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Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music

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Brilliant, illuminating criticism from a superstar poet—a refreshing, insightful look at how works of art, specifically poetry and popular music, can serve as essential tools for living. How can art help us make sense—or nonsense—of the world? If wrong life cannot be lived rightly, as Theodor Adorno had it, what weapons and strategies for living wrongly can art provide? Wit Brilliant, illuminating criticism from a superstar poet—a refreshing, insightful look at how works of art, specifically poetry and popular music, can serve as essential tools for living. How can art help us make sense—or nonsense—of the world? If wrong life cannot be lived rightly, as Theodor Adorno had it, what weapons and strategies for living wrongly can art provide? With the same intelligence that animates his poetry, Michael Robbins addresses this weighty question while contemplating the idea of how strange it is that we need art at all. Ranging from Prince to Def Leppard, Lucille Clifton to Frederick Seidel, Robbins’s mastery of poetry and popular music shines in Equipment for Living. He has a singular ability to illustrate points with seemingly disparate examples (Friedrich Kittler and Taylor Swift, to W.B. Yeats and Anna Kendrick’s “Cups”). Robbins weaves a discussion on poet Juliana Spahr with the different subsets of Scandinavian black metal, illuminating subjects in ways that few scholars can achieve. Equipment for Living is also a wonderful guide to essential poetry and popular music.


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Brilliant, illuminating criticism from a superstar poet—a refreshing, insightful look at how works of art, specifically poetry and popular music, can serve as essential tools for living. How can art help us make sense—or nonsense—of the world? If wrong life cannot be lived rightly, as Theodor Adorno had it, what weapons and strategies for living wrongly can art provide? Wit Brilliant, illuminating criticism from a superstar poet—a refreshing, insightful look at how works of art, specifically poetry and popular music, can serve as essential tools for living. How can art help us make sense—or nonsense—of the world? If wrong life cannot be lived rightly, as Theodor Adorno had it, what weapons and strategies for living wrongly can art provide? With the same intelligence that animates his poetry, Michael Robbins addresses this weighty question while contemplating the idea of how strange it is that we need art at all. Ranging from Prince to Def Leppard, Lucille Clifton to Frederick Seidel, Robbins’s mastery of poetry and popular music shines in Equipment for Living. He has a singular ability to illustrate points with seemingly disparate examples (Friedrich Kittler and Taylor Swift, to W.B. Yeats and Anna Kendrick’s “Cups”). Robbins weaves a discussion on poet Juliana Spahr with the different subsets of Scandinavian black metal, illuminating subjects in ways that few scholars can achieve. Equipment for Living is also a wonderful guide to essential poetry and popular music.

30 review for Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music

  1. 4 out of 5

    John Cooper

    I agree with a lot of what Michael Robbins says, I disagree with a lot else, but most of all I deeply disagree with the way he says it. Louis Menand wrote a review of this book in The New Yorker that contains what I thought was a spot-on parody of a certain strain of pop criticism: "It yields sentences like 'I assume that what Burke'—the literary theorist Kenneth Burke—'says about poetry applies, mutatis mutandis, to the songs of Def Leppard.'" Ha! Little did I suspect that this gaseous pronounc I agree with a lot of what Michael Robbins says, I disagree with a lot else, but most of all I deeply disagree with the way he says it. Louis Menand wrote a review of this book in The New Yorker that contains what I thought was a spot-on parody of a certain strain of pop criticism: "It yields sentences like 'I assume that what Burke'—the literary theorist Kenneth Burke—'says about poetry applies, mutatis mutandis, to the songs of Def Leppard.'" Ha! Little did I suspect that this gaseous pronouncement is taken directly from the first chapter—except that it's been cleaned up to make it less bloated and irritating. What Robbins actually wrote was: "I assume that what Burke says about poetry applies, mutatis mutandis, to the songs of Def Leppard, though they are hardly alembicated at all." Alembicated: excessively refined, precious. Thanks for that. Robbins is the kind of writer who won't say limited when he can reach for foreclosed. His author bio boasts that he received his Ph.D. (in English) from the University of Chicago, the most academic of universities. I envy anyone who was able to attend the U. of C., but he seems to have gotten the worst of it. As a blurb on the back cover puts it, "Ugh, there should be a law against being as smart as Michael Robbins." No, there shouldn't be a law against being smart, but maybe there should be a law against writing as if you're afraid someone will think you're not. I don't know what Michael Robbins does for a living—poetry and criticism don't pay the bills these days. But if he were my professor, I would be ashamed to get anything but an F from him. Recently a co-worker of mine told me, in what I think was meant as praise, that I had the largest vocabulary of anyone she knew. I was appalled to have let it show. Over a lifetime—I'm roughly the same age as Michael Robbins—I've come to see that the beauty of the English language is in the power of its simplest words. As a poet, Robbins should know that. Instead, he writes turgid crud such as "By not writing in propria persona, Browning builds the politico-ideological problem of agency 'into the very structure of the poem as a problem.'" Ugh. The other irritation in Robbins' style is his way of letting drop an opinion in an aside, and then leaving it there without bothering to support it. This kind of thing has a nudge-nudge-wink-wink, ho-ho, don't-you-and-I-know-it offensiveness to it: "There is a quirkiness to Thomas's disregard for what part of speech a word usually is that at its best recalls Stevens...but at its worst sounds like E. E. Cummings....Of course, Thomas is a better poet than Cummings (who isn't?), but..." I can think of some candidates. But even if I'm wrong, and Cummings is the worst poet ever, respect for the reader demands that the writer back this kind of thing up. Everyone is entitled to an informed opinion. But unless you're God, the king, or a close friend, it's overreaching to just drop condemnations without a word of explanation. Robbins does this over and over, about both poetry and music. Some of this hit-and-run, overly abbreviated criticism owes as much to early rock critics such as Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, and Robert Christgau as it does to the French intellectual tradition. These guys assumed an air of superiority to combat the idea that all pop culture was disposable fluff: by writing about Elvis in academic style, they implicitly proclaimed that Elvis was as worthy of serious consideration as a highbrow novelist, and by compressing their judgment into enthusiastic one-paragraph hosannas (Marsh) or single-sentence prose poems (Christgau), they had maximum impact for the fewest column inches in Rolling Stone or the Village Voice. This is most apparent in the final chapter, "Playlist," Robbins' catalog of the songs, albums, and poems he likes best. Here's Robbins in his least academic, yet most impenetrable mode: "I don't trust moralists who can't hear Britney Spears over the roar of their prejudices, but this record is the guitar equivalent of the final shoot-out in The Wild Bunch." That's the entire review of a 1987 record by the Chicago punk-metal band Big Black. Enough not said. Yet I read this book all the way through. I hope I haven't given the impression that there are no ideas here. There are, and passion too, however annoyingly both are expressed. I read this book from cover to cover because, like Robbins, I love rock music, and because although much poetry leaves me cold, enough of it has moved me that I'm always eager to learn more about it. I disagree with about half of what Robbins says about music, but he and I love it with the same intensity, and that makes him not just another opinionated gasbag, but that most exasperating of folk: The Insufferable Friend.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lia

    I fully admit my disappointment in this book is my own fault. I think when I checked it out, I was expecting/hoping for more an exploration of form and function, and while there is a bit of that, I find it gets frequently derailed by analysis and criticism of specific artists and works. My minimal knowledge of both poetry and pop music means, rather than be invited to think on the subjects, I pretty much have to take the author's word for it.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Anthony Crupi

    Michael Robbins and Christopher Ricks cover a lot of the same ground, although the poet isn't nearly as fixated on "age and the only end of age." No matter: Robbins' analysis is brilliant, and what's more, he's convulsively hilarious when he's taking a poetaster/Neil Young down a peg. (There's a joke about owl noises that made me aspirate coffee all over a grim little patch of the R train.) Once you tear through this book, pester your local bookseller for Robbins' poetry collections (Alien vs. P Michael Robbins and Christopher Ricks cover a lot of the same ground, although the poet isn't nearly as fixated on "age and the only end of age." No matter: Robbins' analysis is brilliant, and what's more, he's convulsively hilarious when he's taking a poetaster/Neil Young down a peg. (There's a joke about owl noises that made me aspirate coffee all over a grim little patch of the R train.) Once you tear through this book, pester your local bookseller for Robbins' poetry collections (Alien vs. Predator, The Second Sex). Come on, you fuckers: David Berman's Actual Air can't be the last poetry collection you brought home in your silly-ass canvas shoulder bag.

  4. 4 out of 5

    mwr

    lengthy essay on Frederick Seidel deserves a higher rating, much of the rest of the book deserves a lower rating.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Chris Roberts

    Making-believe I am a human being is not a priority. This is a lynching review, save whales, not Michael Robbins.' The brief wondrous life of my attention span was not engaged by M. R., rather it was made hazy by a bombardment of counter-intuitive, nonsensical descriptors, wave after wave of gibberish speak, a cut and run narrative that lends itself well to the destruction of comprehension and, best left to the last, an author hell bent, due to idealization, on name dropping the literate-pop ones Making-believe I am a human being is not a priority. This is a lynching review, save whales, not Michael Robbins.' The brief wondrous life of my attention span was not engaged by M. R., rather it was made hazy by a bombardment of counter-intuitive, nonsensical descriptors, wave after wave of gibberish speak, a cut and run narrative that lends itself well to the destruction of comprehension and, best left to the last, an author hell bent, due to idealization, on name dropping the literate-pop ones in hopes of becoming one himself, but he's not, posturing isn't art, it's not even writing 401 style. Chris Roberts, God Ascendant

  6. 5 out of 5

    Reed

    I was initially thrilled to come across this book while visiting Powell's bookstore in Portland. I enjoy both poetry and music, and had never read anything that addressed the intersection of the two. However, the book spends only a minority of it's time in this sweet spot and not infrequently rambles. It is strongest where it discusses this intersection (are song lyrics poetry?), tries to find similarities b/t disparate seemingly disparate genres (punk and metal as siblings; sub-genres of metal), I was initially thrilled to come across this book while visiting Powell's bookstore in Portland. I enjoy both poetry and music, and had never read anything that addressed the intersection of the two. However, the book spends only a minority of it's time in this sweet spot and not infrequently rambles. It is strongest where it discusses this intersection (are song lyrics poetry?), tries to find similarities b/t disparate seemingly disparate genres (punk and metal as siblings; sub-genres of metal), or applies storytelling (the writer's relationship with his father; watching Taylor Swift on TV). There are several misfires, such as a very long chapter on Frederick Seidel that seems like a graduate student's term paper was accidentally dropped into this book at the local printing press. Also, there is fundamentally no call to action. How should poetry and music become equipment for living? After reading this book, I still don't know.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Casey

    I had hoped this was going to be a selection of criticism serving to build and deepen the aesthetics of the current poetic moment. Instead, it reads as a pasting together of one-off columns offering up little more than Sunday morning newspaper insight into pop music that has been well if not overly addressed and statements on poetry at best so broad as to be useless for anyone who pays attention to literature.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Paul Wilner

    Okay, Robbins is clearly in the running for the smartest, as well as the hippest, guy in the room. (Of course, he lives in Brooklyn, "with the best cat in the world,'' as his unforgiveably twee author's note does not fail to mention). But apart from that, he's rocking, whether he's trying to unpack the critical influence of Pauline Kael, let alone Bob Christgau and his pal Greil Marcus. Kenneth Burke comes in for a cameo, and supplies the title, along with Taylor Swift, some metal bands, and bit Okay, Robbins is clearly in the running for the smartest, as well as the hippest, guy in the room. (Of course, he lives in Brooklyn, "with the best cat in the world,'' as his unforgiveably twee author's note does not fail to mention). But apart from that, he's rocking, whether he's trying to unpack the critical influence of Pauline Kael, let alone Bob Christgau and his pal Greil Marcus. Kenneth Burke comes in for a cameo, and supplies the title, along with Taylor Swift, some metal bands, and bit appearances from Robert Hass or Charles Simic (look out, Michael's coming for you), Journey, and of course high-brow faves like Theodore Adorno. In his sheer intelligence, smarts and basic fuck-you attitude, he reminds me a bit of Adam Phillips (though thankfully he isn't British). I could dip around in the book and quote, but better you read it for yourself, and get Robbins' take on Dylan's Nobel - basically what's great about his work isn't what's "literary'' about it, but something maybe better, or at least bigger. He has the academic disease of prolixity, but knows how to cut the crap when needed. (There's a long disquisition on Frederic Seidel which is probably telling for those who follow his work; I don't, so will simply take his work on it). Still, as a piece of cultural criticism, I'll quote one of the author's (unashamed) favorite tunes: "Don't Stop Believing.'' Worth an afternoon, and then some.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Peter Gelfan

    His jaded mania for music, poetry, and snobby anti-snobbery is itchy and infectious. He throws so much at you so fast I didn’t know whether he was putting us on or showing us up—sure, it’s both, but which is when? Once I learned not to try too hard to parse his lyrics but just get caught up in his beat, the book started to grow on me, and so did he. He is viciously, enviably clever, especially about those who once gulled him into admiring them: “if fetal alcohol syndrome could write poetry, it w His jaded mania for music, poetry, and snobby anti-snobbery is itchy and infectious. He throws so much at you so fast I didn’t know whether he was putting us on or showing us up—sure, it’s both, but which is when? Once I learned not to try too hard to parse his lyrics but just get caught up in his beat, the book started to grow on me, and so did he. He is viciously, enviably clever, especially about those who once gulled him into admiring them: “if fetal alcohol syndrome could write poetry, it would write this poetry.” Or, on the other hand, re Jimi Hendrix: “If the extraterrestrials have their priorities straight, when they get here the first thing they’ll want to know is what rock and roll is. I’ll play them this.” His perversely wholesome criticism of criticism should be required reading for culture vultures. He kept me in suspense as to whether, in the end, delight or snark would win out and if I would like him or not, two answers not necessarily linked. I walked away from this short book with something new. I’m not sure quite what or how, which makes it poem-like, though he might argue with that then change his mind. Thanks for reminding me of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell—“You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

  10. 5 out of 5

    Geoff Bartakovics

    Oh man oh man, the introduction to this sexy number is so damn good. Robbins makes you feel like he's read everything there is to say (in a meta- / critic's kinda way) about poetry and why it matters...how it provides utility in a way that makes it "equipment for living." But then you keep turning the pages and realize pretty quickly that this is mostly a book about how popular music acts as a modern poetry...and a tinge of disappointments sets in after a few chapters of the author showing off f Oh man oh man, the introduction to this sexy number is so damn good. Robbins makes you feel like he's read everything there is to say (in a meta- / critic's kinda way) about poetry and why it matters...how it provides utility in a way that makes it "equipment for living." But then you keep turning the pages and realize pretty quickly that this is mostly a book about how popular music acts as a modern poetry...and a tinge of disappointments sets in after a few chapters of the author showing off for too long a stretch about his exquisite taste in bands...and why certain songs matter (to him, and in the pantheon of music). Despite some chapters that lean back toward the poetry side of the equation, this ends up feeling like a series of nicely written essays that would appear in any of the magazines whose editors provide the "cool but also smart" quotes on the back cover. Great promise here but less reward (side-note: I'm sure I'll listen to a few of the chapters again (Audible narration of the book is great), and I'll likely think more of this in the future.)

  11. 5 out of 5

    Douglas Cunningham

    im so happy this book quoted Saphr talking about art on page 165-166 "During these weeks, these months, Non-Revolution was a particularly cloudy and confused meme. Like wind and rain and rivers running backwards. I had no control. When I wondered it, wondered how it could be like this for me at this moment, I blamed it on the art. For all the art I have ever loved has been for whatever it is that Non-Revolution was suggesting it could possibly be. For the river running backwards. For the wind and im so happy this book quoted Saphr talking about art on page 165-166 "During these weeks, these months, Non-Revolution was a particularly cloudy and confused meme. Like wind and rain and rivers running backwards. I had no control. When I wondered it, wondered how it could be like this for me at this moment, I blamed it on the art. For all the art I have ever loved has been for whatever it is that Non-Revolution was suggesting it could possibly be. For the river running backwards. For the wind and the rain. And I am someone who loves art, who has always loved art, despite. Despite its institutions and its patronages and its nationalisms and its capitalisms. All the art that has had a crowd scene in it in which the crowd has been loved, I have loved." Juliana Spahr’s “That Winter the Wolf Came,” page 70.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Garrett Peace

    This isn’t quite what it’s advertised as. I was expecting a book about the intersection of poetry and music and an examination of art and its effects on us. That’s about 40% of this book, I’d say. The rest is made up of intense critical essays about specific poets that reminded me of trawling JSTOR back in college for essay sources. That’s fine: I like the challenge of reading highly intelligent academic prose from time to time. But I often felt out of my depth with a lot of this, and Robbins ma This isn’t quite what it’s advertised as. I was expecting a book about the intersection of poetry and music and an examination of art and its effects on us. That’s about 40% of this book, I’d say. The rest is made up of intense critical essays about specific poets that reminded me of trawling JSTOR back in college for essay sources. That’s fine: I like the challenge of reading highly intelligent academic prose from time to time. But I often felt out of my depth with a lot of this, and Robbins makes no concessions to a mainstream audience. He expects you to know what he’s talking about, doesn’t give much of an overview, and throws out “hot take” opinions relentlessly. By the end, the tone and the analysis just became too much for me, which was a real shame considering how much I loved the first few chapters.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    I'm thinking there are two ways to read this book. One, to do so quickly but with a discerning eye for what really interests you within this maze. Or, take your time and pore over each reference, quote, footnote, poem, song title, and omniscient authorship generalizations and opinions. I chose the former, life's too short. Yet, I'll go back to it again, truth be told. In under 200 pages poetry and art and song and philosophy and Life and form and taste and poets and artists and major figures and I'm thinking there are two ways to read this book. One, to do so quickly but with a discerning eye for what really interests you within this maze. Or, take your time and pore over each reference, quote, footnote, poem, song title, and omniscient authorship generalizations and opinions. I chose the former, life's too short. Yet, I'll go back to it again, truth be told. In under 200 pages poetry and art and song and philosophy and Life and form and taste and poets and artists and major figures and minor are stacked up and evaluated. I liked that Robbins liked what I like, Stevens and Colerdige and Johnny Hartman, and admired his treatments of those I really don't ,like Seidel and Kleinzahler and Beyonce, but in saying that, this book and its context made me realize that, despite the accuracy of its title, I feel really old.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Hiskes

    Smart, clever, passionate short essays about poetry and pop music that's nourished Robbins, a gifted unconventional poet in his own right. Robbins is equally brilliant on the poets and musicians he hates, or that disappoint him with spotty performance. Being frustrated with shoddy work is part of loving art forms dearly. You want all the stuff to be good stuff, and the mediocre stuff drives you batty. This book helped me see that.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Oleva Berard

    SO disappointing. I was sitting on this book for over a year thinking I was going to love it and then it turned out to be bleh. It might be good for someone who is looking for more on poetry rather than pop music because it really only touches on music on the surface level. Robbins doesn’t do a very good job of making “high brow” poetry more accessible to a person who doesn’t really read poetry on their own.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Lee Barry

    What attracted me to the book was a curiosity about the connection between poetry and lyrics. I’ve seldom seen them to be interchangeable and both have to make compromises. But only a small part of the book actually addresses this and is mostly a dissection of various poetry selections. "Records are useful for living." I'll agree.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jay Gabler

    As a music fan more than a poetry fan, I enjoyed Robbins's discussions of the intersections between the two forms. The chapters exclusively about one form or the other were of less interest. I reviewed Equipment for Living for The Current. As a music fan more than a poetry fan, I enjoyed Robbins's discussions of the intersections between the two forms. The chapters exclusively about one form or the other were of less interest. I reviewed Equipment for Living for The Current.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Bob Paley

    Robbins' is a mind that TS Eliot might have recognized as "rich in generations of experience." He can wear you out with the references and allusions, and goes on too long about the shock poet [my description, not his] Frederick Seidel, but he sure made me re-evaluate Neil Young as a lyricist.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sheldon Compton

    Going to continue reading anything Michael Robbins writes. Brilliant.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

    This is kind of occasionally funny but most mansplainy blah blah masturbatory blah blah about rock and roll and poetry. Go read some Wallace Stevens instead. Or crank up the Ramones. Honestly.

  21. 4 out of 5

    John

    I had a tug of war wanting to like this book and appreciate the author's insights about poetry but was pulled in the other direction being annoyed by author packing so many references into a single sentence it made your head hurt (some sentences seemed like lists of artists and art). On a per word basis he must quote more artists and works of art than any book currently on the market. In other parts of the book, Robbins seemed to play games with the reader --"Poetry makes nothing happen." Next p I had a tug of war wanting to like this book and appreciate the author's insights about poetry but was pulled in the other direction being annoyed by author packing so many references into a single sentence it made your head hurt (some sentences seemed like lists of artists and art). On a per word basis he must quote more artists and works of art than any book currently on the market. In other parts of the book, Robbins seemed to play games with the reader --"Poetry makes nothing happen." Next page, "Poetry makes all sorts of things happen." pp 153-4. Maybe I'm not getting the inside joke. Elsewhere he quotes Greek words in the Greek alphabet without translation. I was also distracted by the snarky comments about other poets like Billy Collins not having talent. I’m not sure I learned too much about poetry and pop songs but I learned Michael Robbins knows a lot.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Julia

  23. 5 out of 5

    Adam Wilson

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tim Blok

  25. 4 out of 5

    Stefano

  26. 5 out of 5

    Theremin Poisoning

  27. 4 out of 5

    Claire Zimmeth

  28. 4 out of 5

    pforberg

  29. 5 out of 5

    Robyn

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mitchell

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