By Michael Robbins
10:47 AM PDT, September 28, 2012
Jay-Z, Sonic Youth, Guns N' Roses, Ghostface Killah, Slayer, Prince, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Britney Spears, The New Pornographers, Mobb Deep, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Prefab Sprout, Pink, The Beatles, Van Halen, Big Star, Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift, Converge, Nirvana, Neil Young, Talking Heads, Joy Division, Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden.
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These are just some of the artists I quote, name or remix in the poems in "Alien vs. Predator." Their lyrics, or my riffs on them, abut and abet lines borrowed or reworked from poets: John Berryman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, W. B. Yeats, John Donne, Philip Larkin, Allen Ginsberg, James Wright.
It never occurred to me to write poems that didn't equalize in this way the twin traditions that have formed more than just my aesthetic taste. Where — who — would I be if I hadn't discovered the first Clash record in junior high? About where and who I'd be if I hadn't stumbled on Yeats around the same time: nowhere, nobody. Which is to say: not here, not me.
One of my earliest memories is of riding in a car with my father on a bridge in Wichita, Kan. Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight" is on the radio, and I'm mesmerized by something in the tune. I remember my dad trying to explain to me how the radio works. The Internet tells me "Afternoon Delight" charted in 1976. I was 4 years old. Listening to the song now (or to my other favorite song in 1976, Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"), with my somewhat more advanced critical faculties, I know it for the candy floss it is (those birds!), but its melody wrapped its tentacles around my brainstem a lifetime ago. I can still hear what that child heard.
In "Lipstick Traces," the best book ever written about pop music, Greil Marcus ingeniously discovers in the writings of the situationist Guy Debord a kind of fossil record of punk rock. "Only a few encounters," Debord wrote, "were like signals emanating from a more intense life, a life that has not really been found." Popular music was never, for me, just one more pleasant appurtenance in the structure of the day, something in the background to nod along to. Somehow it haunted me, from my earliest childhood — these songs, with their strange meanings, their mystical hints, projected a world. I lived in it most of the time, imagining a more intense life that the songs were fragments of or dispatches from.
That life, needless to say, has not really been found. "Rock 'n' roll means well," goes a song by Drive-By Truckers, "but it can't help telling young boys lies." It's an old story: the illusions of youth burn off, and you make art from what's left. Often enough you make art about the illusions themselves — that's half of rock 'n' roll right there. William Wordsworth put it this way:
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
Or as Chrissie Hynde sang on "Learning to Crawl": "I'm not the kind I used to be / I got a kid, I'm 33."
There are distinctions to be made between Jay-Z and Wordsworth, whom I pair in my poem "To the Break of Dawn" ("I wandered lonely as Jay-Z / after the Fat Boys called it quits"). But I see no reason to rebuild, in my own life, the hierarchies that separate them in the field of art. Each has provided me with what the critic Kenneth Burke called "equipment for living." Pop music and poetry are the conversations I have with myself, the Baedekers with which I navigate crucial experiences. It would be dishonest of me to condescend to popular music, to pretend that there's something wrong with loving Taylor Swift, who, as a high-schooler, wrote the best teenage lyric ("Tim McGraw") since Arthur Rimbaud's "The Drunken Boat."
That's not to say I (and my poems) don't register any contradictions. Jay-Z is one of the richest people on the planet. Swift is a millionaire. Wordsworth did extremely well for himself as a poet, but he didn't own a basketball team. My poems don't believe it's just that so few should have so much when so many have almost nothing. And yet they revel in the culture that produces such obscene inequality. I believe that poetry is perhaps uniquely well-suited to illumine the contradictions that warp our lives even as we sing along. "Capital, it fails us now," Gang of Four sang, on a record issued by Warner Bros., one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the history of the world. At the formal level, such contradictions can be foregrounded through the modernist technique of collage.
Rap, with its dynamic contradictions, first infiltrated the mainstream when I was a teen. Before the courts restricted the creative use of preexisting art to create new art — one of the ways in which our absurd copyright laws stifle creative freedom — groups like Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Eric B. and Rakim made glorious sounds out of fragments of other people's sounds. On their records, you can hear elements of songs by Led Zeppelin, Steely Dan, The Temptations, Michael Jackson, Hall and Oates, and, of course, James Brown. Sampling, remixing: These wonderful practices produced the most exciting art of my youth. "The sounds were all collaged together to make a sonic wall," said Public Enemy's Chuck D, invoking both Phil Spector and John Coltrane. Indeed, jazz artists had been doing something similar for decades, improvising their own melodies atop the chord progression of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" (chord progressions can't be copyrighted), or briefly "quoting" well-known melodies in their solos.
All this is old news, almost a cliché — at this point one mentions T.S. Eliot's pastiche technique in "The Waste Land." But the songs can still sound like the future. Or like some timeless present: I can hear hip-hop in Berryman's "Dream Songs," Baudelaire in heavy metal. My poems reproduce that simultaneity. There are, of course, boundaries in art, boundaries and barricades. One story art tells is the story of storming them.
Michael Robbins is author of "Alien vs. Predator."
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