Are Wallace Stevens and Bob Dylan permanently at odds, or do they have something in common?
For poet Robbins (The Second Sex, 2014, etc.) the answer is probably yes to both; pop isn’t poetry, regardless of what the Nobel Academy might think, but both enthusiasms scratch an itch the other can’t reach. The contrast between the two is the hook on which the author hangs this debut collection of criticism, which doesn’t aim to resolve the dispute so much as to display the intellectual journey of a former Journey fan. Robbins writes hilariously about Neil Young’s apparently awful memoir and informatively about the various types of metal (heavy, death, speed et al.). In a review of Pauline Kael’s work, he nails an essential fact about good critics: they don’t echo your opinion so much as challenge or unsettle it. Robbins himself fails the Kael test where Taylor Swift is concerned; his mash note to her album “Red” likely won’t persuade the uninitiated to at least give it a try. But Robbins is far more astute on poetry than pop, possibly because he’s a practitioner of one and mostly a learned fan of the other. He has an Oedipal wrestle with James Wright and James Dickey and delivers a blisteringly funny attack on Robert Hass that stops just short of being a full-scale demolition job. In the most vital piece, Robbins writes at some length on the poetry of Frederick Seidel, whom the author seems to see as a poet whose upfront tastelessness (about the Holocaust or 9/11) is actually a type of reverse psychology: a way of shocking readers into questioning the value of taste when addressing the horrors of modern life.
Robbins prefers his equipment for living abstract, but he can definitely take it straight, a point the book’s concluding Basho-to-Beyoncé and Beyond playlist makes abundantly clear.