Can Poetry Change Your Life? – The New Yorker
The first eight pages of Michael Robbins’s new book, “Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music” (Simon & Schuster), make reference to Annie Dillard, Harold Bloom, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Kenneth Burke, Geoffrey Hill, Kenneth Koch, Adam Phillips, Frank O’Hara, Emerson, Boethius, Nietzsche, Freud, and Miley Cyrus. The book is a collection of mostly previously published pieces, some on poetry, some on pop music, some on both, written, as the names suggest, in a critical style that could be called advanced pop.
Advanced-pop criticism would be criticism premised on the belief that you can talk about cultural goods loved uncritically by millions in terms originally developed to talk about cultural goods known mainly to an overeducated few. Advanced pop is Boethius and Springsteen, Artaud and the Ramones, and it yields sentences like “I assume that what Burke”—the literary theorist Kenneth Burke—“says about poetry applies, mutatis mutandis, to the songs of Def Leppard.” It’s erudite but caj, geeky and hip, alienated and savvy—on the inside of the outside. Another word for the attitude might be “Brooklyn,” which is indeed where, as an author’s bio unnecessarily informs us, Michael Robbins lives.
“Equipment for Living” is funny and smart. It does feel a few bricks shy of a tome. The first and last chapters perform the same work: they unpack, uneasily, the claim stated in the title, which is that poems and songs can make a difference. Most of the chapters are essay-reviews, ranging in length from very brief to brief. Robbins has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and an excellent discussion of rhyme in the work of Paul Muldoon is apparently adapted from his dissertation.
To fill things out, there is a twenty-eight-page “Playlist,” consisting of staff-picks-type encomiums on the author’s favorites, such as:
“Devil Got My Woman” (1931)
Sometimes I think this song defines the limits of what is humanly possible. Sometimes I think it exceeds them.
“The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Canto XXV (1937)
A rumpus, a rollick, a roll in the hay . . .
There’s only one full-dress essay in the book, and it’s much more heavy-duty than the rest. The subject is the poetry of Frederick Seidel, and the essay handles a familiar critical problem—the morality of bad taste, the Jeff Koons–Michel Houellebecq–Bret Easton Ellis problem—expertly if not entirely originally. The essay does include observations like “The death drive is figured here as the desire to literalize the trope of the subject’s dispersal.” When I hear the words “literalize the trope,” I reach for my remote.
Hyperbole is an ever-present danger up there on the high-low tightrope. What helps the critic keep his or her balance is the acknowledgment that it is hyperbole, that there is a rhetoric of aesthetic experience—the experience of reading poems or listening to songs we’re strongly attached to—that is always in excess of the actual content. If you’re going to write about Skip James, it doesn’t make sense to strive for a judicious appraisal. You want to record the temperature at its hottest. By now, a lot of writers have done this sort of thing with Skip James and other old bluesmen, a sacred category for serious pop critics ever since those musicians were “discovered” by rock-and-roll (that is, white) audiences, in the nineteen-sixties, but Robbins can do it with seventeenth-century lyrics as well.
You also need to concede that the experience cools fairly quickly, and Robbins is alert to that, too. “No one has ever changed his life because of a poem or song,” he says in a chapter on metal, with reference to Blake, Milton, Rilke, William Empson, Peter Sloterdijk, Ozzy Osbourne, and Kant. “Changing your life is for Simone Weil or the Buddha. The rest of us need German poetry and Norwegian black metal because they provide the illusion that we are changing, or have changed, or will change, or even want to change our lives.” I don’t completely agree, but it’s a wise caution.
Another advanced-pop premise is that everything is happening now. Springsteen and Dylan speak to our current condition, and so do Boethius and Sappho. The envelope may be postmarked 600 B.C.E., but when you open it there is a letter inside, and it’s just for you. The responsible scholarly impulse is to historicize: those words were never intended for you, they signified something completely different in 600 B.C.E. than they do today, and so on. That’s all true. But the text still has a sting. It’s the news that stayed news. Robbins is more interested in the inarticulable or barely articulable sting than he is in reconstructing social relations in the Mediterranean gift economy. (I think you can do both, in fact, and that putting the “then” together with the “now” is the point of doing criticism.)
A writer with a playlist of culture heroes must also have a list of the undeserving, the fake, and the fallen, and Robbins does not disappoint us. He writes of the poet James Wright, “It is easy to feel that, if fetal alcohol syndrome could write poetry, it would write this poetry.” He suggests that Robert Hass “has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery.” Of Charles Simic: “If the worst are full of passionate intensity, Simic would seem to be in the clear.”
He calls Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” “wimpy crap.” He says that Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” is “highly acclaimed despite her apparent belief that serious writing is principally a matter of avoiding contractions.” His reaction to Neil Young’s memoir is “It’s depressing to learn that one of your heroes writes like a composition student aiming for the earnest tone of a public service announcement.”
The Jedi master of this mode of criticism—its presiding spirit, really—is Pauline Kael, the subject of an admiring chapter in “Equipment for Living.” Robbins calls her “the first tastemaker I trusted implicitly.” A lot of Kael’s criticism, like Robbins’s, is buildups and takedowns, but that kind of criticism can get interesting when the writer has to figure out why something that should be good is not, or why something that has no right to be good actually might be.
I enjoyed almost all of “Equipment for Living,” but I found Robbins most clever and entertaining when he is trying to make sense of what redeems bands like Journey and Def Leppard, or poets like Dylan Thomas and James Dickey. Those are artists who now seem obviously gassy or fatuous—“Like a mammoth wheel of Monterey Jack left in the sun” is Robbins’s description of Journey’s hit song “Only the Young.” And he often decides that what redeems such works is that they once spoke to him, even if they don’t anymore. “Every song you loved when you were young turns into ‘Tintern Abbey,’ ” as he puts it.
“I cannot paint / What then I was,” Wordsworth wrote in that poem, about revisiting the banks of the Wye as a grownup (only five years later, actually, but it’s a poem). Robbins expresses the sentiment this way: “As I listen to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ ’ today, once again, in the arena of my soul, how high the highest Bic lights the dark.” You can’t go back to being fifteen, but you can remember with respect and longing that time of life, a time when, as Georg Lukács once put it, “the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars.” Oh, no! Now I’m doing it!
“Listening to most rock and roll now involves remembering what it used to do for me that it can’t anymore,” Robbins says. And, in fact, a surprising amount of pop-music criticism is bottled nostalgia, owls that fly at dusk. In preparation for writing about “Equipment for Living,” I got a copy of “Shake It Up” (Library of America), an anthology of fifty years of pop-music criticism, “from Elvis to Jay Z,” edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. I figured I would dip into its pages and refresh my recollection of the field of play. Many hours later, I had to force myself to put the thing down.
A few of the essays in “Shake It Up” are advanced-pop criticism (e.g., the literary critic Richard Poirier on “Learning from the Beatles,” in Partisan Review), but most are journalism, and the journalism beats the advanced-pop stuff cold. Partly this is because it was written for fans, so the writers could ignore the English department and other highbrow police. Partly it’s because pop-music journalism arose out of the intersection of early rock-and-roll magazines like Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy, when they still had an alternative-press aura, and the New Journalism, with its promiscuous use of the first person, and that gave it a confessional tone and a voice that suggested that we’re all on the same side in the struggle, whatever struggle it is.
But rock criticism does appear to be fixated on what has been lost. It’s always beating back against the current. It seems that in the pop-music business the shelf life of authenticity is tragically short. Ellen Willis on Janis Joplin, Lester Bangs on Elvis Presley, Chuck Klosterman on Mötley Crüe, John Jeremiah Sullivan on Axl Rose, Eve Babitz on Jim Morrison, Geoffrey O’Brien on the Beatles: all those pieces are “Tintern Abbey”s, elegies for gifts that were squandered or misapplied or evanescent. O’Brien thinks it all began to go south for the Beatles after “Help!” And I used to think the Beatles were only worth listening to after “Help!”