You may never love anything as encyclopedically as Michael Robbins loves music and poetry.
The cover for Equipment for Living by Michael Robbins announces the book like the logo of a television show from the ‘80s frozen in mid-animation. A child when MTV was in its infancy, Robbins roots his collection of criticism in his origin story as a burgeoning savant of both pop music and literary culture. If you were born of this time, you might recognize some of your own story in the past Robbins conveys so eloquently, but your sense of kinship will likely end there. Robbins breathes the varied air of Yeats, The Blues and Taylor Swift while you only breathe oxygen. You may never love anything as encyclopedically as Michael Robbins loves music and poetry.
Engaging him is a challenge because he is making connections about art and its potential and deficiencies that elude mere pedestrians. But the challenge is part of the point. Throughout this slim volume, Robbins is engaged with critics he found challenging and inspiring, including Pauline Kael, Greil Marcus and Harold Bloom. What is billed as a collection of essays reads more like the syllabus and lecture notes for a course in literary criticism you don’t remember signing up for, but are happy you completed.
The title is a mashup gleaned from Bloom’s philosophy for engaging with a text and a quote from Kenneth Burke. Bloom is concerned with how readers can force or derive utility from a text. Something with utility can be designated as “equipment,” even if that utility can only be empowered by the reader. Consumers of art find or create the meaning in what they consume. It is as active a process as using tools to build a house. On the other hand, Burke, taking a similar but different approach, calls poetry equipment for living: “a ritualistic way of arming us to confront perplexities and risks.” According to Burke, poetry exists “to protect us.” Shit happens, says Robbins, and poetry offers the means to fortify one’s psyche and soul against the perpetual storm.
Poetry forms ones aspect of Robbins’ musing. He also churns over questions about pop music and whether that particular rhythmic form intersects with or is itself poetry. Given that pop music is an act of commerce entrenched in a rigid formula of verse and hook, it would seem impossible for that to be the case. Pop music’s mandate is more about perpetuating mythologies of youth than anything else. But Robbins continually redresses romantic conceptions of the power of the poem, so maybe poetry and pop music are closer than may be assumed. To borrow from his continual intermingling of poetry and pop, Robbins’ main question (set to Edwin Starr’s “War”) is “Poems—what are they good for?” Being a highly regarded poet himself, he maintains that the answer is greater than nothing, but does lay out a calibrated set of realistic expectations that does not bloat poetry’s influence.
For the aforementioned pedestrians like this reviewer who wander into Equipment for Living with only a smattering of literary theory and criticism, Robbins has grounded his work in enough humor and self-deprecation to ease you into his more challenging arguments. Without provocation he confesses to his childhood love of Journey and his membership in the band’s fan club as an early salvo into why pop, especially mediocre pop, endures. But he also uses this moment with Journey to call criticism as a practice into question. One of his strategies is to use so-called low art to examine higher art forms, employing this method particularly exquisitely in the essay “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives.” It is an essay about heavy metal, its secret history and many subgenres.
“Metal and poetry are, among other things, arts of accusation and instruction,” claims Robbins, as he throws our assumptions into question. Most of us have visions of Black Sabbath and maybe the animalistic pageantry of GWAR when we think of metal, but Robbins lays out the varied landscape of forms and styles confined to the rubric of metal. But because it has been dismissed as barbaric incoherence, Robbins argues, the genre has been allowed to flourish. Due to his impassioned defense, readers will be opening browser tabs to seek out the bands he mentions. Such readers may hastily escape those tabs because the music is too loud, but Robbins’ criticism will open you up to possibilities and that’s the point.
Equipment for Living is not a book of easy affirmations but a thin volume of big ideas. There is a “playlist” in the back, more an encapsulation of the artists, critics and verse discussed in the essays than something found on iTunes. If you’ve read the book correctly, the playlist will augment your marginalia. You’ll know what you want to go back and reread. You’ll also know the arguments you’ll want to have with Robbins on Twitter.