Books

Michael Robbins Reflects on Poetry, Pop Music, and Politics

by

Everyone you love will be extinguished, and so will you,” wrote Michael Robbins in 2015. In this essay — originally published in Poetry magazine and now the opening piece in his new collection, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music — Robbins argued that art serves in part to remind us of our impending doom. At the same time, he continued, art can engender resilience and even offer comfort — a “sad and angry consolation” — in the midst of this march to oblivion. And perhaps, he suggested, with a tongue-in-cheek nod to Elton John, “the boulevard is not that bad.”

Yet by the time I meet Robbins in 2017, in the backyard of a Bed-Stuy coffee shop, things seem to have taken a turn for the worse. “The boulevard is very, very bad,” he tells me. It’s the day after President Trump’s disavowal of the Paris climate agreement, and the afternoon’s balmy calm feels vaguely grotesque. Sitting cross-legged on a picnic bench, long arms resting on knobbed knees while a pair of fat headphones hangs around his neck, Robbins waxes apocalyptic about the state of American politics and its effect on the individual (“The pessimism of my intellect is almost total,” he says), though this isn’t the only thing on his mind, which careers between topics. One minute he’s quoting Chilean poet Nicanor Parra (“The United States, the country where liberty is a statue”); the next, he’s gushing about Rihanna (“Her music is so catchy…and when millions of people love the same thing, that’s significant”).

This is what Robbins’s book feels like: a string of eloquent near–non sequiturs looping around themes of art, politics, and pop culture. Published by Simon & Schuster, Equipment for Living is the author’s first collection of prose following two volumes of poetry (2012’s Alien vs. Predator and 2014’s The Second Sex, both from Penguin Poets). Comprising original essays and previously published magazine pieces, Equipment for Living sees the author trafficking in ambiguity, content to offer more questions than answers (“Every sentence ends in an em dash,” he says, describing his life). He also has no problem shifting from a snarky, three-page think-piece on Neil Young (“Kill Rock Stars’ Memoirs”) to a theory-heavy treatise on Frederick Seidel. These disparate parts hold together, he tells me, because “similar questions inform them.”

Those questions involve the big and existential: “What does poetry do?” (Robbins’s answers include “many things” and “nothing”) and “Can something mass-produced still be art?” (“Yes”). But he also touches on more trite (and more dogging) queries, such as “Are lyrics poetry?” and “Did Bob Dylan deserve the Nobel Prize?” The eclecticism of Robbins’s frame of reference is impressive, if occasionally disorienting, hopping from Kenneth Burke and Theodor Adorno to the Clash and Langston Hughes. In “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives,” he uses Blake, Kant, and Milton to discuss various forms of metal music (heavy, black, Swedish). In “Rhyme Is a Drug,” he investigates the history of rhyming in composition, beginning with “Mongol hordes.”

For all this variety, the author generally avoids condescension and includes a healthy dose of mordant humor, usually at the expense of his teenage self. At the back of the book, Robbins invites readers to explore an extensive “playlist” ranging from poet Paige Ackerson-Kiely to Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The compilation, he says, “includes both pieces that got me through the last several years during which these essays were written and stuff that got me through my adolescence and early twenties, which is when one often has one’s most intense responses to pop music and poetry.”

Youth, aging, and self-conscious nostalgia are considered frequently throughout Equipment for Living. The book’s second essay, “Wisconsin Chair,” is one of its strongest, and most personal, recounting the origins of Robbins’s love for poetry and music. He conjures his younger self striding in a Kansas field, listening to Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues” over and over on his Walkman. “I listened differently in those days,” he writes. “So did you, if you’ve ever been sixteen.” This he contrasts with his current relationship to recorded sound, mediated as it is by several decades of experience and disappointment: Music, as Robbins writes later, “can’t ever be as important to me as it was when I was young.”

He’s also interested in the way aesthetic sensibilities are formed, making much of the distinctions between “good” and “bad” taste and the formation of cultural canons. In “Journey Force,” Robbins reflects on the unassuming love he felt, as a middle-schooler, for the band Journey: “It was only much later that I began to care what smart writers thought about the music I loved.” He bemoans his former habit, as a twentysomething, of parroting the opinions of film critic Pauline Kael: “I wince to think of the times I decided I didn’t really like a movie I liked because she’d dissed it, or corrected someone’s approbation of a film she disdained, which as often as not I hadn’t seen.” And, in “Red,” originally published as a review for Spin, Robbins makes a case for Taylor Swift: “Pardon me if I hear more vitality and verve in her corniest love-story/break-up anthem than in all the adolescent morosity Justin Vernon wrings from his wounded soul.”

“When you love a song that millions of other people love, you’re a part of a wider community,” he says, chuckling, outside the coffee shop in Brooklyn. “I know that sounds stupid, but it’s true.” He contrasts the massive reach of Top 40 songs with the vanishing audience for poetry. “We’re never going to get poetry’s readership back,” he says, “and I’m OK with that.”

Robbins closes his book with an original essay, “Equipment for Sinking,” a callback to the opening piece. In it, Robbins reflects on recent moments of political protest and on the role of poetry and song in public life. The common denominator between art and resistance, he argues, is a fundamental state of discontent. Both encode and preserve our yearning for something better, even while it’s inevitable that we’ll fail to accomplish most of the change we desire. Signs of disaster are everywhere, Robbins tells me, “but the only way it won’t come true is if we don’t act like that. I think that art reminds us of that possibility, of there being a world in which — well, that the world could be different than it is.”

“Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music” 
By Michael Robbin
Simon & Schuster
224 pp.

Most Popular