It’s good to see a talented poet embracing the fact that for most poets in their fifties or younger, popular music is at least as important an influence on their work as poetry itself. In Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, Michael Robbins acknowledges that “popular music is democratic in a way poetry’s not and probably can’t be,” but he does his level best to braid the two art forms together in a collection of lively and often hilarious essays.
Robbins is obsessed with the poetry he read and the music he listened to in his own adolescence, and while his writing on the topic is often funny, ultimately I was less interested in hearing how much Journey meant to him in 7th grade than I was in reading his snarky comments about his early influences. On the later poems of Charles Simic: “They’re comfortable, unassuming, the sort of thing an investment banker might discover in the New Yorker and send to his son at MIT.” On James Wright: “It is easy to feel that, if fetal alcohol syndrome could write poetry, it would write this poetry.” Robert Hass is “given to pedantic soothsaying, telling the reader how it is in tones that suggest he is just slightly winded from having jogged down the slopes of Parnassus.” Robbins loves the music of Neil Young, but he skewers his memoir: “No one expects belles lettres from rock stars, but it’s depressing to learn that one of your heroes writes like a composition student aiming for the earnest tone of a public service announcement.”
Who does he like? Wallace Stevens, of course, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Among his contemporaries, he lauds Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr. Pauline Kael is a favorite critic. In music, he’s partial to Nordic black metal bands and Prince (to whom the book is dedicated), and he’s a big fan of Taylor Swift, whose 2014 Grammy performance of “All Too Well” he calls “transcendent”: “for as long as it lasted, it was the best song I’d ever heard.” Robbins’s eclectic enthusiasms come together in the final chapter, “Playlist,” where he recommends songs by Shaun Cassidy, Beyoncé, Hole, and Wham! and poems by Anne Carson, Ezra Pound, Mary Ruefle, and Bashō. “Playlist” is the sort of mash-up that could easily become ridiculous if it weren’t, like most of the pieces in Equipment for Living, so much fun to read.