After his first two collections, Alien vs. Predator and The Second Sex, Michael Robbins drew comparisons to poets like Frederick Seidel and Paul Muldoon. In those poems—with titles like “My New Asshole” and “Pissing in One Hand”—Robbins is concerned for the fate of the whales, and he’s unafraid to spit vitriol about banks, oil pipelines, Xbox, Jesus, Jay Z. He writes about the modern world with such referential range, and such sharpness, that you can almost miss his superhuman command of verse and rhyme, which Dwight Garner has called “dizzying.” Those poems are anchored by constant allusions and tributes to the music Robbins loves. Most memorably, in Alien vs. Predator’s “I Did This to My Vocabulary,” he exclaims the names of heavy-metal bands as Santa Claus roll calls his reindeer in “The Night Before Christmas”: “On Sabbath, on Slayer, on Maiden and Venom! / On Motorhead, and Leppard, and Zeppelin, and Mayhem!”
Two poems published in The Paris Review over the past year, “Walkman” and “You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday,” are more autobiographical and ruminative; they seem to follow in the tradition of the New York School. “Schuyler was too tender / for me then,” Robbins writes in “Walkman,” “but now / he is just tender / enough.” It’s this pivot toward tenderness—rich with memories, “beautiful experiences,” secrets, breakups, apologies, Schuyler-esque wishes—that might best characterize the departure from his earlier work. You can hear a little Taylor Swift (Robbins is a fan) in the last lines of “You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday”: “Wherever / you are, I hope you stand / still now and then / and let the prayers / wash over you like the breakers / at Fort Tilden that day / the huge gray gothic / clouds massed and threatened to drop / a storm on our heads / but didn’t.”
I met Robbins at a café in Brooklyn, where we talked about Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, his book of essays forthcoming in July, and the stylistic shift between his collections and his poems in the Review.
The two poems in the Review recently—“Walkman” and “You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday”—are a radical departure from those in your books.
After The Second Sex, I didn’t want to write any more poems in the vein of my two collections. I just didn’t want to be one of those poets who write the same book over and over again. I knew that I wanted to write a different kind of poem. So the first thing I decided, before I knew what I was going to write, was that I wasn’t going to rhyme, and I wasn’t going to worry about meter. Read More