An Interview with Michael Robbins

No one would accuse Michael Robbins’s debut poetry collection, Alien vs. Predator, of failing to attract much-deserved critical attention. Indeed—ever since Mr. Robbins was plucked from relative obscurity by the New Yorker’s poetry editor Paul Muldoon—he has become something of a sensation, a member of that perpetually-dying-breed: the serious contemporary poet who is also widely known, discussed, and read among the general public.

But it would be fair to say that some aspects of Mr. Robbins’s poetry receive significantly more attention than others. Critics seem particularly smitten with Mr. Robbins’s adroit appropriation of popular culture. Almost invariably the media tends to point out that his poems mention the rapper Jay-Z, that he positively reviewed Taylor Swift’s newest album in Spin magazine, etc. It’s not that this is beside the point, but it is far from the only point. Robbins is an accomplished critic and scholar, not only steeped in “the canon” but he is also deeply committed to addressing certain “matters of permanent concern” as Saul Bellow (another notable Chicagoan man of letters) might have said.

 It was in this spirit that we sent Mr. Robbins a few questions by e-mail about the failings of “secular liberalism,” a strain of thought that he often unflinchingly critiques in his darkly visionary poetry and trenchant essays.

—Joel Rice

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You’ve publically taken issue with “the New Atheists” and aired several grievances with “secular liberalism” more generally. Correct me if I am mistaken, but it is an attitude of “certainty”—religious or secular— that you take particular issue with. Why, as a poet, do you feel it important to raise this issue?

I more or less agree with the philosopher Peter Unger: “Everybody is always ignorant of everything.” Unger says this in the course of making a case for universal skepticism; I’m not inclined to follow him there. But intellectually, I was trained in what Ricoeur called “the hermeneutics of suspicion"—Marx, Nietzsche, Freud: these giants never tire of reminding us that we don’t know ourselves. The only thing we can be certain of is that much of what we believe will turn out to be wrong (and we can’t even be sure of what we believe: as Wittgenstein said, "Perhaps you believe you believe it!”). So, yes, I stand before ontological mystery in something like awe, understanding almost nothing, set against scientism and religious fundamentalism alike. Poetry is many things, but one of the primary things it is is a way of thinking. One certainty we are familiar with today is the certainty that consumer capitalism is all there is: the only realistic form of economic life, now and forever, amen. In a very anti-discursive way, I try in my poems to expose that certainty as a farce. Anahid Nersessian, in the best review of my work anyone’s written (it appeared in Contemporary Literature), notes how many of my poems deal with “global warming, genetically modified foods, religious fundamentalism, the war in Iraq, human and nonhuman animal extinction.” Certainty is Blake’s Urizen, “in chains of the mind locked up.” Milton, the poet, comes to break those chains. It’s like a Fleetwood Mac song.

 

Martin Heidegger argued that philosophy should begin in “astonishment.” Is the same true of poetry? If not “astonishment,” what is the proper attitude? How do we, as poets, answer misplaced “certainty”?

I don’t have any special insight into the matter: Wordsworth wrote of “that blessed mood, / In which the burthen of the mystery, / In which the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world, / Is lightened.” Isn’t that mood—call it astonishment—where poetry begins? And religion? (Often when I’m talking about poetry, it turns out I’m talking about religion, and vice versa.)

I think of some concordant themes in Wordsworth; the line “We murder to dissect…” seems germane. Also Wordsworth’s claim that there’s not as important a distinction between prose and poetry, rather an essential distinction is between “poetry” and a “matter of fact” tone. Is that also part of the problem, that “matter of fact” tone?

The atheist of the Dawkins-Hitchens variety does indeed believe not only that there is a fact of the matter, but that he is in possession of it. It’s as if no one’s read Kant. I have no objection to atheism if it equips itself with Nietzsche’s understanding of the depth of the problem. But Dawkins is like a little kid who thinks money’s no problem because you can always go to the ATM to get more. He hasn’t understood the complexity of what it means to talk about being in the first place.

Despite the dark subject matter, when I read your poems I sense some very guarded optimism—that language and poetry will somehow prevail in even the most deprived (or depraved) cultural landscapes. A visit to Best Buy can furnish an occasion for poetry. There is no shortage of morbid ecological disasters, bloodshed or corporate interests run amuck, and you vigorously engage that reality. But at the same time, our language—your language—poetry—is as vibrant and radically alive as ever. Is it a stretch to say no matter what cultural, moral, or spiritual deprivations we face, we will at the very least always find a poetic idiom to describe our condition, perhaps even a way forward?

Hm, well, I don’t want to argue with that, if that’s what you get from my poems. But my own sense of them is rather different. I don’t see how any art could claim that we will always find an idiom proper to our condition, much less a way forward. What if Adorno was right about lyric poetry after Auschwitz and we just haven’t realized it? Language and art may be our most valuable resources, but the cruelty and stupidity of humankind seem boundless. Don’t they? I don’t know what I believe, but my poems, with which I don’t feel obligated to agree, seem to me to be written in the light of an end-time without end.

 

Where have you found the sacred? In your poem “Confessional Poem” you write, “An unseen force propels the carts / across the Whole Foods parking lot.”


To quote Nersessian again, because I think she’s read me better than I read myself, I have a “queasy fascination” with the corporate landscapes of America. The sacred must be wherever one looks for it, of course. But I wouldn’t be so sure those corporate logos don’t make it harder to see. Sometimes I think all our problems come down to questions of architecture.