Ken Babstock sprinkled a few of the poems collected in Methodist Hatchet in journals across Canada. These poems were alternately baffling and amazing, and many of them contained aphorisms that will be mined – rightly, but also opportunistically – as epigrams by Canadian poets for decades to come. Others had the poetic equivalent of scavenged junk in them. Junk from a disorganized junkyard. Beautiful non-sequiturs of junk.
After his landmark first collection, 1999’s Mean, Babstock seemed to decide that the lyric poem had to be rescued from boredom. He went further in this regard with each subsequent book. And now he’s gone as far as any poet can really go: he’s transcended accessibility and become wilfully obscure.
The conversation Al Purdy had with Irving Layton about the latter poet’s masterwork, “A Tall Man Executes a Jig,” is apropos here. Purdy confessed to the more sophisticated Layton that he was utterly baffled by the poem. And Layton didn’t really care: he knew it was good, and was unconcerned by someone else’s incomprehension. Methodist Hatchet is almost an entire collection of Laytonesque jigs. I fear Babstock has become like Charlie in Daniel Keyes’ classic sci-fi story “Flowers for Algernon”: so brilliant, so new, and developing so fast, he’s no longer intelligible to the rest of us.
There are poems in the book that are affecting and deft. It’s nice that Babstock threw in a few sops to more traditional sensibilities, poems that don’t demand Finnegans Wake–like attention. But it’s hard not to conclude that Babstock is tired of what traditionally constitutes a successful poem. He wants more out of poetry, and is determined to produce language that sings in a new frequency. The problem with such a strategy is that the audience follows afterward, so this review is the equivalent of Purdy’s bafflement.
I suspect Babstock’s more difficult work will prove to be his lasting contribution to Canadian poetry, although perhaps not in the way he intends. Already responsible for much of the sound patterning the current crowd slavishly makes, he’s doomed to be imitated by the true junk patrons: poets looking for what they can get at a steal.