Nothing makes poetry happen

by Liam Ferney

Michael Robbins
Michael Robbins

Chris said he’d start World War 3. Rand told on Chris but nobody listened. Donald said he’d confiscate the bad kids’ Facebook. Jeb said Donald was chaos. Donald called Jeb names. Ben said he could kill thousands of children because he’s saved thousands of children. Or something. Nobody understands Ben. Wolf’s parents made him invite Carly and John but they just stood in the corner. No one spoke to them. Ted said Marco said. Marco said Ted said. And they all said Barack was bad and he wasn’t doing anything, but given the chance they’d do exactly what Barack is doing.

The infantilism of the Republican nomination contest is amusing, until you remember the winner could end up with the nuclear launch codes.

We live in interesting times indeed. American poet Michael Robbins, one of the most exciting and original voices I’ve read this century, writes poems that make it easier to survive these times. He exploded on the US poetry scene with “Alien vs. Predator”, a poem plucked from the slush pile by New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon that boldly declared:

I set the controls, I pioneer
The seeding of the ionosphere.
I translate the Bible into velociraptor. (AvP 3)

Alien vs Predator
Alien vs Predator

It was an overnight success story built on years of work, the kind of story that becomes mythic as it is uttered. By his own admission Robbins spent most of his twenties toiling away on unrewarding pseudo-surrealist poetry. An encounter with the work of Frederick Seidel and Paul Muldoon saw him radically alter his poetics and, tooled up with “ego, hip hop and bile”, he embraced a type of formalism—wedding traditional structures to a hip hop head’s understanding of rhyme in an entirely original way (you can read Robbins’s account of his ‘sudden’ fame here).Seidel, he has said, made him realise: “I could write poems that were fun for me to write, and I could offend whomever I wanted” (Rozsa).

“Alien vs. Predator” begins with a kind of dis of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Ninth Duino Elegy” appropriated from John Berryman’s “Dream Song 3 [A Stimulant for an Old Beast]”: “Praise this world, Rilke says, the jerk”. It’s tongue-in-cheek because few contemporary poets share Robbins’ kinetic connection with the world around him. Rilke gives the following advice in the Elegy:

So show him
something simple which, formed over generations,
lives as our own, near our hand and within our gaze. (201)

Robbins’ work, with its unrelenting focus on the totality of our culture (“near our hand and within our gaze”), seems to take this advice to heart. He has what Anahid Nersessian has called a “queasy fascination” with the world around him, and his poems, showing “something simple”, are the accretions of the signs, symbols and texts of the bent and broken world within his gaze (600).

Robbins’ anger at global capitalism rumbles through his poetry. “The small pox,” he writes, “uses every part of the blanket” (“Big Country” SS 48). At the end of “Space Mountain”:

Shall I name the mouth-breathers at whom I pitch
With superstitious loathing these excretions oozing bile?
Then pull up a chair this could take a while. (AvP 49)

His rage ranges from illegal Israeli settlements:

This is a poem for the Caterpillar D9.
I, Rachel Corrie, one of the roughs, a kosmos.
This must be a nasty little anti-Semitic poem! (“Remain in Light” AvP 12)

To Confederate identity politics:

Mississippi trinity:
fetus, flag and F-150. (“Sweat, Piss, Jizz & Blood” SS 35).

To #blacklivesmatter via Gerry and the Pacemakers:

So ferry cross New Jersey,
I’m a black kid in a hoodie.
This land’s the place I love. Et odi. (“Sonnets to Edward Snowden” SS 7).

And gun control via The Eagles:

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. (“Live Rust” SS 5)

The political content is explicit, but what is interesting is the way it drives form.

“I tell the content to fuck the form,” he claims but this is typical misdirection (“Live Rust” SS 4). Rather than being independent, he demands form support content’s rebellion.

The Second Sex
The Second Sex

At first glance, Robbins doesn’t seem to be rebelling. There is an apparent conservatism in the poems built on couplets, quatrains and quintets. The Second Sex, in particular, uses quatrains almost exclusively. He also relies heavily on rhyme, another allegedly conservative trope. Nersessian has called Robbins’ relationship with rhyme one of “deep hedonism” which overcomes perceptions about its apparent ease with the quality of its punchlines (600). Axl rhymed with Paxil is an often cited highlight (“Dig Dug” AvP 6). While there is a grounding in traditional rhyme (a la say Longfellow), Robbins’ poems are also responding to the way hip hop has expanded and altered the potential of the technique in the past four decades. In fact, I’d argue that no other poet has so successfully understood hip hop’s mastery of rhyme and integrated it, so seamlessly, into relatively traditional structures. Consider the euphony of generative rhyme:

DuFu, you dufus, that’s not
a goose. You’re drunk.
Please allow me to introduce…
no, that’s not your horse. (“Seasons in the Abyss” SS 28)

This commitment to musicality is surprisingly uncommon in contemporary verse. Prosody, Robbins writes, “has been experienced as constraint in modern and contemporary poetry, or so the story goes. I experience it as liberation” (“A Conversation Between Friends”).

His critical writing helps elucidate this by establishing what it is Robbins is liberated from. In “Ripostes”, his review of Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, he dismantles a “particularly lethal period style” built on the “displacement of the subject and of the narrative, expression deemphasized in favour of fragmentation and constructivism.” Elsewhere, in an interview with Ameni Rozsa, he has discussed, with reference to his own work “half-heartedly playing with such fragments. I had been half-heartedly playing with such fragments, sort of post-Language-poetry lyric-hybrid things. I could name a hundred exemplars, but who needs the grief? Those poems are easy to write: they’re easy to write badly, and they’re easy to write well. Reading them makes me feel like a cough drop” (2012). The poets he is describing are inheritors of a broad Modern tradition fundamentally ambivalent towards the lyric ‘I’. Once a legitimate “avant-garde”, the canonisation of both its originators and its predecessors, coupled with professionalisation of its contemporary practitioners, has made a mockery of the term. As Robbins puts it:

If the avant-garde historically represents a struggle against the institutional forms of cultural domination (in the case of “dominant” and received modes of poetry, these must include the major journals, English and creative writing departments, and publishing houses), what must we conclude about an “avant-garde” that is completely absorbed by and into those very traditions? (2013)

In this view the avant-garde impulse as currently realised is largely a dead end. In many cases what we are left with is a solipsism that fails to countenance the political and moral conundrums Robbins wants to confront: “More’s the pity, then, that the urgent political necessity of a revitalized left in this country is met by so many with recycled assertions about their brave defiance of ‘mainstream verse’ (with its – shudder – ‘given forms’) and rote disavowals of ‘totalizing claims’” (2013).

Welcome to the Jungle...
Welcome to the Jungle…

Robbins’ work isn’t, and can’t be, entirely exterior to the work he criticises. He points to his training in what Paul Ricouer has called the “hermeneutics of suspicion”—the trinity of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche (Rice). His work shares, with the lethal period style, a pervading scepticism about the ‘I’ as an organising principle. The hallmarks of the period style he derides, displacement, constructivism and fragmentation, are all present in his work. The ‘I’ that appears repeatedly in the poems is thoroughly deracinated, capable of swapping demographics, races and genders from line to line: “I stick my gender in the blender” he declares in “The Second Sex” (SS 9). Constructivism is evident in the way he creatively reappropriates and retools other texts. “To Anthony Madrid” lifts its metre from the Lord’s Prayer: “Distant is our exit, unmoving the traffic; useful are the implements of a trade” (SS 15). “Michael Jackson” is scaffolded onto Allen Ginsberg’s “America”: “Michael Jackson you gave us all and now you’re nothing./ Michael Jackson one zillion dollars June 25, 2009” (SS 42). In terms of fragmentation, “Appetite for Destruction” moves quickly enough to support references to Guns ‘n’ Roses (the title), The Big Lebowski, The Flash and Mister-T and still deliver us to the ugly heart of the West’s relationship with Islam, an appetite for destruction if ever I saw one: “The boar’s inside the mosque and then/ the RPG has martyred him” (AvP 10).

For Robbins, form works in a number of ways. Firstly, it is a fundamentally oppositional move setting Robbins apart from many of his contemporaries. Secondly, it allows him to integrate the philosophical precepts underpinning not just contemporary poetry but all contemporary art while enacting a poetics of engagement. Form, he has written, “means something like: those features that make a given verbal act shareable” (2015). Robbins’ enacts this shareability through the pleasures of his work, including its rhyme and metre, its sound, and, importantly, its punchlines. This isn’t to say Robbins’ poetry is easy to digest. It’s not. It’s fiendishly difficult. But his use of form gives his work the space it needs to ask complex questions while remaining accessible and capable of engagement.

Accessibility is critical because Robbins’ believes poetry has a social role to play. It’s more than simply looking at the world and saying: “This is some really fucked up shit.” Instead, poetry can, Robbins’ argues, make it easier for us, in a small way, to live in this world:

‘No one gets out of here alive’ is the best case scenario. Consolation is not false comfort. Poetry’s a prophylactic, not a vaccine. One way poetry helps you to accept perpetual unrest, to arm yourself to confront perplexities, is by reminding you that you’re not alone (2015).

Poetry can’t solve everything but it can provide intellectually innovative support. The phrase he uses is “equipment for living” (2015). As solace in strife, Robbins’ take on poetry is analogous to prayer. Indeed, there is much to be written on the complex relationship of Robbins’ work with theology, but in this post I focus on his poetry’s social function: the poetics of engagement. In particular, how the content of his work, in concert with its form, reminds us that we’re not alone.

"It's a trap"
“It’s a trap”

Creating a community of likeminded people who think deeply about moral questions is an important element of responding to the venality of global capitalism. This was widely reflected upon when Jon Stewart stepped down from The Daily Show earlier this year. Like Stewart, Robbins’ simultaneously enrages, amuses, inspires and consoles the reader. As an example consider “To the Drone Vaguely Realising Eastward”, commissioned by Yahoo! News for President Obama’s second inauguration (Robbins’ account of the publication process, and the furore around the inclusion of the word ‘queef’, is well worth reading). The poem hinges on the incongruence of Obama’s public tears for children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School by Adam Lanza and the President’s deployment of drone strikes which have killed, and continue to kill, hundreds more children since 2004[1]:

It seems strange that he should be offended.
The same orders are given by him.

Drone strikes are one of our age’s most perplexing moral questions. They have profound ramifications for how we define combatants on any side of a conflict. In drawing an equivalence (“The same orders”) between Lanza and Obama, Robbins’ seems to be laying his cards on the table and declaring drone strikes fundamentally immoral. Their legitimacy, he suggests, is contingent on ascribing radically different values to different human lives. Whether or not we agree with Robbins, and to be honest I’m considerably more ambivalent, it is a powerful lens through which we can reconsider the issue. In this it is as accurate as (we are lead to believe) a Predator’s Hellfires. But this is poetry not agitprop. In one sense the poem is satire. Its subject slips like a series of escalating immoralities eventually enabling atrocities. Obama is “President Drone” then heroic “President Mark Hammill”. But to borrow from the Rebel Alliance’s Admiral Akbar: “It’s a trap.” Mark Hamill’s most famous character Luke Skywalker isn’t necessarily the guilt free hero who helped the Alliance destroy two Death Stars. If you believe, like Randal in Clerks, that the contractors working on Death Star 2 in The Return of the Jedi are innocent non-combatants, Skywalker and his merry band are all probably due a day at The Hague. The children we pull the trigger in the poem on slip to Sesame Street: “Mark Hammill asks if Ernie’s burnt”. The drone operator becomes a racial slur, the act of bombing a video game: “Every camel’s a first-person shooter.” The final stanza is dense with allusions:

The camel can’t come to the phone.
This is for the drone-in-chief.
Mumbai used to be Bombay.
The bomb bay opens with a queef.

There is Dr Strangelove’s Major Kong astride The Big One about to be farted onto Armageddon. We are reminded of Mumbai’s colonial past. Robbins must be mistaken. Shouldn’t it be Pakistan, we’d never drop bombs on our allies? Here the demands of form, the homonymy of ‘Bombay’ and ‘bomb bay’, drive content but the misidentification, contextually a city in Pakistan would be more appropriate, also highlights the mutability of national identity. After all at some point when Mumbai was Bombay, Pakistan and India were one and the same on the map.

Of course this is just a poem. If Jon Stewart couldn’t send Wall Street to jail, what hope does poetry have? Acknowledging his limited agency Robbins writes: “I don’t pretend my poem is of any consequence whatsoever. All I have is my No, and that’s not enough. I’m not brave enough to throw my body on the gears” (2013). But the poem is of consequence to its readers. It cleaves open one of the 21st century’s most difficult questions, one we are quick to elide given its profound moral implications, and gives us a framework to understand it, and, in its black humour, some succour to endure it.

“Nothing makes poetry happen”, is Robbins’ inversion of W.H. Auden’s famous line. But this is another misdirection. For Robbins’ everything makes poetry happen. Auden’s original lament “Poetry makes nothing happen” is followed by his exaltation of poetry because:

In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth. (196)

Robbins’ work gives us a way ‘of happening’, of thinking about the world and communicating with each other, beyond the control of the ‘executives’ and their economic imperatives. His rejection of a tired orthodoxy, in both his willingness to confront moral questions and its commitment to shareable form, gives us a new way of thinking about difficult questions. Readers are given ‘a mouth’ for support, even if we can’t, and the political class won’t, answer these questions. Regardless of how bad things get (Putin just endorsed Trump so I figure we’ve got aways to go), Robbins shows poetry can be our equipment for living.

Bombs away
Bombs away


‘A Conversation Between Friends – The Los Angeles Review Of Books’. Los Angeles Review of Books. n.p. 27 Jan 2015. Web. [Accessed 13 Nov 2015]

Auden, W.H. Collected Poems. London: Vintage. 1991. Print.

Nersessian, Anahid. “Poetry at the Tipping Point.” Contemporary Literature. 53:3 2012 pp. 599-605.

Rice, Joel. “An Interview with Michael Robbins”. The Believer n.p. 2013. Web. [Accessed 14 Dec 2015]

Rilke, Rainer Maria. The Selected Poetry. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. London: Picador. 1987. Print.

Robbins, Michael. “A Poem for President Drone”. The Los Angeles Review of Books n.p. 23 May 2013. Web. [Accessed 16 Dec 2015]

Alien Vs. Predator. New York: Penguin Poets, 2012. Print.

—. “Equipment for Living.” Poetry n.p.1 April 2015. Web. Available at: [Accessed 02 Dec 2015]

— Ripostes. Poetry. n.p. 201.3 Web. Available at: [Accessed 14 Dec 2015]

—. The Second Sex. New York: Penguin Poets, 2014. Print.

Rozsa, Ameni. “Playing it Cool: An interview with Poet Michael Robbins” The Los Angeles Review of Books N.p. 10 July 2012. Web. [Accessed 2 Dec 2015]

[1] – Accessed 18 August 2015