NOVEMBER 16, 2017
I’M A SONGWRITER, which means I write refrains. Here’s one:
A kid just googled
Is God really dead?
Actually, that’s only half of it. If you want the rest, you’ll have to wait for it.
We used to wait for it. A refrain, a chorus, salvation. That’s according to Arcade Fire of yesteryear: “We Used to Wait,” one of the more moving meditations on pop form from their sprawling, Grammy-winning The Suburbs (2010), seems now the voice of one crying in the desert:
We used to wait for it
We used to wait for it
Now we’re screaming
Sing the chorus again (x2)
Choruses do lots of things: this one condemns and condones. So does Kanye West’s “Power”: “the chorus is simultaneously boastful, condemning, and anxious.” And “How does it feel?” Christopher Ricks on “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan: “You immediately grant mixed feelings as to how it feels,” “terrible, terrifying … terrific.” In other words, we’re disavowed and embraced, punished and pardoned, alone together: this is one function of pop’s most powerful form, the ritual refrain.
Hymnals, everyone: join in singing “Carry on, my wayward son.” We thumb our neon bibles. We don’t stop believing.
At least that’s how poet and critic Michael Robbins makes me see it. His debut collection, Alien vs. Predator (2012), made him synonymous with pop: his poems attempted pop’s “formal mimesis,” which seemed easy enough to write off as fanboyish, a parodic homage of sorts. But one of the real pleasures in his new collection of essays, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, is how Robbins tunes us into form as if for the first time. Nas is still there, but so is Dom Gregory Dix going all pre-Nicene in The Shape of the Liturgy. Cheech, Chong, Walter Ong. What are these fragments he’s Jersey shored against our ruin? Or, to echo another Tom (Waits): What’s Robbins building in there?
Robbins wants a poem to be a pop song. Can a poem be a pop song? The question ends a book that upends the usual order of things. Stop asking if a pop song can be poetic, the question that filled your newsfeed when Bob Dylan won the Nobel: “Sometimes his lyrics do rise to the level of poetry” was, for me, the consensus of friends who normally don’t attribute to poetry the qualities of gaseous elements. What if that gets it backward? What if, in aspiring to pop, poetry found a new way to talk about its social function, even recovering along the way the pleasures of old-fashioned — no, better — old-school form? Referring to A. E. Stallings and Robbins, Michael Lista has argued that “some of the freshest poetry today is employing some of the stalest techniques.” In the face of what he calls pop’s “familiar extravagances” — not just Journey wristbands and Yeezus himself, but Axl Rose’s codas and more — Robbins makes you wonder: Why refrain? What’s stopping us?
For Robbins, “[f]orm grounds us in a community, however attenuated or virtual.” Those final four words show Robbins — a master of the Twitter short-short form — to be particularly useful for poets today, who, taking the measure of their art and audience, may very well find the “gyre wide af.” That’s Robbins’s pinned post-election tweet: the core of Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (“The falcon cannot hear the falconer”) in 12 characters you can imagine as easily on a piece of papyrus as on a smartphone. That’s consoling: if things do fall apart, the poetic may just survive it all. Call it a Yeatsian repost, a political riposte, or simply good poetic modeling about how form can always be, like everything else these days, hacked: stripped down, streamlined. Hack your life. Hack your phone. Hack a poem, said Pound to Whitman, “[n]ow is a time for carving.”
Why bother? Because even though “we act like nobody dies,” a Thao & The Get Down Stay Down refrain, everyone does. We’re alone, and to turn away from form is a turn away from a public tool — equipment — “that symbolically enrolls us with allies who will share the burdens with us,” as Kenneth Burke puts it, a thinker useful to Robbins. No surprise, then, that Robbins likes to give props (to Stallings, among others), shout outs, and even share text messages from friends, but also has anecdotes like this one, from his (sadly) uncollected essay on postmodern poetics, “Ripostes”: “I once tried to explain my admiration for Paul Muldoon to a young poet I know, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I opened a book to Muldoon’s poem ‘Yarrow’; she immediately balked: ‘I don’t like poems that look like that.’ She meant poems written in regular stanzas.”
Stanzas carry burdens. One for Robbins is newsflash worthy: “This just in: Everyone you love will be extinguished, and so will you.” But the burden is lighter when we can sing along, when we know the song by heart, when somewhere a stranger is singing, too, and we “are linked to him, however briefly, through the public matter of form: an occasion for artifactual embrace.” Lighter? “But as I listen to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ today, once again, in the arena of my soul, how high that highest Bic lights the dark,” writes Robbins (hacking Wallace Stevens).
Robbins doesn’t, but I’ll quote from The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics on “burden”: “(c) […] the leading sentiment or matter of a song or poem […] d) the refrain or chorus of a song.” Burdens are shareable. They are the what and how we share. Reminded of music — of what music does and how it works — I’m again reminded by Robbins of how poems work, of what they do when they really work on me.
To discuss form in light of poetry’s function seems at this late date to be putting the missile back in the silo. Let’s: Robbins makes you want to dream, to remember: “Every song you loved when you were young turns into ‘Tintern Abbey.’” What about first poems? I think of the first one that moved me. It told me what poems do. No, it let me dream about function by telling me about forms, how a poem rings out:
A poem should curve
Like the bell of a tulip
Or a pistol grip
— DJ Renegade
I did what any teenager would do: I immediately tracked down Joel Dias-Porter at a reading — he’d been a DJ, he was a national Slam champ — and asked him to teach me to write. He invited me to a group that called itself the Woodshed. There I worked with Brian Gilmore, Yona Harvey, Ta-Nehisi Coates. I thought these were some of the greatest writers I would ever meet. I was young. Turns out, I was right.
I think of DJ Renegade’s haiku when I read, say, about Hart Crane’s The Bridge and its “inviolate curve,” that Aeolian harp, shining like a national guitar. No surprise: It’s on that same bridge where Robbins ends his first collection, another poet-DJ remixing the final words of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Molly Bloom’s “Yes” rings out, becomes Robbins’s “yes yes y’all.”
Is it the rhyme, the alchemy of form (tulips, two lips) that enthralled me? Or the way that Renegade’s poem stated, plainly, that a poem is a handle to grip the world. Equipment. Isn’t all of this — poetry’s form and function, the way it equips us — central to its political relevance? The poem lives in me. Then and now: Refrains, connects, bridges. Call it the poetic tense, poetic tension. I think of the title of Gilmore’s brilliant 1992 debut: Elvis Presley Is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem.
I think of “Wishing Well,” a poem off Gregory Pardlo’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize–winning Digest. It floored me when I first heard Pardlo read it. With Robbins in mind, I revisit it and wonder why. The poem tells of a chance encounter between a poet and another man “Outside the Met”: nothing special, a meeting, at the Met, with a question — harmless, loaded — about a fountain, about social, communal forms, whether they still exist. What do poems talk about when they talk about forms?
and he says pardon me Old School he
says you know is this a wishing well?
Yeah Son I say sideways over my shrug […]
Throw your bread on the water.
The proverb casually tossed. It’s the burden of the poem. “Invent a story for some proverb. Which?” thinks Joyce’s Leopold Bloom sitting on a toilet, dreaming of authoring a story — a life — with his estranged wife Molly. “By Mr. and Mrs. L. M. Bloom.” For Bloom, texts are useful in all sorts of ways: he wipes himself with the one he’s reading. How else? They bind us together. Might literary texts, writes Burke in “Literature as Equipment for Living,” function as “proverbs writ large”? What’s it mean to think about literature in terms of what Robbins calls “shareability”? In terms of application? Burdens?
Perhaps Pardlo’s poem moves me, in part, because it stages a refusal to share. His “I eye” isn’t exactly an “aye” for solidarity:
Because he appears not to have changed
them in days I eye the heel-chewed hems
of his pants and think probably he will
ask me for fifty cents any minute now wait
Wait for it. Don’t: Because there’s no great revelation coming. The world’s been cavity-searched, so lose your illusion. Comforting or isolating? “Dom Gregory Dix, in his classic The Shape of the Liturgy,” writes Robbins, “lamented the decline of the corporate worship of the Eucharist ‘into a mere focus for the subjective devotion of each separate worshipper in the isolation of his own mind.’” Well, one can wish otherwise, and “Wishing Well” wants to: Pardlo gets what Robbins calls pop’s “artifactual,” physical embrace. The rest of the poem is risky, maybe humiliating, cheesy as a refrain you sing along to, a proverb you live by.
It starts with a sign of peace and ends with a refrain: “Hey man I’m going / to make a wish for you too,” says our well-wisher, now carrying a coin and a condition: all you have to do is “hold my hand. And close your eyes.” Borderline corny, borderline intriguing: the men embrace (“his rough hand / in mine inflates like a blood pressure cuff”) and a burden gets shared: “See now,” says the stranger (quoting Mark 8; John 9), “you’ll never walk alone” (quoting Rodgers and Hammerstein and everyone else whose heart has touched and been touched by that refrain, from Nina Simone to Gerry and the Pacemakers.)
“We have to make ourselves vulnerable to one another,” says Pardlo to an interviewer. “‘Wishing Well’ […] moves one to tears,” says the interviewer. I guess I’m not alone.
Pop is not enough. Pop is too much. It can be downright embarrassing. Still, Robbins wants a poetry that can rival “its outscale desire, its extravagant want, its implausible or impossible will.” It’s the want at the very heart of creation. As my friend Keith Zarriello of The Shivers puts it in a song that reminds you what songs sometimes so effortlessly do, “And then God made Adam Eve / And then Eve said I want more.” That’s all we want from our equipment, from our poems, from this life. More. Wait for it.
A kid just googled
Is God really dead?
O Siri, can you tell me?
Is it all in my head?
Michael Devine is co-founder of Famous Letter Writer, an arts collective exploring connectivity through music, poetics, and live performance. He is poetry editor of Saranac Review and an associate professor of English at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Plattsburgh.