Thursday, February 19, 2009

Alien Vs. Predator

At more or less any given time in Blogland, someone will be huffing and puffing on the subject of ‘difficult’ poetry. There are two approaches.

The first comes from those who believe ‘difficult’ poetry is a necessary antidote to a dumbed-down culture. In any case, they say, there’s nothing difficult about ‘difficult’ poetry. You just need to learn how to read it. They believe strongly in the ability of words to transcend their strictures – grammatical, syntactical, or otherwise – and can, at times, be contemptuous of poems that don’t attempt such innovation, which means more or less all ‘mainstream’ poetry.

The second approach is from those who believe ‘difficult’ poetry to be a bad thing. They argue that poetry has become an obscure and bewildering academic artform, remote from general experience. This obscurity, they say, is largely to blame for poetry’s (allegedly) tiny audience. They support poetry which is straightforward, clear, and can be easily understood. They condemn people who have little tolerance for this ‘easy’ poetry, and may call them elitist, snobby, or exclusive (i.e. they show little tolerance themselves). They often dismiss poems and poets who don’t fit their norm, which will, ironically, include many poets their opponents think of as entirely mainstream.

I was thinking about this when reading Anna Evans’s thoughtful post on Archibald MacLeish’s ars poetica. In the course of that discussion, Anna cites a poem recently published in the New Yorker, Alien vs Predator by Michael Robbins. It’s worth taking a look at. It’s easy and ultimately self-defeating to talk on this subject in generalities, but a real poem might focus attention.

This poem, to me, doesn’t seem particularly experimental. I think we can be sure that Ron Silliman, for example, would throw this one into the ‘School of Quietude’ pile. However, I’m equally sure that for someone who had read only a limited range of poetry, it would be quite bewildering. It does bewilder me, to an extent, although I’m sure that’s one of its intended effects. The title, referencing the movie of the same name, relates only slightly (if at all) to the poem. That reminds me of Ashbery and others, who do the same – a fun (yawn, some might think) exercise in discontinuity.

The poem is fragmented. The narrator appears to be some kind of deity, but not the traditional type – a self-centred, contemptuous little shit, prone to unexpected violence, incarnate as much in a cigarette as in the New York Times itself. The tone is playful and cynical. The world is a commodity, a spectacle; the Tibetans are released in front of ‘Best Buy’, but the freak show to follow doesn’t turn up, to the narrator’s displeasure. The absurdity of the images is like a commentary on the world, as if life is a reality TV show set in a Victorian asylum. The deity is angry at ‘Rilke…the jerk’ for denying him his right to be praised, and echoes the phrase with ‘that elk is such a dick.’ The deity seeds the ionosphere and translates the Bible into Dinosaur. The juxtapositions are humorous and serve to undermine anything that might confer serious meaning.

In some ways, I enjoyed the poem. But I think it’s simply a mirror of other poems, a very standard way of looking at the world. There’s no challenge, nothing unusual being said, despite the superficial weirdness of its imagery. ‘The world is absurd, authority is there only to be shot down, political causes are commodities, and as for newspapers, cigarettes, gods, they all come to the same thing, which isn’t much.’ I don’t believe the poem can be summed up like that – at least, that would be unfair, but it does reflect such a prevalent world-view and, like most art that reflects this prevalent world-view, knocks down a few once-sacred cows (these days, this approach feels like shooting at an animal already caught in a trap) and is content simply to do that.

Having said that, I liked much of the absurdity. The rhythms and rhymes were handled well. I enjoyed the ride, I suppose. Some of the images intrigued me, some of them made me laugh – ‘the space tree/ making a ski and a little foam chiropractor’ for example, and ‘The sandhill cranes make brains look easy’ and ‘I’d eat your bra – point being – in a heartbeat.’ The slit monkeys, the Bible, the Best Buy and whale on stilts, the names, the sleeping on meat – all of these are ingenious images. In short, I enjoyed many, perhaps most, of the fragments. Put them together and I can make certain connections, but what have I got in the end? The poem may, in itself, be suggesting that it doesn’t matter, that nothing matters really. Well, thanks for that…

But as for being ‘difficult’… Difficult for whom? I would be really interested to know what people think of this poem – positive or negative viewpoints.

I found an interview with Michael Robbins here, which may or may not shed light on his method. I do enjoy much of Frederick Seidel’s work, who Robbins also seems to admire.


Ms Baroque said...

Rob, you are such a consistently thoughtful reader of poetry - thanks for this. You're also right about self-defeating arguments!

I liked this poem, it made me laugh, it made me think about Paul Muldoon being the editor there, and I found it in the end much as you had. It's the style.

Every style has its dangers; onwe of these of course is that peopel forget it's a style and they think everything has to (or 'should') be like that. But the danger of this particular style is that, in its irony, in its attention to surface for the sake of negating what's under the surface, it may have - well - not quite enough under the surface. Hoist by its own petard. Not this poem - the style itself. The poems with underneath things going on will emerge from the superficiality of the style the way things did in, say, the 1890s.

This point is, I assume, exactly what readers have been talking about me when they have told me they loved my poems because of their open emotional content. This is clearly something they feel is lacking in much contemporary poetry.

As for difficulty, well, it is difficult to follow. So, yes. But not difficult as in working out the threads of a Shakespearian or Donne-ian conceit, or having to know anything. I've never seen 'Predator'.

I have to say, too - the Dinosaur Bible? As the author of 'Dinosaur Opera', I knew this one was on the cards.

deemikay said...

Not had a chance to read the poem as yet... but shall do later on this evening.

I've already said (and I'm sure you've read) that I don't mind "difficult" poetry - I read plenty of it. Nor do I mind "easy" poetry. And there have been difficult poems written throughout history (and to contemporary audiences as well, not simply through a lack of historical context). There is a third camp that likes both.

But the issue is: when does apparent difficulty mask nothing at all? I'm thinking of the museum goers and curators thinking an empty picture frame is an "art piece" and not just something left lying around...

When people start suspecting that of a poem, well... that's when they think they can't be bothered with "difficult" poetry.

BarbaraS said...

I read the poem and the article that you pointed up, and right after the article, some wise guy has posted 'who is this creep anyway? never heard of him.'

I do like the unlikely tale of his work getting through because he'd struck up a correspondance with PM. That's what I'm doing wrong: I should be emailing poets questions about their strange words and where their vocabulary comes from...

Difficult poetry becomes difficult when the reader doesn't have the cultural connections in order to build meaning out from the poem. Our ignorance means that we won't elicit much from a poem if the way it's written threatens what we know (or mostly shows up what we don't know).

Accessibility... hmmm. Much to think on as per usual.

I note that Robbins doesn't seem to think much of Cohen's lyrics...

knott said...

appropriation seems to be its gen——

Dugan in a 1950s poem called Rilke a prig, and it's a cliche since then to sardonicize RMR's status as Ur-poet . . .

the last line is a rewrite of a line in my book from 1989 . . .

AVP: the received poem per se.

Michael Robbins said...

EXCUSE ME, Bill? The last line is not a rewrite of anything, much less of anything you wrote in 1989 or any other time. If we have written similar lines, that's poetry's fault, not mine. The first line obviously appropriates Berryman, but I assure you you're nowhere in there.

Michael Robbins said...

also, do I really need to note that Paul Muldoon was not poetry editor of The New Yorker when I emailed him & sent him my poems?? I had no idea he would end up there, & I submitted my poems through the usual channels.

I'd resent my matriculation into the SoQ if I believed there were such a thing. One of Silliman's less inspired notions.

Rob said...


I'd say it was unclear from the interview whether Paul Muldoon was or was not editor of the New Yorker when you first struck up correspondence, but
thanks for clarifying that.

As far as SoQ goes, I agree with you. I'm sure I'd be in there too, but it's a meaningless category. I was suggesting simply that your poem wasn't as 'difficult' or obscure as some people had been making it sound.

Thanks for the poem. It's certainly been discussed more than most poems ever will be.

Michael Robbins said...

Hmm, you're right, unless you know when he became editor it could give that impression. That's unfortunate. Ah well.

I am very pleased that the poem has received such attention -- what poet doesn't dream of having his work read with such care? (Although I'd have to dispute certain of yr readings.) Why, now that Bill Knott has accused me of plagiarizing him, my arrival is complete.

Thank you for the kindnesses.

(I have to type "bilyb" to post this: Billy Budd? Billy Batson? Nay, Billy Blake!)

Michael Robbins said...

Also, serendipitously, Leonard Cohen has a poem in the new issue of the NYer.

Rob said...

Michael, I'd be surprised if you didn't dispute parts of my reading. I'm sure I will have gone astray at various points and I wasn't at all sure about the identity of the narrator (or even if there was a single narrator). However, once you write a poem, particularly one which leaves plenty of room for interpretation, you take what comes, I guess.

Leonard's in the New Yorker? I prefer his songs to his poems on the page, generally.

baj salchert said...


Enjoying the ride is my response to poems by Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, both of whom I call magic carpet poets.

I am here via links at Silliman's Blog, and I've read Zach Baron's interview.

About this poem by Michael Robbins--which I have read several times--I noted in a blog post that it "flies over my head"; but that's okay, given the growing multitudes of signs-upon-signs. No one can be aware of a nanospeck of what's available. At least this poem is not what I might picture Murray Gell-Mann writing. I'm pleased Mr. Robbins writes poems that are not like--well, he knows--even if he does give Rilke a hard time in this poem.

Rob said...

baj, thanks for that. I like the term, 'magic carpet poets'. I am also a fan of Rilke.

Rob said...

To explain, I like the term because the magic carpet takes you somewhere and it feels magical, but you've no idea really how you got there - you just did, courtesy of the poet.