Alone With the Cat
Dazed and Confused, Gramercy Pictures, 1993
Born in 1972 (or, as the back cover of his new book of poems puts it, “during the Nixon administration”), Michael Robbins experienced, growing up, a tremendous run of good luck. It didn’t have much to do with his immediate environment. A child of parents who divorced when he was 5, Robbins spent his youth alternating between households in small-town Colorado and a depleted suburb of Wichita, Kansas. He was a reader and a social misfit in a religious, parochial culture ill-inclined to tolerate either. As the poet himself acknowledges in interviews, America during the ’70s and ’80s was a bad place and time to grow up: in Kansas, Colorado, and elsewhere, cultural conservatives, empowered by a political realignment that Nixon pioneered and Reagan perfected, busied themselves reintroducing a sanctimonious and oppressive tone to public discourse. Labor flatlined, stifled by its own bureaucracy and squeezed between management in the Global North and unorganized workers in the Global South. The fantasies of supply-side economics began to distort public policy; financial institutions began to shake off regulations.
But if the America of the later cold war was something of a hot mess politically and economically, even the most jaundiced observer of the era would have to concede that, culturally, it possessed at least one vital element. Popular music thrived, and more than thrived. Robbins and his generation’s good fortune was to grow up during its golden age. Hard rock, soft rock, funk, new wave, soul, blues, country, house, punk, indie (then known as college) rock, R&B, disco, various metals, pop as such, still-nascent hip-hop—now-classic artists and albums emerged from so many genres and at such an astonishing pace that it was, and still is, more or less impossible to keep track of the entire torrent. The music-industrial complex could stake a claim to being the most flexible, utopian, responsive, and excellent institution in America; if the youth of the period, depicted memorably in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, were heading nowhere, at least they were going fast, with some degree of gusto, windows down and backed up by a howling soundtrack.
That the number of omnivorous music nerds relative to the general population increases in periods of political malaise—it’s easy to suspect, but hard to prove. What’s beyond doubt, though, is that by his twenties Michael Robbins was such a character, and that he was far from alone. But in one way Robbins stood out: he aimed to be a poet, albeit, as he states in an interview, in a tentative, haphazard way. By and large, the poets whom he credits with inspiring him to become one himself—Yeats, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Lorca—were impassioned, musical, Romantic, major. But they were also foreign and dead, and nothing in contemporary American poetry resembled them. The poetry scene in the ’90s, when Robbins earned his BA, MFA, and MA, was dominated by a mainstream of tedious self-chroniclers composing in slack, unmusical free verse: the names Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, and Mary Oliver come to mind, among many others. To the right of these stood the New Formalists, prim and lukewarm fetishists of rhyme and meter who, incapable of stirring interest in their own work, were reduced to advocating for the work of second-tier septuagenarians such as Richard Wilbur and Donald Justice. The loudest voices on the left belonged to a loose syndicate of avant-garde poets known as Language poets. These last were frequently excellent—Harryette Mullen, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout—but almost always obscure, having convinced themselves that since mainstream poets, the government, and advertisers all used language that was direct and easy to comprehend, their own use of disjointed syntax and meaning comprised an insurrection against capitalist state society.
Nonetheless, for any young poet in the ’90s who believed, as Robbins did, that poetry could be a site for something more than biography, epiphanies, and botany—that poetry could not just sustain, but even amplify, intellectual, political, and ideological content—the experimental poets were pretty much the only game in town. (A college town, of course: since the market for poetry had collapsed as print culture declined and screen culture ascended, poetry could only sustain itself with support from the academy.)