Q & A: Michael Robbins

What are your thoughts about confessional poetry? 

Well, I have lots of conflicting thoughts about it, to the limited extent that I believe there is such a category. Certainly it has become a bogeyman to be invoked whenever children threaten to write a poem about their feelings. I think that Lowell, Plath, Berryman, and Rich (although not Snodgrass or Sexton) are about as good as postwar American poets get. More important, they need to be read, not dismissed as grandiose, self-pitying egoists. Because if you read them with the care they deserve, you’ll discover some of the most self-aware poetry of the twentieth century, which usually (and subtly) ironizes its own worst tendencies. The poems anticipate and render superfluous their most strident critics’ objections. Plath is downright funny about what a drama queen she is. Doubtless there was a time when the confessionals’ star hogged the firmament, in which equally great poets like Frank O’Hara and George Oppen also shone. But that time is past, and the work especially of Lowell, Plath, and Berryman is vital to any contemporary poetics that hopes to understand the relation of affect to subjectivity and of individuals to the public sphere. 


Many readers will be put off by the lines about drinking diarrhea. Should they be, or not? What are the lines there for?

You think? If any readers are not put off by the thought of drinking diarrhea, I implore them not to send me e-mails. That poem was written out of anger with someone, a former friend. It’s my poison tree. But the lines are ultimately meant to encourage people to share. And stay in school. And don’t do drugs. 


Whence the woodchuck?

If I explained the woodchuck, then several people would be able to guess who the poem’s about.


The last lines are more conventionally revealing, in some ways, than others in the poem. Tell us about those you have hated, and how they might be nibbling away at the poem.

Now we get to it. Except for, say, Dick Cheney, I wouldn’t want to name any of those whom I have hated: their name is legion. But they all nibble away at my poems—in many ways, I’m writing for them. I think hate can be a healthy emotion in literary contexts—the brash, exhilarating hatred of Nietzsche or Céline or Geoffrey Hill. What William Logan says about critics—that they must be good haters if they are to be good lovers—is true of poets too. Probably it is true of anyone who wants to think hard about impossible problems. Odi et amo—as the woodchuck has it—is the only sane response to this brightly burning world.

Speaking more generally, I write from a deep hatred of liberalism, its pieties of individual choice and self-correcting markets. Fredric Jameson writes that we must

persuade ourselves . . . that we are inside the culture of the market and that the inner dynamic of the culture of consumption is an infernal machine from which one does not escape by the taking of thought (or moralizing positions), an infinite propagation and replication of “desire” that feeds on itself and has no outside and no fulfillment.

The liberal, on the other hand, believes that the system

is not really total in that sense, that we can ameliorate it, reorganize it, and regulate it in such a way that it becomes tolerable and we thereby have the “best of both worlds.”

I know perfectly sane, quite intelligent people who insist it is sheer fantasy to imagine that there will ever be any alternative to the capitalist order. My poems try, in their modest way, to expose the ridiculous logic of this way of thinking (some more than others, obviously), even as they recognize its seductions, its inescapability.


This poem originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2010

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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