To understand where Michael Robbins is coming from (aside from America) it might help to take a detour to Buzzfeed. There you can find a series of interviews with atheists asking them how they ‘found purpose in a meaningless universe’. Most of the interviewees (none of whom were Robbins, who is not an atheist) answered the question along similar lines. They said that to look at the world maturely meant to accept the absence of God, and to learn to live with the arbitrariness of our having been born. Freedom from ‘meaning’ and recognition of the transient nature of life was in fact a gift; it allowed them to truly appreciate the world. After each interview, the more resonant sentences were mocked up in large, light writing on a background resembling the vastness of space, optimized for sharing on social media. One of these, for example, called out from its void-like backdrop:
This kind of content isn’t for everyone. Some might not be particularly impressed with the attempt to dismiss metaphysical longings as ‘childish things’, as one interviewee does, relishing the irony of his biblical quotation, his argument underscored by that much more mature form of culture, the meme. The religiously-inclined reader of poetry, like Robbins, might think of Les Murray’s elegy for his father, ‘Last Hellos’:
Snobs mind us off religion nowadays, if they can. Fuck thém. I wish you God.
Even as an atheist, I found it hard to mine any depth from most of their contentment, these people’s apparently massive calm in the face of the abyss. Indeed, like quotes from Nietzsche stuck over a picture of someone running a tough mudder, their words seemed utterly drained of whatever sharpness they had, whatever sharpness transience is meant to give to life. O death, you might ask, where is thy sting? The gap between the subject matter and the form which most of these answers took yawned impossibly wide.
However, personal and fogeyish distaste for content generation websites aside, much of the important poetry of the twentieth century has been concerned with these same issues, and has come to conclusions which are not drastically different from those of Buzzfeed‘s interviewees. They are intelligent and sensitive sorts, confronting a difficult question. As any evolutionary psychologist will tell you, poems are just more sophisticated meme clusters. Take Wallace Stevens’ early masterpiece ‘Sunday Morning’, a poem ‘about’ refusing to go to church. Stevens reminds us that ‘Death is the mother of beauty’, that all things take what meaning they have from their finitude:
We live in an old chaos of the sun, Or old dependency of day and night, Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, Of that wide water, inescapable. Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness; And, in the isolation of the sky, At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make Ambiguous undulations as they sink, Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
If you were to superimpose that onto a landscape photo and share it, many people would probably like it the same way they might like the Buzzfeed article or its detachable memes. It’s not a case of what the poem has that the memes don’t (though obviously there are many things: metrical sophistication, imagery, ambiguity; they could never replicate the poignancy of that closing, off rhyme between sink and wings, which captures the beauty of our hopes in their dashing), but what the format of the modern mediascape has imposed upon their words. These interviews, once absorbed into this form, have palpable designs on us. They are not there to make us feel the beauty of the transient world; that might be a means, but the end is to get people to share the content, to replicate the selfish meme.
I’m not saying Buzzfeed‘s atheist interviewees are shills, or that Buzzfeed reporters are intentionally trivializing the human condition, rather, within the modern media landscape, it is practically impossible, and perhaps dishonest, not to do so; everything that affirms the human condition in such a manner replicates something that undermines it. Religious memes would be no different. As we share these pictures, for example, our interests are assessed algorithmically on a scale that has nothing to do with the individual human, and turned into data packages for further marketing purposes. The logic of production, the generation of profit, seems to have hollowed out humanism even at its most strongly affirmed.
How do we live then with the disjunction between what we feel about our humanity and the processes that most of us are immersed in? One interesting dramatization of these problems is to be found in the poetry of Michael Robbins. The author of two collections of poetry, Alien vs Predator and The Second Sex, as well as some of the best poetry reviews of recent times, Robbins found fame before his first collection was published. The title poem, ‘Alien vs Predator’ went viral, at least in poetry terms – it even had a fan-made Youtube video. The poems’ combination of pop cultural jokes and formal tightness resonated, and AvP became one of the bestselling poetry books of the year. By the time The Second Sex was released, though it did well enough, critics found it less vigorous, its being almost entirely in quatrains enhancing the sense that Robbins’ shtick might be tired. However, it is these poems I want to discuss now, the best of them being, I think, very good indeed. Robbins is a poet whose surface hipness has led to his work often being read as ironic media pastiche. Instead, it makes more sense to take him as one of the important Christian poets of his generation, and one whose metaphysical absolutism allows for a particular and vital kind of understanding to emerge, one that a more conventional humanism might vitiate.
This might initially be a hard sell when the reader is confronted with lines like:
Bill Gates, the great humanitarian Stands upon a peak in Darien. I said Bill, I believe this is killing me. A sculptor sees the statue in the slab, The shiv in the toothbrush. The stab.
The United States of Fuck You Too Is what you’re about to receive. You can shoot all the kids you like, but you can never leave.
Almost every poem by Robbins has these kinds of rhymes, somewhere between the egregious chiming of Frederick Seidel and the stuntlike performances of Paul Muldoon – both visible influences. To some people the rhymes will scream comedy, or perhaps a contemptuous irony. The poems also all have the jumble of high and low references that reveal an echo or theft in almost every line. The Eagles allusion (as in ‘Hotel California’) in the second quotation might seem crude, completely mismatched with school massacres. Instead of any kind of meaningful engagement with how it might feel to live in a culture that allows these kinds of deaths, we have a snide joke. Mass shootings are trivialized and rendered in the language of entertainment. You might almost be offended. Except the point is that it absolutely doesn’t matter if you’re offended. ‘Fuck You Too’. Robbins is, in a way, pointing beyond the significance of the individual reaction, beyond your feelings. Feelings, after all, are what are consumed and used for a real form of entertainment any time one of these shooting tragedies occurs. Grieving friends and relatives cry in front of spectators on rolling news.
However, Robbins’s purpose here and in other poems is not to make the trite point that our feelings are indistinguishable from mass entertainment and therefore to be sneered at, or suspected of complicity in evildoings. This is not, or at least not all, smug irony. These poems, in a way that I think is important, do not argue that our feelings are fake, or that individual response, whether mediated by mass culture or not, is inauthentic, or part of the problem, simply that its sincerity or otherwise is irrelevant to the present systems in which individuals are made visible. To position your individual response to the world as good or bad is still to accept a narcissism unrelated to what is right or just. This marks any critique of individualism he makes as distinct from American poets such as as the ‘language’ poets, who sought to disrupt the way ‘subjects’ are constructed by language in the hope they might avoid reproducing structures of power when they wrote. Robbins, instead, I think, gives us something like the gulf between what we feel and what we are in the space we are given to express ourselves.
What this serious engagement with popular culture has to do with religious and metaphysical yearnings, can, I think be seen in the final lines of ‘Not Fade Away’. The poem is an elegy for a host of dead rock stars, their names organized into rhyming quatrains:
Children sing for Alex Chilton. Whitney Houston’s left the Hilton. Hendrix, Guru, Bonham, Janis. They have a tendency to vanish.
before it reaches its end:
Randy Rhoads and Kurt Cobain Patsy Cline and Ronnie Lane Poly Styrene, Teena Marie Timor mortis conturbat me.
The apparently crashing dissonance introduced into this final stanza, the refrain from William Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makers’ which means ‘The fear of death disturbs me’ in Latin, reminds us that the stanza and theme itself is borrowed from Dunbar:
He hes done petuously devour, The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour, The Monk of Bery, and Gower, all thre; Timor mortis conturbat me.
Robbins again, I want to stress, is not ironizing our respect for rock-stars; this list of heroes is as genuine and important to Robbins as Dunbar’s list of poets were to him. What I think the final Latin line does, however, is signal a grander spiritual ambition. It is not the culture that is degraded, but how much we think about what it means. For Dunbar, the consolation for the death of the beauties of the world was eternal life— ‘eftir our dead that lif may we’—for us, beauties that must die are their own consolation. But without the melancholy proper to this position, without the fear of death, these names become icons of consumption, albeit generally cool ones. Robbins, I think, reintroduces the fear of death, a religious dread of nothingness and contingency, in part to position it as an antidote to a culture of consumption. The poems suggest, if perhaps only negatively, a place where the individual might have value, the place where it might legitimately be considered a soul.
About halfway through Robbins’s second collection, The Second Sex, there is a poem called ‘Sunday Morning’. It is, I believe, his best. Unlike Wallace Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning’, which begins with the ‘Complacencies of the peignoir’, no one can be complacent in their morning rituals in the flat Robbins depicts:
Must you flush the toilet while I’m in the shower? That’s a metaphor. It means: one system, contrary aims. Let us say that I have come from beyond the Lyme fields and ironworks of mortal men. Would you flush the toilet then?
These initial lines are more than simply a joke. The linebreak and colon after ‘means’ place a lot of weight not on what the specific metaphor of the toilet means, but on meaning in general. At the same time, there is the presentation of the system, a little microcosm of the way that Robbins has been depicting the world. The aims are subordinate to the system, and the failure to realize this results in fact in the failure of the system. The parodically lyrical movement of the second stanza was the first moment I found myself seriously admiring Robbins. I can’t say why at all, but I think it hints at the essential seriousness of his project at the same time as totally disavowing it. Towards the end Robbins gives us:
I’m having a feelings attack out of the blue. Into the black site, the multisided mudslide. I’m just trying to find the bridge.
Here, the ‘feelings attack’ mixes with the black sites where the American government has ‘Terrorists’ tortured, and is then muddied into what I take to be an allusion to Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Crunge’ (a funk jam where Robert Plant sings that fourth line, parodying James Brown). The poem is asking what the connection is, what might bridge a person’s feelings and the grand scale of horror visible in the world. The final stanza is almost entirely taken from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock and Roll’:
I live alone with the cat. It’s been a long time. Been a long lonely lonely lonely lonely lonely time.
But in this context, the song’s comically repetitive cry of sexual frustration becomes something sweeping and soul crushing. This is everything but irony. The song is a way of living with this fact. Within the poem’s generalized paranoia and despair, which owes more to the Velvet Underground’s than to Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning’, Robbins somehow builds a bridge between popular culture and the sacred, a bridge that by rights shouldn’t exist, that serves as an indictment of capitalism as he sees it. Robbins shows us the abyss that underpins the glittering workings of the contemporary capitalist city. Unlike the atheists whose words claim to shine out from the void, he doesn’t think walking over nothingness is easy. Perhaps the last words of The Second Sex, in praise of ‘the Desert Father style’ of early Christianity sums up his workings in a Dickinsonian, gnomic quatrain:
And I’d be more like them if I were less like this, a billion points of glitter in a fathomless abyss.