Sing, Muse: Three New Books on Literature and Pop Music

Three books on the links between poetry and pop music.

Sing, Muse: Three New Books on Literature and Pop Music

Equipment for Living by Michael Robbins. Simon & Schuster. 224 pages.This Year’s Work in the Punk Bookshelf, Or, Lusty Scripts by Brian James Schill. Indiana University Press. 384 pages.“Do You Have a Band?” by Daniel Kane. Columbia University Press. 296 pages.

WHAT IS THE PROPER relationship between pop music and literature? For the ambitious writer and performer, the dream is often to be the popularizer who sugars the highbrow pill, and gets credit for both candy and cure. “I wanted to […] perform my poetry in the way that I was learning from Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix or the great Beat poets,” said Patti Smith. “I used to want to be an artist, but rock is freer and it reaches more people.” In practice, many artists and critics run up against the reflexive anti-intellectualism of the pop world, a species of what Wallace Stegner called “the common American delusion […] that untutored genius is more to be admired than genius schooled.”

Luckily, none of the three books considered here are much concerned with the “are pop lyrics literature?” question, around which the broad consensus of yes-sometimes-it-depends has settled with the sigh of a chore grudgingly completed. Daniel Kane’s “Do You Have A Band?”: Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City persuasively argues the crucial influence of poetry on New York art-rock and proto-punk from the 1960s through the 1980s. Brian James Schill’s This Year’s Work in the Punk Bookshelf, Or, Lusty Scripts is a study of “the books punks read and why they read them.” And the poet Michael Robbins, in his new essay collection Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, binds a miscellany under the framework of Boethian consolation — not that either poetry or pop music can make life better necessarily, but that they help you get through it all. This, he says, is why the movie scene in which characters bond while singing along to a pop song became such a staple: “It works,” he says, “for the same reason the Kaddish or the Mass works […] the form is universal, known to all.”

Robbins’s book may be a gallimaufry, but it has a rough organization, proceeding in pairs along the old high/low highway. The opening sally — poetry and pop as emotional tools, as equipment for living — gives way to literal equipment for listening, a consideration of recording technologies and commodification. He considers early fascinations with the Beatles and Yeats, then Journey and Dylan Thomas. He sighs at the banalities of Charles Simic and Neil Young. He defends guilty pleasures: Taylor Swift, rhyme. Like Chuck Klosterman, he has a giddiness at his own Midwestern cheek in admitting his supposedly indefensible enthusiasms, but surely in these poptimistic days “Don’t Stop Believin’” needs no apologia on aesthetic grounds. (Robbins’s discomfort may be more ideological: “No other art I love,” he says of Swift, “so directly reproduces the barbarism of economic injustice.”)

The high culture quote/pop music reference trick — the effortless shocks of proximity of a sentence that includes, say, Qoheleth, Yeats, and Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect, or ending a paragraph with a Billy Joel or Everclear lyric — begins to feel like a too-easy shtick: “one part Ashbery and two parts Tupac,” as a Times gloss of Robbins’s first poetry collection, Alien vs. Predator, put it. Robbins is the kind of writing professor who takes his students to see Converge, and these essays can share some of the zippy and informal style (“Cool, keep us posted,” or self-consciously casual “duhs” and “ums”) of the blog or free weekly that maintains a language of conversational enthusiasm to hold its audience. His straight review of Taylor Swift’s Red, despite a reference to “Donnean iambs,” is a curiously bland example of rock-crit’s generic descriptors (“chugging rhythms and guitar filigree”) and multi-hyphenate modifiers (“creative-writing-workshop world-wariness […] Larry Mullen-sized drums and whoa-oh-oh-oh-whoa cheerleader chants”).

When Robbins talks about music as a poet, though, his insight can be valuable. He cites (twice) an early epiphany about “the long lilting hole-filled sound of the line” in the Beatles’s “A Day In The Life”: “now — know — how — hole — fill — Al — hall.” He focuses on phonemic resonances in lyrics by Clipse, Jason Isbell, and Hank Williams, steering toward an important distinction between song lyrics and poetry: since the former are meant to be heard and the latter (mostly) to be read, “a poem’s hooks are spatial in a way a song’s can’t be — you see its ending coming — unless the song is reduced to its printed lyrics, in which case it’s not a song anymore. Lyrics are just one moving part of the machine we call a song.”

Robbins analyzes poetry qua poetry with the same passion and granular knowledge — of reputation and career narrative as much as technique — that others apply to pop music: we see it in the funny, frustrated takedown of Robert Hass, the conditional reconsideration of James Dickey, and, particularly, in the longest and thickest piece, an interrogation-slash-defense of the transgressive provocations of Frederick Seidel. He also attempts a unified aesthetic theory of pop and poetry’s shared capabilities: what it is he wants them to do for him, and maybe for all of us, preferably together. Like Ben Lerner in his recent The Hatred of Poetry, Robbins diagnoses poetry’s discontent as a negative capacity. Lerner locates both the esteem and the disregard for poetry and poets in the disconnect between the universalist expectations for ideal poetry and the mere words of actual poetry. Robbins, similarly, takes Auden’s accusation that “[p]oetry makes nothing happen” and turns it around: “What doesn’t happen happens no place; it happens in utopia.” Like Marx and Engels’s capital-H history, which “does nothing […] It is man, real living man who does all that,” capital-P poetry is, disappointingly or inspiringly, only the concrete work of fallible poets. But where Lerner says that the idea of a universal poetry with political power has always been a fantasy, Robbins isn’t quite ready to abandon the utopian dream that a poem can be an outpouring of collective emotion, like a pop song, or a riot. Some poetry, he says, “in its outscale desire, its extravagant want, its implausible or impossible will […] [is] isomorphic with the more familiar extravagances of pop music — big, throbbing, teenage emotion,” even if “there is no recent poem everyone in a bar would recognize.”

If big throbbing teenage emotions are what Robbins wants from both poetry and pop, they’re harder to come by than they used to be, it seems. Equipment for Living is, in large part, an elegy for old enthusiasms. “[N]ow all I get from music is music,” he writes. “Those songs slide right off me now. They gave me everything they had in them […] Listening to most rock and roll now involves remembering what it used to do for me that it can’t anymore.” I fell in love with such-and-such band or poet “at too early an age,” Robbins repeats; now entering middle age and established in his field, he is anxiously considering his early loves and wondering if he’d wasted valuable passion on them.


Robbins’s experience of disillusionment — the projection of one’s own aging onto the music one associates with different stages of life — while common enough, is the specific experience of the fan. The practitioner, though, can experience a different form of disenchantment. At one point Robbins cites, as an example of “corny” but effective evocation of collective ecstasy, a bit of stage banter from a live record by The Hold Steady, a band of which I have been a member: “There is so much joy in what we do up here! I want to thank you for being here to share that joy with us.” I’ve now seen this mini-speech delivered hundreds of times, with identical emphasis and evident sincerity, and each time it receives an equally joyous response: audience members are seeing it for the first time and reacting naturally, or for the 50th time and primed for a beloved catchphrase. As a performer trying to balance my own ideals of spontaneity with a script that includes my own oft-repeated mugging, diminishing returns are inevitable. This is the nature, and the obligation, of live theater. But it points to a crucial difference between Robbins’s treatment of his two topics: he writes about music as a fan, and poetry as a practitioner.

So let us turn, then, to the practitioners. As a musician who writes, I’ve found that a common reaction is something akin to Samuel Johnson’s dog who walks on its hind legs: the amazement is not that it’s done well, but that it is done at all. In fact, many of the conditions for good writing practice align with the life of a touring performer: the daily prosaic novelty of new locations, the vernacular language of bar staff, the extended periods of downtime for reading or observation.

What this produces, often, is pretentious autodidacts (the present author not exempted). But “pretentious” is that funny kind of insult that contains a compliment: whether or not the target reached it, the speaker admits, at least they were aiming for something ambitious. One sees in the evergreen fascination with Richard Hell, Patti Smith, and their 1970s NYC cohort a kind of bemusement: who were these people, and why were they talking about poetry all the time? Both Daniel Kane and Brian James Schill, in their respective books, offer raised eyebrows in the directions of Smith and Lou Reed, whose “preconceptions about poets and poetry,” according to Kane, “were, for the most part, predominantly corny.” (Robbins piles on, adding that Smith appears to believe “that serious writing is principally a matter of avoiding contractions.”) But not until the lyrical maturity of hip-hop did another influential group of musicians so publicly identify with, and as, poets.

In “Do You Have a Band?”, Kane convincingly argues that the commerce between poetry and punk rock from the 1960s to the 1980s in New York was not simply one of artists successful in one field casting an envious eye on the artistic credibility or commercial opportunities of another. Instead, he tracks a genre-agnostic interrelation that rings true to the way arts scenes operate in real life: poets go to rock shows, musicians go to poetry readings, and everyone goes to avant-garde films. In pre-1964 New York, he reminds us, it was poetry, not rock, that was “the outré vanguard” that drew ambitious bohemians. Beat writers like Jack Kerouac “provided hipsters with a kind of blueprint on how to be ‘poetic’ without their necessarily having to read or write that much poetry […] poetry could be understood to refer as much to a state of mind and lifestyle as it did literature.” Kane pinpoints the “ludic tooting” (a wonderful phrase) of the Fugs as a proto-punk crossing of streams, where Blake, Swinburne, Apollinaire, and Charles Olson met “low fi noisy shit about […] sex and drugs.” Lou Reed’s hero-worship of Delmore Schwartz (with whom he studied at Syracuse University in the early ’60s) influenced his interest in quotidian lyrical language; and bands like the Velvet Underground, in turn, became a way for younger poets like Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman to differentiate themselves from the likes of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery (who is depicted bursting into tears at a Velvets show, and who in a later interview “firmly […] disapprove[s] of people who[…] dye their hair blue and stick safety pins through their noses”). The mimeographed micro-presses and raucous readings of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project modeled DIY for Hell and others, while disagreements about poetic aesthetics contributed to the split between Hell and his Television bandmate Tom Verlaine. The centrality of performance to the work of Waldman — “reading aloud as intended” — anticipated Smith, whose old-fashioned romantic ideal of the hero-poet infused her readings with a populist glamour. John Giorno used rock-developed studio techniques on his records and rock show multimedia effects in his performances. Eileen Myles and Dennis Cooper repurposed the playful, basement-show vulgarity of punk in “an ongoing experiment in the debasement of poetry.” And so, Kane says, “Influence went gaily around and around.”


Where Kane focuses on demonstrable real-life connections and influence trading, Schill leans harder on the conjectural: “Malcolm McLaren as a reader of Brecht: while the documentary evidence for such an association is thin …”; “the heading ‘Musical Instruments’ in a passage in ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’ that must have made Lou Reed smile as he entered the studio to record Metal Machine Music,” et cetera. And the book requires a tolerance for Lacanian jargon and linguistic tics like “notwithstanding.” But it operates as a useful corrective to the anachronistic concept of punks as anti-literate cretins trimmed in safety pins. “[P]unk and postpunk,” Schill argues, “are and have been from their beginning cerebral, intellectually astute […] music subcultures made by often smart and well-read people.” He points to the art-school educations of Wire and the Mekons, Ian MacKaye’s childhood “choked by books,” the “thesaurus rock” of PhD lyricists in Bad Religion and the Descendents, and so on, and goes on to elaborate the correspondences, dialogues, and lines of causation between Iggy Pop and Dostoyevsky (whose Smerdyakov is a punkish “singer-songwriter who revels in his own lack of talent and carnivalesque dismissal of formal training”), Henry Rollins and Miller, Rimbaud and — yes — Patti Smith and Richard Hell, and others. The influence is not only verbal: both Kane and Schill highlight the influence of Rimbaud (“punk’s covert clothier”), Artaud, Baudelaire, and others on the ’70s punk look, and Schill extends this to Henry Miller and “Raskolnikov’s shabby couture[s].”

The most original chapter in Schill’s book, from the point of view of subject matter, turns from punks’ literary influences to their own literary productions, considering “novels by punks — often about punk as an idea, lifeline, or failure […] punk bildungsroman, the anti-capitalist travelogue, and the coming-out novel.” Singled out for particular praise is Frank Portman’s King Dork, whose debt to The Catcher in the Rye is not only acknowledged, but central to its plot. The very inartfulness and clumsiness of many of these works of “minor literature” makes explicit their authors’ fixation on punk as a vector for adolescent rebellion, more Salinger and S. E. Hinton than Brecht and Burroughs.

While Schill’s book could benefit from a more specific typology — his “punk” is a genre catholic enough to include the likes of Slint, Silkworm, and the Constantines — it gestures toward a future analysis of punk influence that finally moves past its genesis years. The permanent association of punk with the artsy/nihilistic poles in the 1970s, and the rehashes of Smith and Lydon, ignores its now longstanding incarnation as the self-serious vessel of political engagement for the middle- and upper-middle class “children of English teachers, university professors, and other professionals […] raised in a culture of literacy,” ashamed of their privileged place in global capitalism and in search of an exculpatory abjection. The self-consciously nihilistic strain of punk mostly withered in the early 1980s, and the art-rock wing spun off into what has variously been called “college-rock,” “indie-rock,” and “post-punk.” The mainstream of punk, under the earnest influence of American hardcore and British anarchists, has pursued a more prosaic, musically pop-centric, and overtly political program, their bookshelves more likely to sag with well-thumbed vegan cookbooks, Chomsky, CrimethInc., and Cometbus. The simplistic sloganeering of Leftover Crack, the suburban camaraderie of Jeff Rosenstock, and the real-time diaristic literalism of Against Me! find their adherents in the class they criticize, and await exegesis by their own Greil Marcus.

Punk doesn’t have a philosophy, says Schill, so much as it has a rhetoric — this is key to its easy co-option by advertising. But the advantage of what can in the wrong hands manifest as a hollow pose is its malleability. If punk as a signifier is as easily applied to ad copy as to poetry, it survives as an adaptable vessel for political organization. In this we can see a version of Michael Robbins’s vision of communal “upswelling,” where the temporary autonomous zone of the rock show, the shared poetry of expectation, and the uncontrolled catharsis of the riot meet, though, he concludes sotto voce, “only the last of these might conceivably produce a change in the structure of things,” and perhaps that would come at the expense of pop and poetry, “[a]t least as we know them.” The chemistry of influence and inspiration is unstable, and its results uncertain.


Franz Nicolay is a musician and writer who lives in New York. His first book is The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar.

LARB Contributor

Franz Nicolay is a musician and writer who lives in New York. His first book is The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar.


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