The world of contemporary poetry has a startling new voice—and it is one that sounds a lot like an MC. This voice is that of Michael Robbins, who had his first poem chosen by Paul Muldoon to be published in the New Yorker just last year, and who this past year published his first collection of poems, Alien Vs. Predator.
While Robbins’ commercial success is limited by his medium (no one reads poetry, right?), this book has gotten probably as close to being mainstream as a book of poems can get. It was reviewed in the New York Times twice, once in Entertainment Weekly—whose “Books” section includes more news about the upcoming Great Gatsby movie than it does book reviews—and even has an entry on Rap Genius, the rap lyrics explanation website.
Just as he is embraced by all areas of culture beyond the somewhat exclusive world of contemporary poetry, he embraces both the high and the low, print and social media, actively maintaining his own highly entertaining Tumblr, Twitter, and even Instagram. And I think a big contributor to his popularity is the way in which he specifically channels the rap genre in his poems. And perhaps an even bigger contributor is the fact that he channels that genre while saying something interesting and important about the current state of our world and ourselves.
As a poet, he attempts to give us a portrait of our world and its language—and I think his clear motive is to not ignore the naughty bits. With its fused and confused words, misinterpretations and misplaced phrases, our world is one of mixed messages, and Robbins chooses not to distill it. Instead, he presents it to us in a way that is at once objective and voiced by a persistently subjective “I.”
It is a voice that lets itself be influenced by all the words that surround it, and is simultaneously aware of this fact: “I get my news from Meerkat Manor. / Every Cylon is a mystery. / I get my news from Al Jazeera / and the American Apparel catalog.” And this speaker, in reaction to his linguistically chaotic world, asserts his personhood, his “I,” by combining phrases in unique ways to capture his reactions, his emotions, his making sense of it all.
It is fascinating how Robbins insistently uses a first-person, “I” speaker, though this speaker does not have a single identity. In his wide range of references and colloquial registers, he jumps from voice to voice, speaker to speaker. (This unfixed speaker reminded me a lot of really good rappers today, like Kendrick Lamar, who uses multiple voices on his album Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, most notably when he speaks in the first-person from the perspective of a prostitute in “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.”)
Yet what Robbins shows us in this jumping is that a coherence can still be formed from a collection of cultural fragments—that in a world where we are constantly absorbing information and more often than not made into to advertisement receptacles, we can still assert subjectivity through arrangement of this information and make a kind of meaning.
And there are moments where Robbins the poet’s own making sense of it all seems to reveal itself. At times a clear anti-capitalist voice shines through with fervent anger, that is presumably Robbins’ own. The language of advertisement and mass-produced pop culture is used lavishly, but also bitingly. In an interview with the Paris Review, Robbins talks about this ambiguous relationship with commercialism. He says: “My poetry is partly about how everything is for sale. It seems astonishing to me that we accept that as normal. At the same time, I love Taylor Swift and it would be ridiculous for me to not listen to Taylor Swift or to not see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which I just saw, because they are consumer spectacles that disguise the actual relations of production…I want to register my antagonism while also registering my complicity.”
Antagonism and bravado are driving forces for most, if not all the poems in Alien Vs. Predator. It is a clear way in which he seems like a rapper. His political anger, though not directed at quite the same issues, is evocative of Tupac’s “Changes,” and his constant boasting reminds me of the bragging swagger that seems to be the foundation of much rap.
Another, simpler way he channels popular rap is just by daring to make reference to it—something atypical for a poet. Robbins is not picky about what he steals. He appropriates from pop and hip hop culture as often as he does from canonical works. He spits lines that evoke movies like Jurassic Park and Alien as they make reference to Rilke and the Bible (“I translate the Bible into velociraptor”), that steal from Wordsworth and make it fresh (“I wandered lonely as Jay-Z”), and all the while, he maintains a fast rhythm and impressive rhyme scheme. Let’s just say he’s got flow.
When asked in the same Paris Review interview about the notable hip hop/rap element of his work, Robbins explains how “popular music does what poetry used to do: it brings people together in a common conversation, and there’s a definite sense in which poetry over the past fifty years has become less and less of a popular art form and more a cloistered pursuit.” Thus, his evocation of the genre of rap seems to be his own way of revitalizing and restoring the genre of poetry.
On the surface, there is something entertainingly rap-like about the way Robbins rhymes, and his poems are enjoyably dizzying for their sound porn;even if you cannot understand them, you keep going because they are spectacularly pleasurable to read. Often, his warped appropriations and unexpected juxtapositions incite audible laughter. Robbins seems to be striving for the humor and wit that make many rap songs so enjoyable for so many people.
The surface pleasure can at first be distracting, even mystifying, when trying to make meaning of the poems. But after becoming immersed in the book—after falling victim to Robbins’ linguistic tricks again and again—a desire to interpret settles in. And along with it comes with a heightened awareness to his strategies.
His poems often have enjambed rhymes that keep the verse moving quickly and end rhymes that aim to astonish. At his best, he manages to create ways to see the world out of the fragments of our hyperlinked and idiomatic language. At his worst, he loses momentum and rhythm, and his nonsensicalities seem ridiculous (“My smoothie comes with GPS”).
However, beneath Robbins’ somewhat solicitous attempt to appeal to readers through rhyme and rhythm, there is something more than satisfying sounds and good comedy. There is truth—a truth for the present moment.
In the collection’s first and title poem, Robbins writes: “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” I remember the childhood riposte and finish it: “Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.” And Robbins, throughout this energetic, compact first book, does just that. He takes what we say, hear on TV, get in our mail, read on LCD screens, and listen to on our iPods, and flings it back at us in a satisfyingly fresh way.