“Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music” – A Review-Essay

By Eugene Brennan |

Moments of political defeat are often closely accompanied by widespread and exaggerated claims about the impact culture can have in redressing political despair. Think-piece versions of cultural studies often accept the “feminism” of multi-millionaire pop stars at face-value, while the mere consumption of pop music under late capitalism can be too readily described in the language of “subversion.” Since the election of Donald Trump, there has been an increase in literary equivalents of this kind of wishful thinking, with many poets eager to propagate the idea that their poems constitute meaningful forms of #resistance. Against the poets of #resistance, Michael Robbins writes that poetry “can’t do a damn thing about capitalism, even as it devotes its intellectual and affective energies to it in a dialectical dance of opposition and complicity…Pop is even worse off, watermarked wing of consumer capitalism structurally restricted to dreams of utopia.” [1]

Throughout his recently published Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, Robbins maintains an open-minded generosity towards his subjects that at the same time never compromises on its critical tension. His hard-headed observations are not accompanied by cynicism or resignation. Robbins is a critic and a poet but he is also a fan. He can unequivocally embrace the pleasures of pop music, and take the obsessions of fans seriously, while at the same time working through deep critical pessimism. Similarly, the essays in this volume which focus on poetry often bring out the implicit utopian horizon of poetry while at the same time reminding us that “No one has ever changed his life because of a poem.” [2]

But if poems don’t change the world, he wonders in the introductory essay, then what exactly are they for? Robbins sets up his argument that, like pop music, poems provide “equipment for living” (in the words of Kenneth Burke), strategies for negotiating a fractured world and alienated existence. This premise might sound uncomfortably close to sentimental and simplistic conceptions of art as a tool of self-improvement. However, he manages to provide a sophisticated articulation of the ways in which poetry and music can provide consolation without false comfort. As he writes, “My understanding of poetry’s consolatory powers has more in common with psychoanalysis as a way of fortifying the self through the acceptance of perpetual unrest.” [3]

Much of the book is based on thinking through and accepting this “perpetual unrest,” but not letting acceptance slip into resignation. Robbins frequently draws attention to, and immerses himself in, the nightmarish aspects of the present, only to make cool-headed and even optimistic conclusions that seem eminently rational and realistic. He can see glimpses of the utopian within the dystopian. This paradoxical critical attitude, and his numerous references to making a home for oneself in the hell of the present, recalls the Hegelian philosopher Gillian Rose’s injunction to “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not”. In her 1995 memoir, written while suffering from terminal cancer, Rose reworked this proverb as part of her own critical strategy for living, and she did so in direct antipathy towards self-help, new-age Buddhism and “alternative healing.” [4]  These discourses generally renounce any sense of personal commitment to political justice, and even their apparent psychological benefits are deceptive. The literature of self-help attempts to repress fear and despair. But delusional hope and overwhelming despair go hand-in-hand, especially when critical antagonism is abandoned for a belief in easy solutions and escapes. To “keep your mind in hell, and despair not,” then, would entail a recognition of the hellishness of the present, and a struggle within and against that hellishness. It would mean confronting a state of perpetual antagonism that self-help-isms would delude us into thinking we can simply run away from. As Rose noted, these discourses also attempt to dupe us into thinking we can be shielded from the messiness of a finite existence and try to convince us of our individual “exceptionality.” Robbins, again echoing the spirit of Rose, argues that part of the appeal of thinking about pop music and poetry as “equipment for living” is that they serve as useful reminders of our non-exceptionality.  We all live and die in the same world and it is not a coincidence that “You are not alone” is a refrain of so many pop songs. Robbins makes the blackly comic conclusion:

“This just in: Everyone you love will be extinguished and so will you. You’re not special. Men and women have been living and dying for a long time, and some of them have left records. Those records won’t eliminate your fears; they might help you to live with them.” [5]

The justification for the alignment of poetry and pop music is that they provide what Kenneth Burke calls “structural assertion:” “Form, a public matter that symbolically aligns with allies who will share the burden with us.” [6] Robbins’s book comprises a series of short essayistic pieces that think through the contradictions of poetry and pop’s structural assertions and the ways in which they can offer “consolation without comfort.” It makes adventurous and unorthodox juxtapositions, for example analyzing poets such as W.B. Yeats to Juliana Spahr in dialogue with Norwegian Black Metal.  Far from being labored or pretentious, Robbins’s juxtaposition of disparate sources draws out intimate connections in a style that’s both playful and sincere. There are also moments of surprising intensity when personal reminiscences get inside the obsessiveness and infectiousness of music fandom. On his compulsion for repeated listens of Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blue,” for example, he explains how he “wanted to get all the way around that song, to drop it at my feet like a dead pig, my fang marks in its neck.” [7]

The writing often carries a tension between critical precision and the excesses of fandom. Following writers like Greil Marcus and Ellen Willis, Robbins seeks to explore how music writing is pulled between mythography and history. The music of Robert Johnson, and different critical responses to it, offer useful exemplifications of some of these tensions. Johnson’s music comes with a lot of historical baggage, as well as enduring aesthetic affect. He made some landmark early blues recordings which still sound weird and brilliant today. His influence on rock’n’roll cannot be overstated but little is known about Johnson’s life and the myth that he sold his soul to the devil has colored the sense of mystery.

Looking at some of the music writing on Johnson, Robbins takes issue with Elijah Wald’s more historically contextual perspective. Robbins says he feels “like a class traitor for saying so, but the most scrupulous historicism leaves a remainder in the highest art – a residue we used to attribute to ‘genius’ or ‘soul’.” When Wald writes about hearing in Johnson’s music the raw blues, without “the filter of rock’n’roll and our own modern tastes,” Robbins complains that he sounds like a magician explaining tricks, stripping something of the “magic” away for a simplistic account of historical context. An over-fidelity “to historical fact leaves little room for aesthetic truth.” [8]

I would argue that Robbins is not at all rejecting history here, but is rejecting simplistic historicism and empiricism, instead demanding criticism to offer something more dialectical. A properly historical consciousness recognizes a pop song as a commodity but one that is not fully present to itself, riven by contradictions, and embedded with different immanent intensities that have the potential to speak to listeners in very different ways at different historical moments. In this regard, Robbins turns to Greil Marcus’s writing on Johnson. Marcus recognizes the importance of the original context of Johnson’s music, where his story is usually situated. But the critic’s job, says Marcus, “is not only to define the context of an artist’s work but to expand that context, and it seems more important to me that Johnson’s music is vital enough to enter other contexts and create all over again.” [9] The choice is not between myth and demystification but to uphold both at the same time. The more interesting criticism intensifies the aesthetic weirdness of its object as much as it reveals the conditions of its creation. The shifting contexts Marcus talks about influence Robbins’s attempt to try and imagine the same music from different subjective perspectives, but an even larger question constantly lingers in the background of these essays. Whether he’s talking about black metal or Taylor Swift, he asks “what would this sound like in different social and historical conditions?” He does not have any answers beyond “different”, but the mere presence of the question makes for more imaginative and generous criticism.

Where some of the most exciting criticism has shown a taste for mythology at the expense of what some readers might view as a problematizing perspective on history, similarly, the same critical traditions Robbins draws from have often lead to an over-indulgence of the critic’s subjective presence in the text at the expense of objectivity. The persistent presence of an “I” in a text jars with some readers, leading to the charge that the critic lacks objectivity, or is even narcissistic. Robbins would interject, “But the best criticism is always personal.” One of his most formative influences, the film critic Pauline Kael, was attacked by Richard Brody for being “largely a first-person essayist who made use of movies to write brilliantly of the times and of herself.” Robbins responds that it would be “truer to say that Kael made use of the times and of herself to write brilliantly about movies.” [10]

The charge of narcissism is an easy one to make. A lot of the most interesting writers never stop reminding the reader of their presence. But this can be an expression of subjective passion for the subject as well as a marker of intellectual honesty: the perspective isn’t coming from nowhere. The question is whether the subjective position is a point of final return or if the writer is using their subjective presence to say something more interesting about the world.

This question comes up again later in the book in the very different context of discussing the poetry of Frederick Seidel. Seidel’s poetry has attracted controversy for its moral dubiousness, abjection and uncomfortably “confessional” display and debasement of the writing subject. Literary critics are used to insisting on the distinction between the fictive poetic “I” and the actual poet. Critics of Seidel’s poetry have felt compelled to foreground this distinction to an even greater extent, especially because the disturbing violence and intimacy of the poetic speaker is so unsettling in Seidel’s work. However, Seidel has insisted in interviews that his poems are true and should be taken at face value. What could it mean then, wonders Robbins, to take lines such as these from ‘Letters to the Editors of Vogue’ at “face value”?

“I am drinking gasoline/To stay awake/In the midst of so much/Murder.”

Obviously, such a reading does not mean accepting everything in the poem as literally true but it means thinking about it as expressing a truth. The various uses of hyperbole in Seidel can be read as a means of bringing out the barbarous aspects of modernity which we are normally supposed to accept as “civilized.” Or as Robbins puts it, Seidel’s hyperbole, following Freud and Nietzsche, “encodes an intuition that the extreme is the norm rather than deviation from it…His lurid hyperbole is a way of negotiating the problem of personhood in an impersonally violent world. [11]

Robbins thus makes an unorthodox but convincing case that Seidel’s lurid “confessions” do not really constitute confessional writing. Instead, here confession serves only a strategic function: it’s not about revealing, or repenting for, his true self. He is concerned with more worldly interrogations and provocations. Robbins goes on to engage in a complex reading of Seidel’s poetry, arguing that whether his work is staging a debasement of the self, or a deeply uncomfortable and problematic aestheticization of traumatic historical events, Seidel is interested in interrogating why we allow our taste, or personal disgust, to dictate moral responses. Robbins is perhaps an overly-generous reader here at times, but his overall argument is provocative and stimulating to think with: the use of hyperbole and (anti) confessional writing of the self in these poems are based on the premise that “if we saw the conditions of modernity as the hell they are, flensed of our illusions of taste, Seidel’s personality would no longer appear as a grotesque hyperbole but as entirely adequate to his surroundings.” [12]

“Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” Sometimes it seems as though Robbins is not so sure. His position on poetry and music, especially in relation to the political, wavers between  despair and optimism. Sometimes the vehemence with which he critiques the delusional thinking around poetry’s political value suggest a contempt for poetry itself. Poems are only capable of offering “a meager response to a scurvy and disastrous world in which hardly anyone reads them.” [13] But sometimes Robbins’s acerbic style acts as a performative foregrounding of his own leap towards surprisingly ambitious claims for the value of poetry. “Poetry makes nothing happen – everyone knows that” he writes, before adding later on the same page, “Poetry makes all sorts of things happen. This book has been about some of them.” [14] Robbins spits on poetry and its ridiculous claims in order to lend legitimacy to celebrating what is actually utopian about it. This paradoxical maneuver suggests close parallels to the logic outlined in Ben Lerner’s recent essay The Hatred of Poetry.

Lerner explores the disjunction between “poetry” and “poems.” The former signifier conjures up lofty associations of aesthetic grandeur. It hints towards greatness and even transcendence whereas real poems can only ever be a disappointing deflation of these expectations. Lerner’s essay explores a variety of responses to this tension. Great poets, he says, explore the limits of actual poems. He also brings out the use-value of horrible poetry which, via the extremity of its clumsiness, can often unwittingly provide a vision of the virtual potential within the actual. Lerner summarizes how avant-garde poets hate poems for being poems and not bombs, while nostalgists hate poems for no longer doing what they never did in the first place. All these different antagonistic responses actually reveal something fundamentally utopian about poetry:

“There are varieties of interpenetrating demands subsumed under the word “poetry” – to defeat time, to still it beautifully…to defeat the language and value of existing society; to propound a measure of value beyond money. Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too.” [15]

Michael Robbins doesn’t hate poetry. But there is a similar logic at work in his hatred of the claims made for poetry’s political efficacy. He is, of course, right to claim that poetry doesn’t lead to political change. But some of the hyperbolic negations of political conceptions of poetry in the early part of the book foreground his affirmation of the utopianism of poetry towards the end. It is as if he’s acknowledging that it may seem absurd to speak about the utopianism of poetry, or its relation to the possibility of communism, especially within the capitalist hellscape of 2017, by firstly flagging some of the ways in which poetry’s political claims are bullshit (that it has an instrumental role in historical change for example). But this doesn’t discard the ways in which it genuinely is political and utopian: as an intellectual interrogation of the possibilities and limits of our present moment, or as a reminder of our historicity, thus raising the greater possibility of a different, better world in the future. Robbins believes “that art exposes the contradictions of the present dispensation and thus preserves the yearning for the other, better world that can be achieved only by negating the existing one.” [16]

The correctives to the delusional claims made for poetry’s capacities of #resistance thus do not mean that poetry is not at all political. Robbins echoes Joshua Clover’s belief that “The poem must be on the side of the riot…” And Clover and his co-editors at Commune Editions (Juliana Spahr and Jasper Bernes) have offered a particularly interesting way of further clarifying the political role of poetry. They suggest that their poetry might accompany radical political movements the way the riot dogs of Athens have accompanied riotous demonstrations:

“The dogs are no doubt inspiring, catalyzing the various feeling people bring to the streets, the way a poem read out loud to a crowd might. The dogs may even be more directly effective, by biting the leg of some cops or otherwise managing to intimidate them, but in the long run, these effects and affects are fairly limited.” [17]

The claims being made on poetry’s part here are simultaneously modest and daring. Poetry is no substitute for revolutionary action but it has an important revolutionary relation. In the final essay of the book, Robbins notes of Spahr and Clover’s poetry that it might strike some readers as naïve or overly-extravagant in scale. But he finds this extravagance part of the appeal, something shared with “the more familiar extravagances of pop music – big, throbbing, teenage emotions. Both are utopian (the latter in spite of itself, charged with an excess that throw into relief the ‘insufficiently meaning world’ (Guy Debord).”[18]

However, more than the appeal for extravagance, the perspectives of Robbins, Clover and Spahr coincide in the different ways in which they suggest that the demand for the impossible is ultimately a realist, or realistic, demand. This explains Robbins’s apparent valences between acerbic pessimism and optimism. I would argue that his criticism is utopian because of its realism, not in spite of it. If we are going to be hard-headed realists about the present historical moment, that entails a heightened attention to the ways in which our reality is constituted of social constructions. In other words, “history” is not an abstraction or an exterior force that “happens.” It is made, fought for, and constructed by people (even if, as Marx said, it’s within circumstances not of their own choosing.) A sensitivity to the historical contingencies and man-made social constructions which make up our present moment in all its “realism” must logically bring with it a renewed and justified sense of utopianism. One cannot be an unflinchingly realist, or materialist, analyst of the present moment without being some kind of utopian at the same time. Robbins’s criticism might seem to tell us conflicting messages about political and aesthetic possibility, and it might appear to some readers as if its extravagant to the point of wanting to have its cake and eat it, too. But I think the sharpest criticism often uses its theoretical anguish as the basis for political and aesthetic gluttony. This apparent gluttony of having it both ways echoes the productive tension in music writing, as discussed earlier, between history and mythography, where ‘history’ would here stand for a kind of realism and ‘mythography’ for a utopian impulse. A hard-headed critical attitude is generally associated with a rejection of the naivety of utopia for a more materialist recognition of reality. This is the provocative gesture Robbins repeatedly makes, but he then subsequently brings in, and affirms, a utopian remainder. However, this utopian residue is not a mistake, or a sign of succumbing to temptation or false comfort. It is the result of dialectical rigour as much as a taste for aesthetic extravagance.


Works Cited

[1] Michael Robbins, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017, p.14.

[2] Ibid., p.47.

[3] Ibid., p.10.

[4] See Gillian Rose, Love’s Work. New York: NYRB Classics, 2011, pp.104-5.

[5] Robbins, p.10.

[6] Ibid., p.10

[7] Ibid., p.16

[8] Ibid., p.24.

[9] Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll Music. New York: Plume, 2015, p.31. (Cited in Robbins, p.24.)

[10] Robbins, p. 85.

[11] Ibid., p. 121.

[12] Ibid., p.142.

[13] Ibid., p.80.

[14] Ibid., p.143.

[15] Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016.

[16] Robbins, p.147.

[17] “‘Poetry and Other Antagonisms’: An Interview with Commune Editions”, The Iowa Review, 47. 1 (Spring 2017).

[18] Robbins, p.155.


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