Books

Poetry’s Big Wheel Keep On Turning

The poetry critic Michael Robbins recently published his first book of poems, Alien vs. Predator. It follows that you might assume this is a collection of poems somehow about the big-budget B-movie of the same name. But it’s not—not exactly. Robbins’s only explicit reference to the movie is in the titular poem, but every single one of the poems is minutely concerned with such lower-brow iterations of pop culture: television, pop music, advertising slogans.

You might be thinking: Yes! Give me poems I can use! What could be better than a book of poetry about modern-day American life? Who needs Wordsworth’s daffodils or Frost’s 19th century farming allegories when you can have Robbins: hip, relevant, accessible? And if you’re thinking this, you’re not alone: Alien vs. Predator was the bestselling book of poetry in America for three months following its release in March.

It all sounds like such a good idea in theory—a kind of brave new poetry for our brave new world. But in reading these poems one is presented with a profound impermeability. In order for Robbins’s poems to make even a semblance of sense to the reader, you must not only be incredibly well-versed in American pop culture of the past thirty to forty years, but also possess an expansive familiarity with the canon of English poetry—for these poems are intricately referential to the “greats” of English poetry, too: Wordsworth and Frost, yes, but also Larkin, and above all, Whitman, his influence audible in Robbins’s loping cadence and drum-like use of the word “I.” Reading them, one almost feels as if dear old Walt has gone to work writing bubbles for Pop-Up Video while high on mescaline.

“Okay,” you’re thinking, “I don’t know shit about poetry, but pop culture, I know.” Well, you know how they say maybe Shakespeare wasn’t a real person because it doesn’t seem possible that just one guy could know so much about so many different fields of work and walks of life and works of literature and on top of all that also be such an astoundingly gifted writer? Robbins has Shakespearean levels of pop culture knowledge. The musical references alone could, if compiled, be a sort of shorthand history of American music since 1960. He quotes Bob Dylan, early 90s metal, and scads of rap lyrics, and his familiar handling of musical genres is at once obsessively deep and unusually wide in scope.

And even if you think you can handle all this—the references to protestors in Palestine and Scrooge McDuck and cans of whoop ass—remember: it’s poetry. And you know what poetry does, right? You know why no one reads it, right? Because it takes the language we use and breaks it down, creases it and tears it and sets it on fire, crumbles it up and sprinkles it over whatever that language was meant to mean. The structure of Robbins’s verse is actually fairly conservative: they avoid the irregular line breaks and isolated sentence fragments and generally broken architecture of Language poetry, that post-modern style of poem most Americans might only know of from impatient scans of dog-eared doctor’s office waiting room New Yorkers for cartoons. His poems are often built with quatrains—four-line stanzas—and the quatrains often contain loose irregular rhymes. The language is stable, the structure is stable, but the references to pop culture and poetry create chaos: they feel ripped apart and cobbled together, as if all lowbrow American history had been dumped into scrap piles and used in a quilting bee. A lot of his lines read like those Before and After puzzles on Wheel of Fortune:

Your name is writ / in vitreous humor in the john / at the Ramada, where it’s always Ramadan. / The mama-sans get their famine on.

Or:

I wandered lonely all along / The Watchtower’s office front / in Dumbo

The latter fragment is from “To The Break of Dawn,” which is one of the few poems in the book that I liked immediately, partly because it has a compelling rhythm, a rolling tempo reminiscent of a slow crip walk that echoes what is being described by the poem, which is the wandering stroll of a self, and also partly because I understood the references immediately, which made me feel not unlike a Wheel of Fortune contestant who had solved the puzzle, which is to say, elated, deserving of my prize.

Let me do some exegesis for you. First, the poem refers to Wordsworth, specifically the poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud” as well as “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge,” a sonnet about viewing London from across the river in the early morning. Robbins refers to the latter in the action of the poem, in which he goes on to say:

I wandered lonely all along / The Watchtower’s office front / in Dumbo, then across the bridge / that tempts the bedlamite to song.

From here you could have seen what planes / can do with luck and delta-v / as that fire-fangled morning / jingle-jangled helter-skelterly.

The Watchtower building is at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, located in a neighborhood called Dumbo, which is actually an acronym for Down Under The Manhattan Bridge Overpass and which is immediately to the north of the Brooklyn Bridge. (This line also refers to the Bob Dylan song “All Along the Watchtower,” which has been covered by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Dave Matthews Band.) If you start at the Watchtower building and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, you will submit to the splendor of prime Manhattan views. But while you walk, the bridge may tempt you, if you are a bedlamite, i.e. a mentally ill person, to song, i.e. a swan song, some sort of performance before death, because presumably you may be tempted to jump.

Perhaps this poem is some kind of a swan song on Robbins’s part; it is the last poem in the book. Perhaps you, too, would be tempted to suicide had you been walking across the bridge early on September 11th, because that prime view would have been filled with airplanes crashing into buildings on that “fire-fangled morning.” The darkness of Robbins’s early morning view of New York could not be more diametrically opposed to Wordsworth’s early morning view of London in his sonnet, which is all rapturous description of a big city in repose, of unexpectedly finding beauty and silence and peace and calmness where normally there is bedlam.

Would you get any of these references if you didn’t know New York, didn’t know Wordsworth, didn’t know Bob Dylan? Oddly, some reviewers have claimed—most notably, in the New York Times—that this is a book of poetry for people who don’t read poetry. No. This is the worst possible book to hand to someone who doesn’t read poetry. Reading these poems is like playing the old computer game Myst. You’re plunked down in Robbins’s strange world and forced to palpitate blindly until you grip something, some reference, some slogan or snippet of song, that you recognize, that is something resembling anything at all. Which is to say, I think a lot of people could like this book, but you have to be ready to work for it. You must be ready to research, geared to Google, willing to Wikipedia. Gird your loins!

And be warned: even if you do all your homework, you still might walk away from the poem without grasping any larger meaning. This is, perhaps, Robbins’s point. “To The Break Of Dawn” achieves what I think it is that Robbins is trying to do, which is to mix American song lyrics and canonical English poetry and recognize that, if these two bodies of language were to have a rap battle throwdown, American song lyrics would be recognized as the dominant art form, if for no other reason than that of familiarity and frequency of use. Can’t almost everyone in America declaim at least a few lines of Notorious B.I.G.? If not that, can’t everyone, literally everyone, sing at least one McDonald’s jingle? How many of these same people can recite Wordsworth or Whitman? And in excluding the reader from his references, in maiming our pop lingua franca, he sends up our own ignorance of his beloved art form. “Fine,” he seems to say, “you don’t want to know poetry? Then you don’t get to enjoy Jay-Z, either.”

The more work I put into reading and understanding these poems, the more I grew fond of them. There’s sheer and dazzling cleverness in his wordplay. It’s Heath-Ledger-as-the-Joker poetry: charming and terrifying and dark and lonely and handsome, maybe, underneath the makeup. It’s likely that every single word is laden with meaning in a sort of Milton-esque way. But Robbins was once quoted as saying that he enjoys writing things so absurd they wouldn’t even make sense with a Sparknotes commentary, and some of his poems did give me the-emperor-has-no-clothes feeling.

And I also got the feeling that even if I understood every implication of every word, all that knowledge still wouldn’t add up to anything greater than what it already is. More than one reviewer described Robbins’s poetry as having a sort of mirror-ball effect: glittery and fascinating and seemingly at the center of everything, but ultimately only reflective of the surrounding bacchanalia and comprised mostly of its Styrofoam core. Maybe it’s a kind of noble deed that Robbins is doing in embracing ephemera. He’s putting poetry back at the center of the party, dragging Wordsworth out of his musty candlelit garret and down to Studio 54 to hear the music. Maybe it’s okay that Robbins just wants to play. Lots of art doesn’t offer up to some larger meaning, some great moment of import, isn’t meant to give you a paradigm shift. A lot of these poems read as pop songs (I was particularly reminded of Tori Amos, if Tori Amos were a middle-aged man obsessed with betrayal and bowel movements and whales and bats and other animals that live in the dark) and if you take them as such it becomes much easier to connect with them. The absurdities of these poems would probably make a lot more sense, or at least be a lot easier to digest, with a melody alongside. Why is that? Why are we all so ready to memorize pop lyrics and holler them out our car windows, no matter how ridiculous they sound without music (Rock lobster! Fake plastic trees! Rainy day woman #12 & 35!), no matter how meaningless or pretentious we would find them were they part of a poem on paper? Who knows—maybe Robbins knows, or maybe he’s just hip to the fact that poetry lives on, will always live on, in new forms, and he’s just carrying the torch for a little while. After all, you never actually own a poem. You merely look after it for the next generation.

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.