Friday, February 8, 2008

Stalking the Muse

Well, now we really are closing in on the finishing line. A little more recording on penny whistle, mandolin and accordion this weekend and then we get into that mysterious process called "mixing". This involves balancing and harmonizing the levels and tones of the various instruments so they're heard clearly. After that, the songs are mastered, i.e. adjusted for the broad array of sound systems out there and for radio play. This latter stage is so vital that another engineer is normally brought in. In this case, we're relying on Joby Baker of Baker Studios, widely viewed as the best ears in Victoria.

From music to poetry. I've attended several readings lately, some very good like Ken Babstock's reading at Open Space Wednesday evening, and others not quite so inspiring. Babstock has won or been nominated for several prestigious poetry awards in the past few years, not least of which was the Governor General's award. I must confess I was not entirely sold on the hand full of his poems featured in “The New Canon” (ed. Carmine Starnino), but became decidedly more appreciative after hearing him read from his latest work "Airstream Land Yacht".

Babstock possesses a strong, ruminating style, delivers precisely and richly drawn metaphors, and displays a capable philosophical point of view largely absent from the bulk of Canadian poetry. More importantly, I get the feeling that Babstock (or more precisely, perhaps, his poetic persona) is profoundly changed by what occurs within his poems. Again, this is something missing from much of the poetry, Canadian or otherwise, that I read: experiences or insights that are not only deftly or cleverly revealed but that are transformative in their effects upon the poet first, and then upon the reader. A poet who demonstrates this repeatedly is Philip Larkin (see "Church Going"), but so, too, does Babstock. A good example is "Essentialist", a poem that needs to be read in full to see how this transformation I'm talking about occurs, and hence is too long to transcribe here. Buy the book. You'll enjoy.

We also got to eavesdrop on a conversation between Babstock and past GG winner Tim Lilburn that evening. Babstock has been following a rather intricate discussion among psychologists and other scientists over the past few years about what constitutes consciousness, a dialogue that has strongly influenced his view of life and his poems. An intriguing discussion with serious, perhaps even dire, implications for that age old question about free will.

Of less value was a more recent question which inevitably arises whenever an audience is asked to question or comment: Is poetry dead? And if it is, are the universities to blame? The same question came up (more or less) at a reading by three poets laureate I attended the week before. As usual, nothing decisive resulted. My view: Poetry is not dead, just the argument. My great regret: that poets and readers spend too much time asking fruitless questions like these and almost universally duck more important questions, i.e. the nature of poetry itself, the state of the craft, and the various ways that readers and poets alike come to understand poetry.

So Babstock's great. So, too, is another discovery: Julie Bruck, a poet from Montreal whose poem "Cafeteria" is one of the best poems I've read this past year. She, too, can be found in “The New Canon”.

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