Letter from Poetry Magazine

Michael Robbins Responds

by Michael Robbins

Stephen Yenser is all het up about my overwhelmingly positive review of Susan Wheeler’s Assorted Poems, a book I love. Why? Because I intimate that “The Debtor in the Convex Mirror” does not much resemble “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” And it doesn’t—not in tone or syntax, not in form. Does he think I view that as a failing? Nowhere do I imply that Wheeler’s or Ashbery’s use of ekphrasis is superficial. Yenser seems to think that a poem cannot be tuneful at the same time that it takes the cacophony of experience as its subject, and assumes that his inability to grasp the straightforward illustration of this theme in the lines I quote—“the instructional stews/confounded me”—is indicative of my own confusion. Someone (who?) is “yell[ing] at me in Norse”: the signal (the message the person is trying to convey) is lost in the noise (the poem’s speaker doesn’t understand the language). My experience with Camel Lights proves that it is possible occasionally to indulge a penchant (which the oed defines as “a strong and habitual inclination, a tendency to do something, a taste or liking for a person or thing”). Yenser’s other objections are similarly inconsequential. It seems his only real complaint is that I failed to treat his friends with the proper deference. Talk about cliches.

Originally Published: October 30, 2009

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This prose originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2009


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 Michael  Robbins


Michael Robbins is the author of Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012) and The Second Sex (Penguin, 2014). His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Harper's, Boston Review, and elsewhere; his critical work in Harper's, London Review of Books, The New York Observer, the Chicago Tribune, Spin, and several other publications. He is currently at work on a critical book, Equipment for Living (forthcoming from Simon & . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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