “Sigint,” itself the term used for intelligence collected from intercepted messages. The sonnets represent a kind of dictation of signals being sent from an abandoned NSA surveillance station in Berlin, where Babstock lived for a year with his family in 2012. Those “signals” are a cut-up of Walter Benjamin’s 1919 diary transcriptions of his three-year-old son’s language acquisitions mixed with a fictional “incident report”—swifts colliding with aircraft in Soviet airspace— where the final couplet should be. Taken together, the series is a set piece of disfluency, a synthetic pidgin that excels at moody denigrations, bizarre dicta, self-inflicted miscues:
And it is evening already, so swollen. Suppose one rips up the blue, one takes away the quiet, the pealing
in the ears, and is ashamed of something. No, but...There...I have just thrown
the feeling into your mouth. Now you tell it. Perhaps you truly don’t own it but it’s
in your mouth now so take it
for a walk
past radomes, damask, reel-to-reel,
the analysts of Virginia under
whatever vector this year’s probe is re-entering on.
May 3, 1989, at 08:20, not far from Tyumen. Altitude unknown at time of incident.
What strikes us most is tone. Odd angles on familiar bits of diction coloured with men-ace, “post-informational gloaming,” “Tickertap, kill sites and bunting.” Mind-space feels dystopian. Mood—unaccountable, like a thought process without address—fills in for real information, forcing us into a kind of implication manhunt. In interviews, Babstock says the poem was inspired by a photograph of a three-year-old Benjamin on the same beach Babstock was playing on with his own three-year-old son. Knowing this, however, only compounds the problem. Free of storyline, the sonnets become a self-contained world that keeps circling back to its elliptical argot.
On Malice is undeniably ambitious, with an intriguing meta-combative quality. Babstock turns poetic form into a game of ideological moves and countermoves. (The final poem, which scrambles the prose of John Donne’s 1647 tract on suicide, is called “Five Eyes,” after the intelligence pact between the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.) Yet it is form without inquiry; a de-lyricism of language where any signifying is left on infinite standby. The book feels paranoid and parasitical and—because what he’s borrowing from is rendered indecipherable, corrected, as it were, into unmeaning—intellectually passive. In any successful style, there’s the feeling of communicability, of an insight or interiority measured and named. But On Malice only gives us half a style—relentless noun phrases, the façade of something being labouriously worked out. The result is a pastiche of precision, virtuosity encrypted, as if to protect itself.
Babstock is read on a different scale from most of his peers. Few Canadian poets provoke us into studying their stylistic choices as intensely. Partly it’s because those early choices had such long-lasting consequences. Partly it’s because Babstock’s output once operated on oneupmanship: whatever you were doing, he was doing it better. But the chief reason he’s so closely watched is that he marks the new. He’s the avatar of Canadian poetry’s hope of itself as contemporary. From the start, however, Babstock seems to have struggled with the kind of poet he wanted to be. The opening poem of his debut, after all, turns on a question that now is a powerful portent: “Still unsure: theoretical physics / or high-flown Yeats verse.” Open or closed? Free or fixed? He split the difference, a decision that, for years, put him on the winning end of a certain kind of poetry. That success left him deeply ambivalent. The doubling that has always defined his verse—chiasmic rhyme-schemes, the anaphoric repetitions—betrays the deeper recursivity of poet locked in permanent quarrel with his own gift. That quarrel has increasingly been extended to his audience.
Indeed, it’s hard not to think the surveillance state Babstock is describing is his own, the sense of being constantly watched. Just as we read him closely, he has been reading us: reacting to us reacting to him. Babstock has not only been writing against his gifts, but writing against the expectations those gifts saddled him with. To borrow a phrase from William Logan, Babstock’s new work “criticizes the pleasures taken” in the old. He has undone what his hands have made.
Who the ideal reader for On Malice would be is anyone’s guess. The poems aren’t easy in ways that don’t always get easier. In that sense, one of the most demoralizing aspects of these changes is how Babstock’s poetry has crossed into that area of initiates, best understood by those who claim to understand it. And as astonishing as it is to willingly transform oneself, in the span of five books, from an addictive substance into an acquired taste, On Malice may present even Babstock’s most ardent decoders with the chore of acquiring that taste anew.
As for the rest of us, for whom our admiration of Babstock has become an infatuation mixed with regret, it’s time to get over it. On Malice is the book of a poet who no longer wants to be liked, but wants to be himself. These changes—their “maximalist gesture of difficulty,” as Babstock called it—aren’t a blunder but a hard-worn course correction. Like or not, he means it.
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