An E-Mail to William Logan
Cc: David Orr
Bcc: August Kleinzahler; Garrison Keillor
Subject: Food for Thought from a Lone Wolf*
Good Morning Mr. Logan:
I am a 50-year-old administrative assistant for some company that I imagine does some good in this world. I hold a B.A. in the Liberal Arts, but I really don’t remember much how that happened. I have a vague recollection of nearly wanting to minor in Religion. Today, I live in Bridgeport, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side (bang bang). I sneak cigarettes behind my wife’s back, but I’m certain she knows this – she tells me as much. I love her with all of my heart, she’s truly my better half, and I apologize to her for this constantly. Anyhoo …
Since the Nineties, when I first became a Guns n’ Roses-loving subscriber to The New Criterion, your criticism has plagued me as an encouragement to take my own quest for poetry with acute seriousness. Thank you for being a stepping stone in my ever-establishing suspicion that a poem deserves to be more than poetry, and that the poet must risk his stake in poetry for the sake of the poem. I must convey here, however, that I am quite apart from you morally: my tactical view of survival in this labor that is our art shows as a mostly informal process. Side by side, the emotions of our work would show we hang amidst pointedly different crowds – mine is the slightly burned out but still smoking; your crowd flickers. We may not ever be drinking buddies, but my respect for you is of solid stuff.
I have calculated a course of obscurity that promises to properly unveil the booty of my vision for language’s use. That’s to say, I have been setting myself up to be discovered by the literati, as opposed to engaging the literati for notice. I am fully aware that it is important for the artist to move beyond the self to embrace an empathetic notion of the greater possibilities for art to actually mean something in the world. (I also understand that our particular art is of absolutely no use/interest to a huge majority of the reading public.) I understand the artist must share, must partake in the artist community. Blah, blah, blah. That said, it does seem to me that in such a chosen course it is wise for the no-name recluse to poke his utterance out of his basement every once in a great while and attempt to have an influential individual or two of the culturally curious and critical world become interested seekers of his potential.
Ever the procrastinator, and with perpetually holding little confidence that I might ever be taken seriously (even by myself)—well, I’ve sat on this damn thing long enough. Time to pull my head out of my ass, and reach out from the grave I’ve been digging for myself. Below is printed a 1218 word opinion piece that I put together back in early 2014. I hope you will find the opinions I express about the poet Michael Robbins to be of interest, no matter how street-thuggish they may be.
Satellite vs. Probe
by Chalice Sinclearly
The hoopla that cropped up around poet Michael Robbins’s debut effort in 2012 propelled him into “Rock Star” status. Well, as “Rock Star” as one might become within the American poetry scene. With his sophomore effort about to hit the shelves at month’s end, this is an opportune time to illuminate the failings of the poet who popped up within the book Alien vs. Predator, and in doing so also reevaluate the very character of poetry.
Though the choice Robbins conjured for the content of his debut – various elements of Pop Culture: Pop figures, Pop slogans, Pop products – could indeed seem to position his work as being an invitation to the nonpoetry reader, and though while this promise of accessibility might evoke the sense that his poetry is offering something audacious, it must be argued that within the big picture of contemporary American poetry, Robbins’s work is just the same old same old. That’s to say, his craft is totally safe for consumption – like a seemingly devious craze that brings deep pleasure to youth but happens to strike no fear in a parent’s or community’s conception of complacency. I have no beef with Robbins’s highly developed technical chops and the energy he brings to his execution of these skills (and as an aside, I will also acknowledge that such a command of rhyme and meter should be practiced every now and again by any poet wanting to prove his weight). Rather, what I find miserable is that his craft exudes a carefully chosen roguish pretense that is unwittingly betrayed by its fluff. Robbins is all pretense, no substance; all exuberance with no elicit afterparty. Robbins seems to be aspiring to be the poet of hipster irony, for the poetry within Alien vs. Predator proves to be the perfect poetry for the contemporary poetry world to grandstand: it’s academia donning a “School Sucks” T-shirt.
It is my fear that Pop Culture is all Robbins really has. He reaches out to the easy accessibility of Pop Culture with the presumptuous assumption that such entities as Camel Lights and Motörhead hold within their reference some edifying metaphorical ambience, when in all actuality such things as Fruit Stripes and Theraflu are really only that: only Fruit Stripes and Theraflu—unsweeping, self-delineating objects. Pop Culture is by no means weightless and without its place in poetry, it just doesn’t work when it is being used as poetry. (Let’s not even get into the drawbacks of obsessive name-dropping here, which Robbins heartily practices, what with such peeps as Milton and Swinburne popping up in his lines.) The occasional placement of an entity of Pop Culture in a poem reveals the poem as an entity concretely present in the real world, while, at its best, simultaneously acting as a simple, unclogging, stepping stone in the meditative disclosure of the poet’s greater offering. On the other hand, when attempted to be used as the poet’s greater offering, entities of Pop Culture end up acting as dumbed-down markers. Think of that sweet little pop tune by R.E.M., “Man on the Moon” (not a poem, undoubtedly, but the words serve my purpose here): turn right at Mott the Hoople and drive until you pass by Fred Blassie and arrive at Twister, take another right; you’ll come across an impersonation of Elvis, but keep going straight till you come to Newton and his apple – stop right about there, look out the passenger’s side window and you’ll see Andy Kaufman in a wrestling match. Now that was a fun little ride, wasn’t it? Sure it was. But that’s the makings of a log; that’s not the makings of a poem. Overly employing entities of Pop Culture in the endeavor to achieve a tangible, poetic atmosphere will only ever have one result, and that is the quaint rendering of nostalgia. A nostalgia for the ever-observable, to be specific, which is a characteristic of the poet who hasn’t learned the road grids of a dare taken or grasped the progression of addresses within a compromised imagination – a characteristic of the poet who lacks the intuitive understanding of direction needed to navigate off campus towards a genuine investigative experience.
Robbins is asserting—one might even say plainly inserting—objects of Pop Culture in the reliance that they will cumulatively promote his voice as being that of a crafty personality. In her review of David Bowie’s offering, The Next Day, NPR Pop Critic Ann Powers reflected upon the song “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” by commenting how with references to the likes of Brad Pitt the song plays out as a rumination on celebrity. She commented, “He is making modern myth out of our everyday lives.” Could this be in some fashion what Robbins is up to in his debut? Well, I’m not even sure if that’s what Bowie is actually doing. To my mind, the essence of Robbins’s failure lies in the fact that he satellites; he does not probe. When Robbins mentions CSI: Miami or Slash or the like, it’s just that: all mention, no meaning. Likewise, when Robbins references a meth lab it’s just that: a reference—the bottom line being you can tell without reservation he’s never seen a tooth decay inside a drug house before. At this stage, Robbins’s work seems best suited for providing such high-end critics as The New York Times’ Dwight Garner with the license to himself go Pop and impress the kids by laying down such a supposition as, “You can also imagine Florence Welch, the soaring voice behind Florence and the Machine, wrestling these lines into bat-black song.”
As evidenced by the aforementioned quote, Mr. Garner expresses much excitement for Robbins’s debut. However, two sobering observations within his review of Alien vs. Predator prove Mr. Garner is able to see through Robbins’s pretense, see beyond the publisher’s press release, and recognize the poet’s inconsequentiality (basically, quite conveniently servicing my point of view herein). Mr. Garner says, “He’s not confessional; I doubt he has much to confess. He’s not particularly soulful. He doesn’t, as yet, have overly much to say,” and “In bad young poets, knowingness is to knowledge what truthiness is to truth, as Mr. Robbins’s lesser stuff makes plain.” These observations speak volumes. For in his review, Mr. Garner is only able to comment upon how Robbins’s poetry speaks to and of poetry; sure Robbins references Pop Culture – the outside world, as it were – but it’s only done so in the cause of poetry. His craft is all about craft at this point, meaning he does not complicate language, he patronizes it: his sensibility is that of a boy band, not of a spiritual.
The worthiest poem is the one that is found guilty of being more than poetry: It becomes within the reader’s experience an emotion that risks against self-righteousness to menace the toil inherent within a disclosure of the imperceptible (even the lightest of poetry achieves this; well, at least within accomplished hands). Not that the poem becomes a thing of life affirmation; rather, it’s that the poem becomes a life of things affirmed. The poet couched in Alien vs. Predator relies too heavily on smoke and mirrors, rather than ball and chains. Here’s to hoping Michael Robbins’s sophomore effort is more difficult.