In 2010, a friend sent me a link to an essay by David Bentley Hart, a takedown of the so-called New Atheists. Hart caricatures Christopher Hitchens’s arguments in God Is Not Great as syllogisms whose major premise has been omitted:
Major Premise: [omitted]
Minor Premise: Timothy Dwight opposed smallpox vaccinations.
Conclusion: There is no God.
But it was Hart’s conclusion that really won me over: “The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche.” Here is a hint of the independence of thought that Hart’s readers prize: an Orthodox theologian laments atheism’s decline from Nietzsche’s “intellectual courage” into “historical errors, sententious moralism, glib sophistry.”
I later reviewed a few of Hart’s books for various outlets, which eventually resulted in an email from him in 2016, and we have been corresponding ever since (as I note below, within a few weeks he was sending me ridiculous claims like “Entwistle, Townshend, and Moon were each immeasurably better musicians than any member of the Stones”). I just texted David to ask how he first became aware of me, whether from one of my reviews of his work or something else, and he said, “Probably reading you in the New Yorker or somewhere, I don’t exactly recall. I knew of you before any review from you.” Recently, for no reason at all, we decided to record the following conversation held over Zoom. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
David Bentley Hart: We should clarify what’s going on here: that it’s entirely a conversation, not an interview, right? So, reciprocal disclosures—if I say anything embarrassing, you’re morally obliged to say something humiliating about yourself.
Michael Robbins: Well, I don’t recall that in our preliminary—
DBH: I think that was in the contract. I think you haven’t checked the fine print. But, anyway—so you are Michael Robbins, the esteemed poet, whose most recent book, Walkman, has been praised, but not given the awards it deserves by the philistines. And I’m David Bentley Hart.
MR: And you are the author, most recently, of You Are Gods, Tradition and Apocalypse, and the Gnostic fantasy Kenogaia, which did win an award—which is not to say that you have won all the awards you deserve.
DBH: Well, yes, for Roland in Moonlight alone, which is my other recent book.
MR: Yes, I don’t have a hard copy of that one here with me.
DBH: I have the three volumes of poetry that you’ve published, and with my typical genius in organizing books, because they just keep mounting up by several thousands, I don’t know where your books are. I went looking for them last night, and to be honest I couldn’t find them.
MR: It is a problem I fully understand. There are books that I’ve ended up buying three times because I thought that I had lost a copy of it.
DBH: I think we’ve all had that experience; or you’ve just simply forgotten that you owned a copy. As I grow older and more forgetful, I forget that I just bought a copy last month. So tell me—
MR: Well, before we get started with your question, I just want to point out that we began our correspondence, however many years ago now, with a dispute over the relative greatness of the Who and the Rolling Stones—you a Whovian and I with sympathy for the devil. And I think both of us came to a greater appreciation of the other’s favorite band.
DBH: Yeah, yeah, well, actually, the Who were never my favorite band. I’m afraid that I’m that most sublunary of creatures—
MR: The Beatles.
DBH: The Beatles, yeah, were always my favorite. I’m a sucker for melody, and since they could generate melodies at a rate that Schubert couldn’t have kept up with—that and chord progressions. I mean those chord progressions, getting richer and richer and richer. But I loved all of the British invasion bands as a kid. Still you’re right, I had soured a bit on the Rolling Stones, mostly, I think, because they went on and on and on, past their great period, and this cast an unflattering light back upon their great period.
But I wanted to ask you what everyone’s been asking you since Walkman came out, and we’ve talked a bit about it. Of course, the cover and the title lead one to expect yet another iteration of the inimitable Robbins voice, which in the past I would have characterized as—I don’t know—militantly sardonic, terse, sarcastic...but formally very precise, using a certain sort of formal mastery in order to contain a fairly disruptive irony. In any case, the words that spring to one’s lips immediately are not “tender,” “lyrical.” To be honest, I have to say, if I were asked for my normal reaction to your first two volumes of verse, it would be something like “a bitter appreciative laugh.”
But Walkman isn’t formally rigid—it’s formally accomplished, but in a more sprung way. I’m not saying it’s sprung rhythm all the way through, but it is basically the case that it’s not in strict meter. There’s just a sort of lilting cadence through all the long poems—and most of the poems in the book are long. But also, I have to admit, I had not been prepared for the vulnerable Michael Robbins. There’s a quiet lyricism that goes with the rhythm of the verse and the images, without being lush and opulent in the way I would be, in my late-nineteenth-century perversity. But it has some lovely images—I mean, somehow you make a Kinko’s late at night, with cashiered copying machines, seem oddly atmospheric and inviting—and the melancholy and the almost confessional tone running through it remain for me the most interesting changes. I was just hoping you might talk about that for a bit, because there’s something going on there and I don’t know if it’ll show up again in your next collection or not.
MR: Well, I’ve actually been writing new poems fairly inspired by one of my favorite contemporary works, Chelsey Minnis’s Baby, I Don’t Care.
DBH: Somehow I would expect you to like that.
MR: When I’ve been asked this previously, I always say that I didn’t want to stagnate, I got bored with what I was doing, and that’s all true enough, but that’s also an evasion of the question—
DBH: I don’t think, if that were all it were, you would just naturally switch to reflective melancholy, giving this sense of something wounded. I’m not trying to overburden this with descriptions, but I mean it can’t just be that you were trying out a new style.
MR: Right. Well, the impetus was reading James Schuyler. I read all of Schuyler while I was at a loss about where to go from the second book. And as I say in “Walkman,” the title poem, “Schuyler was too tender / for me then, but now / he is just tender enough.” And there’s something about growing older. I was still in my thirties when I wrote Alien vs. Predator, and a couple of those poems are from my twenties. And growing older sucks—
DBH: Yes, indeed.
MR: So lately I’ve begun thinking about age, as I’ve gotten back into Keats and Blake and Wordsworth, who were loves of my youth. When I was writing the poems in Alien vs. Predator, I was much more likely to be reading John Donne or Marvell, and not necessarily their very earnest poems, but their wittier, catchier poems. And I think about the change you refer to a little bit as the difference between Donne and Wordsworth, the difference between a sort of formal display of wit, not personal—you know, you don’t get a sense of who John Donne is in his daily life. Whereas reading The Prelude or “Tintern Abbey”—Wordsworth was twenty-eight when he wrote “Tintern Abbey,” but Wordsworth also turned fifty when he was around twenty-five. And then my anger at the ecological crisis, the crisis of capitalist society, it was easier to take a sardonic stance with that anger in my twenties and thirties. As I age, as the angel watches the past pile up before it as it’s blown into the future, it gets harder and harder to maintain a stance of militant humor rather than of militant despair. I wanted to write something that captured my increasing lack of hope. I guess you can do that in a nihilistic death-metal way, like the band Cattle Decapitation, or you can do it in a sort of Wordsworthian way.