A complete understanding of Michael Robbins’s poetry requires, in roughly equal measures, knowledge of modern academic poetry, its Romantic-era predecessors, seventies and eighties pop music, recent death metal, and au courant literary criticism. Knowing more than a little about hip-hop and Star Wars helps, too. So does having an analytic mind that loves to puzzle over some of the most interesting, engaging, and rigorous poetry being written today. And access to Google.
All in all, Robbins represents something new and even exciting: the first important poet whose work can be appreciated only with an Internet connection. But Robbins is a lot more than the first “Google poet.” He is also a significant new poetic voice and, quite possibly, a living poet with a chance of developing a genuine popular following.
A bit about Robbins the man first. A Kansas native and newly minted University of Chicago Ph.D., he achieved a level of public recognition almost unheard of for a living poet after the New Yorker published the title poem of this new collection. Soon after it ran in the magazine, the poem exploded (at least by the standards of modern poetry) on the Internet with the website Gothamist only half-jokingly calling for it to receive a Nobel Prize. Robbins currently teaches at Chicago’s Columbia College, an artsy institution located in the Loop, and appears to have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of popular music of all kinds.
And like most of Robbins’s other poems, the title work demands genuine thought. The poem, which starts by calling Rainer Maria Rilke a “jerk,” and concludes with the lines I have few legs. I sleep on meat. / I’d eat your bra—point being—in a heartbeat, is very funny, thoroughly formalistic, and shows an enormous love of the English language. It also requires lots of work to figure out. Some of this work is simply analytic: A few rereadings show that the line in front of Best Buy, the Tibetans are released is probably not the nonsense it appears at first glance but a meditation on the relationship between technology, wonder, and spirituality.
Still, hardly anybody is going to get through the poem without turning to Google. What’s the allusion to a “whale on stilts”? (It refers to a young adult book.) And what about “Buju Banton”? (He’s a reggae/dancehall musician.) Unless you share all of Robbins’s geeky personal interests, no reader is going to get everything unless they Google the heck out of the poems. And a reader will need Google: Perhaps 90 percent of Robbins’s allusions wouldn’t show up in a dead-tree encyclopedia.
And that is the point, and even some of the pleasure, of reading his work: A full appreciation of Robbins’s better poems requires reading, Googling, rereading, re-Googling. And the rewards flow. As a result, it’s almost impossible to read them seriously without getting drawn into at least some of his cranky obsessions. In short, Robbins is conveying and condensing emotion in a new way: not only via the words on the page but by engaging the reader directly in Robbins’s own interests.
This isn’t to say that the poems lack surface appeal—mostly in the form of humor. The best rhymes, indeed, are worthy of the verbal gifts of top hip-hop artists such as Eminem. Consider, for example, this line—Slash is both sad and happy for Axl. / The nation’s pets are high on Paxil—from the poem “Dig Dug.” Even if you don’t pick up the other semi-obscure references to Guns N’ Roses here, the rhyme is plain old funny and unexpected. Sometimes the humor is a bit more for poetic insiders: One poem, “From Karpos,” is an attack on environmentally aware regional poets such as Mary Oliver and Ted Kooser. Even if one appreciates their work, Robbins offers a laugh-out-loud send-up that includes lines like I tell my twig of the migratory song of the goose. / I tell it of the new form of companionship I propose in its name.
Robbins certainly isn’t a traditionalist of any kind and probably goes a bit overboard in playing the role of the academic hipster. (The book’s photo shows him wearing a T-shirt of the atheist/satanic death metal band Slayer.) And if only because of his subject matter—a significant percentage of his work alludes to the male sex organ—he’s unlikely to become the type of poet high school English teachers like to assign (although, since S–t List author Archie Ammons is now in most high school anthologies, even that could happen). But because it’s very funny, interesting, and intellectually rewarding, Michael Robbins’s new collection is a rare work of recent poetry that could well earn a popular readership—at least by the standards of poets producing new work today.
Eli Lehrer is vice president of the Heartland Institute.