Lit Seen: Michael Robbins's "Alien Vs. Predator" Explained; David Denby on Snark
The poet Michael Robbins, in the January 12 issue of The New Yorker, calls Rilke a "jerk." The second stanza of "Alien Vs. Predator," his poetry debut in the magazine, begins "That elk is a such a dick"—not "a typical New Yorker poem line," he acknowledges, when reached at his home in Chicago. "Alien Vs. Predator" is a sort of love story by way of Best Buy, the reggae superstar Buju Banton, and a whale on stilts. Its romantic climax? "I'd eat your bra—point being—in a heartbeat."
At a time when, as Robbins puts it, "the Venn diagram of poetry's audience and its practitioners more and more comes to resemble the final moments before a total eclipse," the poem found a readership online and among friends far beyond Robbins's expectations. Gothamist nominated it, only half-jokingly, for a Nobel Prize, while the New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones, a critic Robbins has long admired, wrote, simply, "gimme some more." Credit, in part, the poem's pop idiom—compact, technically rigorous, slangy, absurd but intelligible.
Robbins is a lot like this in real life, too. In conversation, he quotes Paul Muldoon's Leonard Cohen poem, "Sleeve Notes" ("His words have meant far more to me/Than most of the so-called poems I've read"), then adds: "And I'm not a huge Leonard Cohen fan. But you substitute Springsteen, or, you know, Sonic Youth, for Leonard Cohen, and I'm right there." Animal Collective recently replaced Ghostface Killah as the source of the epigraph on Robbins's manuscript-in-progress; for the last month, the poet has been at work on a poem "loosely based on the video for Guns N' Roses' 'November Rain.' "
Six years ago, Robbins moved from Colorado, where he'd grown up and attended college, to Chicago, after being accepted into the University of Chicago graduate English department. Poetry is a habit that dates back to high school, where he absconded with Yeats's Collected Poems, a book he has yet to return: "I'd like to apologize to the librarians of Cheyenne Mountain High School," Robbins says, sounding not at all apologetic. After graduating, Robbins spent his twenties immersed in Blake, Milton, Pope, Philip Larkin, and John Ashbery. But it's contemporary poets—Lisa Jarnot, Ange Mlinko, Frederick Seidel—that Robbins, who moonlights as a critic, consults before he sits down to write.
Not that you'd know. To the extent that Robbins can be said to write like anyone else (which he doesn't, really), it's the famously transgressive Seidel, whose decadent and colloquial poems are also, inevitably, beautiful—"he could write recipes, and I would read them." Robbins, the author of a poem titled "[Things I may no longer bring on airplanes]," often seems to take this kind of thing literally—his matter-of-fact compositions drop shards of clichés and academic jargon in among weirdly direct, earnest statements of fact and feeling.
"For all the insular, difficult, obscure poetry that everyone is supposed to struggle with, there's also this sort of 'My grandmother fed a deer in the backyard' poetry," laughs Robbins, when I point out how immediate his poetry can feel. "This idea of 'wonder,' the sort of commodity 'wonder' that is available to the denizens of suburban backyards, is something that takes a kind of real inattention to the culture we live in to write. It doesn't respond to the way I think about the world."
At the comfortable age of 65, New Yorker film critic David Denby has taken the masochistic step of writing a book called Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation—the equivalent, Adam Sternbergh observed in New York magazine, of titling your book Keying My Car: It's the Wrong Thing to Do. "I think you have to put yourself in jeopardy, or else you just get stale," says Denby, minutes after we meet up one freezing afternoon in a quiet West Village café. In person, Denby is witty, erudite, and combative; he would be the first person to admit that he's doing exactly what his critics accuse him of doing—defending the profession of writing from the snarky barbarians at the gate.
"People like Adam Sternbergh," says Denby, bringing up the review, are "a little naïve." Snark "may be a way of getting in the door," a quick route to a career in publishing, but "editors are very ruthless. You gotta up your game at a certain point, or you don't last." On the page, Snark reads like the novella-length polemic it is; Denby composed the essay in the five months leading up to Barack Obama's election in response to both coded, racist campaign rhetoric and an avalanche of bad news in the publishing world. But in person, Denby focuses almost entirely on the latter. Snark is, first and foremost, the product of writing, in Denby's phrase, that's "composed in panic"—a bankrupt strategy employed by established journalists who are afraid "they're simply going to vanish," or by aspiring writers desperately attempting to crack a dying profession.
I point out that this strategy may in fact be one of the few paths to success in an industry where the more conventional paths—long-form investigative journalism, arts criticism—are threatened, if not nearly extinct. As an example of a young writer breaking through via snark, I cite former Gawker blogger Emily Gould, who last year published an essay in The New York Times Magazine about her experiences practicing for Gawker precisely what Denby so deplored in his book.
"Look at it again," Denby tells me, referring to Gould's Times essay. "There isn't a face described, a room, a boyfriend, a street—the only thing that's real to her is her own feelings and the mode of communication itself. It's like this weird cyber-style of the future, in which the actual world vanishes and only your subjectivity and the mode of expressing your subjectivity exist."
It's this type of writing—and the prospect of a decentralized, Internet-addled future for newspapers and magazines—that moved Denby to write Snark, a book he hopes will be read by writers and editors, if no one else. "It's not the end of the world. It's just words we're talking about here. This is a critique of style. But I guess behind every critique of style there's a moral idea, finally, in the end," Denby adds. "This book is a kind of guide to bad style."
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.