Self-Portraits in a Convex TV Screen: On the Pop Poetry of Michael Robbins

Mr. Robbins. Not pictured: the Feelies t-shirt. (Photo by Robert Baird)

Poets are burdened with a certain expectation: that they will live out their lives not merely as poets but also as The Poet—that tweed jacket-wearing, squinty-eyed creature with mouth curled into a reflective scowl, prone to tuberculosis and self-seriousness. Michael Robbins, whose first book has just been released by Penguin, does not fit this model. The Poet should not wear a black Feelies T-shirt with a white deodorant streak across the stomach. He should not name his first collection after a campy science fiction horror franchise (Alien vs. Predator). Probably, he should not be a germaphobe who carries around a small bottle of hand sanitizer that he uses compulsively after human contact. The Poet might have a tattoo of lines from Yeats on his forearm, but when asked about it, he should not say, “I don’t even remember it. There was this girl … I was 22 … I don’t want to talk about it.”

Mr. Robbins is not a typical poet. When the title poem of his book first appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, it caused a small sensation, even though the press could normally care less about poetry. Mr. Robbins was unknown at the time (he did not even have a press photo), but “Alien vs. Predator” is self-assured, unforgiving and hilarious:

Praise this world, Rilke says, the jerk.

We’d stay up all night. Every angel’s

Berserk. Hell, if you slit monkeys

For a living, you’d pray for me, too

I’m not so forgiving. I’m rubber, you’re glue.

It is something between the New York School and a frustrated, well-read preschooler, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book. There is no strict structure. His disregard for simple meter is heightened by the irregular rhymes. Sometimes he will rhyme in the usual way, focusing on the final syllables of a line (“too” and “glue”), other times he will focus on an enjambment (“jerk” and “berserk”), which—despite its irregularity—actually softens the normally awkward rhythm that results from one line spilling over into the next, creating the illusion of a more formal structure than is actually the case (that his poems are almost always arranged into four- or five-line stanzas strengthens this facade as well). Then there is the subject matter. There is an “I” behind these words who finds more Romance with a capital “R” in the fluorescent glow of the Best Buy than in nature itself (“that elk is such a dick,” goes one line). With “Alien vs. Predator” Mr. Robbins had taken poetry indoors, and inside the head of the frustrated suburban loser. His work eschews the outside world for a stack of records and trashy television (T. Rex, Ghostface Killah, Xbox and Meerkat Manor all make appearances in the book). If the poem that gave the book its name hinted at the arrival of a new kind of poet—one whose obsession with contemporary pop culture might even have crossover potential—this excellent debut delivers on that promise.

Mr. Robbins, 40, was born in Topeka, Kansas. When he was five, his parents divorced and he moved with his father and stepmother to Colorado, but regularly visited his grandparents in a suburb outside Wichita called Rose Hill—“not even a 7-Eleven, like a Quik Mart, a gas station, a cheap little grocery store and a video store, and that was it,” he said in an interview last week in Washington Square Park. The settings of his poems are towns that could be off any highway exit in America, populated by Pizza Huts and American Apparel catalogs and lit by the glow of television sets playing CSI: Miami. The poems are haunted by these banal images even as they poke fun at them. In “Modern Love,” the suburban ephemera is the subject of nearly every line, the raison d’être for the poem’s existence that also serves as a blatant interruption, creating a choppy rhythm: “I turn on Shark Week, plan a killing spree./I’m all stocked up on Theraflu.//I love the word chum. By Kinko’s early light,/the Korean children say swim, swam, swum.”

These images, equal parts muse and hindrance, come across like an irresistible assault. Mr. Robbins himself speaks gravely about the distractions that often provide fodder for his writing.

“There are some days where I just have to watch episodes of Justified all day,” he said. “I get depressed and I can’t do much at all but sort of watch TV or read some trashy novel. Sometimes it just happens and I wake up and know I’m gonna write a poem that day.”

In 2007, while at the University of Chicago working on his PhD dissertation on subjectivity in the work of Paul Muldoon, Frederick Seidel, Jennifer Moxley and Allen Grossman, Mr. Robbins wrote to Mr. Muldoon about a line from his long poem “Yarrow:” “the deelawg was not so much an earwig, I suspect, as a clock.” Mr. Robbins did not know what “deelawg” meant and could not find a definition anywhere. Mr. Muldoon wrote back explaining the word was Hiberno English meaning “a clock in the beetle sense.” Mr. Robbins asked if he could send him some poems. When he did, he remembers Mr. Muldoon commenting, “These are smart in all the right ways.” When Mr. Muldoon replaced Alice Quinn as the New Yorker’s poetry editor later that same year, Mr. Robbins submitted his work. The first batch he sent was rejected, but the second batch included “Alien vs. Predator.” A bulk of his book was written in the year following that poem’s publication, as his name was becoming well known in poetry circles. The poet Robert Wrigley discovered him in the New Yorker and started teaching Mr. Robbins’s poems to his students at the University of Idaho writing program.

“He doesn’t do what a lot of young poets do, which is emote and talk about how shitty they feel,” Mr. Wrigley said. “Nobody cares how shitty you feel. But he’s able to take feeling awful and turn it into this marvelous energy.”

Mr. Wrigley wrote to Mr. Robbins and asked if he had a book, and if he could show it to his editor at Penguin, Paul Slovak.

“And I said to him, are you fucking kidding me?” Mr. Robbins said. “I had sent it out and it had been very kindly rejected by three places. And now all of a sudden Paul Slovak is emailing me and asking for the thing. And then I thought, well, they’re not going to like it. There was this review on Goodreads, some woman said that I quote lines from pop culture and she writes, ‘Off color ones at that!’ Could you imagine quoting from pop culture in a poem?”

In “Sway,” one of Mr. Robbins’s strongest poems, he writes: “Mick Taylor’s solos and Prefab Sprout/taught me more than John Donne did about/how to do within and do without.” This is a rewriting of one of Mr. Muldoon’s most famous passages, from the poem “Sleeve Notes,” a collection of epigrams about canonical rock albums. For Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, Mr. Muldoon writes, “his songs have meant far more to me/than most of the so-called poems I’ve read.” It’s a line Mr. Robbins often refers to as explanation for what he calls “the dismantling of certain hierarchies,” namely the readiness with which contemporary poets repurpose pop music. Later in “Sway,” he quotes the refrain of the Rolling Stones song that lends the work its title, “That demon life has got me in its sway,” but follows it with a question mark, as if baffled by the line’s poignancy. He follows this moment of bewilderment with a sort of punchline: “A bit rich for early afternoon.”

That’s typical. This poetry often borders on rapturous, but Mr. Robbins never lets himself get too dramatic. It prevents him from pandering or showing off, which is why he can get away with a line like “I wash it out with Old English—Anglo Saxon if you’re nasty,” from “Any One I Want.”

“I don’t know if my stuff sounds like hip-hop at all,” he said, “but mostly I was listening to hip-hop when I was writing these poems. Jay-Z, Ghostface, Clipse.” In conversation, he’ll quote alternately John Ashbery and Pusha-T. (He’s particularly fond of this Clipse lyric, which is a closer analogue to his work than, say, “Daffy Duck in Hollywood:” “All the snow in the timepiece confusing ’em/all the snow on the concrete Peruvian/I flew ’em in, it ruined men, I’m through with ’em/blamed for misguiding their life/so go an’ sue me then.”)

Some of Mr. Robbins’s poems can resemble lyrics more than other poems—favoring cadence and placing greater emphasis on words’ syllables than on their meaning. “The Dark Clicks On” begins: “The morning slathers its whatever/ across the thing. It puts the fucking/lotion in the basket. Can’t smoke/in the confessional anymore./If you do, you have to confess it.” It is as if the poet just didn’t feel like describing a beautiful sunrise, and chooses instead to retreat to the comfort of reference, even if the relief comes from the creepiest line from Silence of the Lambs.

Lately, he’s been shopping around a new poem that isn’t in the book called “40th Anniversary Edition.” It is about turning 40. The title is a riff on the reissue of Can’s album Tago Mago, which came out the year Mr. Robbins was born. It is darker, but there is the same artful echo chamber of low-culture associations, from the make of the airplane that crashed and killed several members of Lynyrd Skynyrd to a line from Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long”:

Convair CV-300, play that dead band’s

last black-box seconds. I can’t imagine that Can’s

records were favorites of Ronnie Van Zant’s.

Gary Rossington (later he married Dale Krantz)

broke both arms and legs and, yep, his pelvis,

two months after, yup, the death of Elvis.

Asked if he has a routine for writing, Mr. Robbins turned once more to pop culture. “I saw a clip of Jimi Hendrix on The Dick Cavett Show. And he asks Hendrix, ‘Do you try to get up in the morning and practice everyday?’ Hendrix says to him, ‘Yeah, I try to get up in the morning.’ That’s pretty much how it is.”

Self-Portraits in a Convex TV Screen: On the Pop Poetry of Michael Robbins