Rock and Roll Book Club: Michael Robbins's 'Equipment for Living'

Michael Robbins's 'Equipment for Living'
Michael Robbins's 'Equipment for Living' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Michael Robbins is a poet — the kind of poet who writes lines like these.

The rain in Minneapolis is rain-
colored. The poor, purple in the cold,
are lifted up by no white bird.
Ghostface recites the cancer rates
while Prince commands the tide to turn —
our paisley priest, our Swinburne.

I can only imagine the internal debates he must have had regarding whether or not to capitalize "paisley."

Robbins is also a critic, and in his new book Equipment for Living he considers both poetry and popular music — and, of course, whether the two are one and the same. He devotes a chapter to the question, which became a matter of widespread debate when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

On balance, Robbins comes down on the side of no, they're not the same...but not because pop music is somehow inferior to poetry, or to literature generally. It's because pop lyrics are written to be set to music, and in the absence of music they're "inert," as Robbins quotes writer Stephen Metcalf noting. Inert might be a little strong, but point taken: Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas are creating different forms of art, even if there are similarities and shared influences between the two.

The title of Robbins's book refers to Kenneth Burke's argument that poetry "is undertaken as equipment for living, as a ritualistic way of arming us to confront perplexities and risks." In other words, poetry helps our minds accommodate the fact that life is complex, ambiguous, and unfair. The same thing goes for pop music: the reason you might like to listen to Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago after a breakup is that Justin Vernon sounds just as confused as you are.

(Not that Robbins is a Bon Iver fan. "Red is as smart and catchy as any album of this century," he writes of Taylor Swift's 2012 smash. "Pardon me if I hear more vitality and verve in her corniest love-story/break-up anthem than in all the adolescent morosity Justin Vernon wrings from his wounded soul.")

Equipment for Living opens with this observation, and closes with the thesis (quoting Joshua Clover) that "poetry and pop music and riots produce the same upswelling, the 'certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others,' enrolling us with allies who will share the burdens with us."

In between, the book ranges all over the map. Some of the chapters focus almost exclusively on poetry, like Robbins's long examination of Frederick Seidel and the question of taste. If the name of Seidel (an 81-year-old American poet) doesn't ring a bell, chapters like that one are apt to leave you cold. Then there are chapters that focus primarily on music, like Robbins's ode to Taylor Swift ("this music is full of adult pleasures") and his reminisce about Journey.

I'm not in a position to judge the validity of Robbins's views on James Dickey, but his music criticism isn't particularly insightful or articulate compared to that of either vets like Greil Marcus or younger writers like Hazel Cills and Amanda Petrusich. The real reason to read this book, for a music fan, is to consider pop music through the lens of a listener who has an intimate familiarity with poetry — a related art form.

In addition to the Dylan essay, Equipment for Living is also engaging when it comes to subjects like the Romantic roots of heavy metal's obsession with nature. ("Metal and poetry are, among other things, arts of accusation and instruction.") There's also a sharp chapter on the subject of rhyme, which contemporary poets often disdain. Robbins thinks that attitude reeks of snobbery, and finds a parallel among music snobs.

A rhyme like north | fourth evinces no Byronic derring-do; it must be for simpletons. This is like believing that the chord progression D-C-G is necessarily inferior to more elaborate progressions, so that just about any Genesis or Yes song is better than "Sweet Home Alabama" or "Sweet Child o' Mine."

Robbins is so good when it comes to considering music and poetry with respect to one another that I wished the book had been more systematic and thoroughgoing in that regard. Beyond comparing the two arts' formal properties, Robbins is in a position to compare the literary culture of poets to the world of music geeks. For example, when Robbins railed against enormous hardcover literary compilations ("You should not be able to stun a moose with anyone's Complete Poems"), I was hoping he'd go on to discuss vinyl box sets.

The book also has elements of autobiography that are too scattered to contribute much more than a bit of context. At one point Robbins takes on musicians' autobiographies, in a disappointingly short chapter that largely consists of a critique of Neil Young's memoir. ("There is not a hint of inspiration on any page of Waging Heavy Peace, nothing to indicate that Young has any idea that sentences can do more than impart basic information.")

Frustrating though it is in some respects, Equipment for Living will make a good beach read for the right kind of music fan: the kind who appreciates knowing that Tin Pan Alley just wouldn't have been the same if Mongol hordes hadn't carried the notion of rhyme from China to Persia several hundred years ago. "Since Chaucer consolidated end rhyme in English," adds Robbins, "there have been grumblers."

Or, in other words, haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.

The Current's Equipment for Living Giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Equipment for Living giveaway between 8 a.m. CT on Wednesday, July 19, 2017 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, July 25, 2017.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $24.00

We will contact the winners on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, July 27, 2017.

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