Born in 1970, Ken Babstock is a Canadian poet who grew up in the Ottawa Valley (Ontario); he’s been publishing poetry since 1997 and with a first collection published in 1999. According to Historica Canada, Babstock dropped out of Concordia University and spent twelve years doing manual labour in Canada and Ireland. This background seems to have been cited to credit Babstock with “blue collar” approach-ability.
Between 1999 and 2014, Babstock developed a solid reputation for poetics in Canada; he has enjoyed critical success. Based on sampling two books, Babstock’s poetry offers a mix of intelligent language, occasionally evocative imagery and a fundamental uncertainty. The poetry explores.
Airstream Land Yacht
This book was published in 2006 and netted Babstock attention in the Governor General’s Award for poetry and Griffin Poetry Prize competitions.
It is worth the time to inspect any book of poetry which might offer minutes or hours of entertainment, interest or novel perspective. In Airstream Land Yacht, several poems stand out as interesting:
- A Brochure
- Subject, with Rhyme, Riding a Swell
- So Hush a Mark
- Think Pig
Also notable is the structure to the book which Babstock implemented, dividing the book into 4 sections titled “Air”, “Stream”, “Land” and “Yacht”; each section also includes a poem titled Explanatory Gap; of course the Explanatory Gap of each section is unique to the section it occupies. This is a clever device but it also evokes a concern which Camille Paglia noted in Break Blow Burn
Our most honored poets are gifted and prolific, but we have come to respect them for their intelligence, commitment and the body of their work. They ceased focusing long ago on production of the powerful, distinctive self-contained poem
The structure of the book suggests that it was written as a whole rather than being a collection of self-contained poems curated for publication. Taken in context of various Goodreads’ reader reviews, where a mix of frustration and confusion is expressed regarding editing decisions and accessibility of the poetry may be found, the attempt of modern poets to craft a clever book perhaps undermines the strength of individual poems.
Methodist Hatchet was published in 2011. The cover states that
Methodist Hatchet is the exhilarating new collection from one of our most important, acclaimed, and original poets. Marooned in the shiftless, unnamed space between a map of the world and a world of false maps, these poems cling to what’s necessary from each, yet attempt to sing their own bewilderment…..Even the poem itself – the idea of a poem – as a unit of understanding is shadowed by a great unknowing.
The final sentence in this small passage seems to recall sentiments explored in Martin Heidegger’s The Thinker As Poet. The invitation of the book, then, is to join Babstock on a bewildered exploration of unknowing.
- To Inflame the Civic Temper
- Wesleyan Kettle
- Hunter Deary and the Hospital Wing
- Brief Coherence
Other collections by Ken Babstock (and not yet investigated) include:
- Mean (1999)
- Days into Flatspin (2001)
- On Malice (2014)
Ken Babstock on Goodreads
In keeping with the theme of coordinating open- with subjective single-author sources. Goodreads reader ratings and reviews are cited as an indication of reader impressions. As of July 5, 2018 Airstream Land Yacht had earned an average four of five stars on 51 ratings. The Book had earned three reader reviews with one reviewer suggesting that Babstock’s poetry is better than many other poets but still conventional:
This is the basic move of conventional poetry — take something barely worth describing, and describe it well — but we should not forget that at its heart, this conventional move locks and freezes poetry from developing except on its surface level. Babstock’s brilliance lies at the surface, although his poems do have depth and his language raises his work heads above less energetic, less exciting poets. (Jonathan Ball, June 14, 2011)
Methodist Hatchet earned an average of 3.94 stars on 77 ratings and six reviews with a mix of favourable and critical comments.
…it was mostly indecipherable for me, and at points I wondered whether there was some giant key that I was missing. I suspect if I went back and overanalyzed (sic) every single poem, I might get a bit more out of it, but even being a discerning reader with an eye to detail didn’t get me a greatly meaningful takeaway at the end…. (Phillip Gordon, October 13, 2013)
Days into Flatspin earned an average 4.04 stars on 24 ratings
Mean earned 4.13 stars on 52 ratings.
On Malice earned 4.33 stars on 24 ratings.
Thoughts on Poetics, Having Read Babstock
- Sometimes reading poetry is like wandering into a bar and listening to a verbose, literary drunk babbling about their heartbreaks, passions, demons and distractions. Some of these drunks are entertaining to listen to and some are incoherent and boring. Consider Mr. Al Purdy At The Quint Hotel, certainly some bar talk that entertains and informs. Purdy’s poetry suggests that poetry can be intoxication itself; or rather, the sculptured self-talk, the streamlined consciousness that sometimes arises from intoxication. Babstock’s poetry similarly offers moments of a literary drunk pouring out bewildered and bewildering moments of unknowing.
- In film, the use of violence can be an important feature of a film’s appeal and interest; it is commonly understood that violence (and sex) in film can be gratuitous. It doesn’t add anything. In poetry, it is possible to be gratuitous with complex or unusual words. Imagery is the stuff of film. Words are the stuff of poetry. But the stuff needs to convey meaning. Babstock seems often to wish to bury meaning in complexity, rather than reveal it. Discovering imagery and meaning in poetry should not, initially, be an archaeological-type exercise. A bit of digging is perfectly acceptable, but the digging should not be a distraction.
- Poetry should act as a logical exchange between the reader and the poet. The poet’s specific observations should relate to the reader’s more generalized experience; similarly the poet’s generalized experience should offer an opportunity to stimulate the reader’s specific memories and observations. This logical exchange might be conceived as a dialogue of inductive and deductive moments between poet and reader. Without this exchange, the reader will lose interest. The practice of composing a poem which consists entirely of descriptive sentences placed on the page in “lines”, though possibly representing vivid and memorable moments for the author, is not by itself adequate to poetry unless the sentence offers a moment of exchange.
- The practice of ending sentences in the middle of lines is often jarring and irritating. It makes reading poems aloud an uncomfortable experience.
This article is presented as a poetics case-study in an ongoing series of inquiries into the forms, values and meanings of poetry and poetics.
References and Citations
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- Original draft: July 5, 2018