from Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2009
Sometime after 1985, something happened to make, or let, poets pay attention to comic book superheroes. Something similar happened, a bit later, to the literary novel: Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, Tom DeHaven's It's Superman!, and Andrew Kaufman's All My Friends Are Superheroes (all published since 1999) testify to a new legitimacy, not for comics as a medium, but for superheroes—the kind invented in and for comic books—as viable characters, in ambitious fiction made of words alone. By that time, comic book superheroes had already become, for more than one poet, appropriate subjects for serious poems. One of the first such poems to get much attention was the title poem in Simon Armitage's second collection, Kid (1992). Armitage had been an English probation officer, trying to keep young toughs on the right track, and some of those young toughs turned up in his other work, but the kid in "Kid" was Robin, proclaiming his emancipation from Batman, and from his juvenile costume, in ostentatiously regular trochaic pentameter:
Batman, big shot, when you gave the order
to grow up, then let me loose to wander
leeward, freely through the wild blue yonder
as you liked to say, or ditched me, rather,
in the gutter ... well, I've turned the corner.
Armitage's poem announced its independence from any stuffy, paternally sanctioned poetic tradition, as Robin announced his independence from Batman, even while it embraced parts of that tradition—not just meter, but subgenre (dramatic monologue), and even Romantic inheritance: "Kid" is a late-Romantic poem of vocation, analogous in some ways to Keats's "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," and to Seamus Heaney's "Digging." "I'm the real boy wonder," Robin concludes: the poem announced, with tongue not quite in cheek, Armitage's own arrival in British letters, as a sort of boy wonder—brash, young, technically proficient, unignorable—a reputation Armitage did, in fact, gain.
The same poem—still well known (as poems go) in Britain today—also announced the new plausibility of superheroes as subjects. Despite work by Ian Gregson, Jo Shapcott, and other British writers, most subsequent poems about superheroes are American. D. A. Powell's Tea (1998) includes a "song of Robin" that makes the Dark Knight dark indeed: "don't be fooled by costumes," Powell's Robin says, "I am still an orphan I move through his house by stealth . . . when he kisses I'll pull away ... my neck a toothsome feeding ground." This Batman makes explicit the subtext that (as Will Brooker has demonstrated) haunted the Dynamic Duo for decades: he molests his ward, who secretly enjoys it. "He will believe he is the one hero," this Robin says; "I must remember to wince when I feel his fangs." Chad Parmenter speaks, in more recent sonnets, for Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne, who grew up (like Robert Lowell) around old money, amid impossible and superannuated models of masculinity, "where suits of armor rusted to their swords." From such decor, from the murder of both his parents, from the powers he acquired to avenge them, and from the criminals he fought, Batman learned that the perfect man was a death machine:
In Gotham, shaman meant machine—the car,
the cinema, where newsreels lit the flings
of holy criminals who battled gangs,
who went by vigilante. And they were
the Shadow? traveled under every street
with .45s to light his way through hell.
(The Shadow fought crime in 1940s radio shows.) Like the young Robert Lowell, denouncing Puritans in Miltonic cadences, Parmenter's Batman becomes a consciously belated imitator, coming long after the fact to the Shadow's tradition, whose practices he adopts, and whose morality he already suspects.
Other poets use other superheroes. "Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon," by Jeannine Hall Gailey, concludes, "I become everything I was born to be, / the dreams of the mother, / the threat of the father." Terrance Hayes in Wind in a Box (2006) remembers his early teens:
I performed black Superman melodramas barefoot
on the picnic table until a toe nail opened
on my big toe like the hood of my father's Lincoln
and a fever broke. I dropped stuff ...
There was a deep inarticulate grief
for David Banner and a high frothing euphoria
for the Hulk. There was a law
that said sooner or later you'll hear the rivers
of the skull, the small islands
where volcanoes erupt. (I waited to erupt.)
In Hayes's propulsive approximations to blank verse, Superman represents an impossible attempt to master the energies of the body; the Hulk, here given his TV name David Banner (in the comics, his alter ego is Bruce), represents the boy overpowered by those same energies, analogous to a volcano, or to a wet dream. (Hayes's poem, in turn, may be a source for Adrian Matejka's poem about Marvel Comics' first African-American superhero, Luke Cage.)
If these poets remember their youthful identification with superheroes and their unruly powers, other poets try to undermine just such identifications as Hayes solicits, finding them politically dangerous. A prose poem in Rae Armantrout's Versed (2009) summarizes the film Iron Man, based on the Marvel Comics character:
The playboy scion of a weapons company repents. His company, he sees now, is corrupt, his weapons being sold (behind his back) to strong men. Alone, he builds a super weapon in the shape of a man. Now, more powerful and more innocent than ever before, he attacks.
"More innocent" should sound almost sarcastic. Iron Man thinks he is blameless (one meaning for "innocent") though really he lacks experience (another meaning): by believing he does only good, he may do great harm. (Armantrout entitles the poem "America.")
Then there are whole books about superheroes. All the poems in Bryan Dietrich's first book, Krypton Nights (2001; note the pun on "kryptonites") have to do with Superman. In it themes familiar to Superman's fans find sometimes virtuosic expression: Is Superman Jewish? Is the destruction of his home planet, Krypton, a metaphor for the Holocaust? Can we save our own planet from environmental disaster, as Jor-El (Superman's father) could not save his planet, "when the last Krypton night simmers over / the rim of your world"? If we seek salvation from the more-than-human, from the fantastic, from figures outside the law, have we given up on any collective attempt to govern ourselves? "It's Superman who's broken the social / contract," the supervillain Lex Luthor warns us; "already he goes to prepare a plot / for you." Dietrich also writes a crown of sonnets spoken by Clark Kent, a series of verse "transcripts" spoken by Jor-El over the radio just before Krypton explodes, and seven poems in the voice of Lois Lane.
Krypton Nights seems to have been the first book of poems dominated by comic book superheroes, but it is no longer the only one. A. Van Jordan's Quantum Lyrics (2007) begins with a poem about the Flash, continues in the voice of the Green Lantern ("I don't run to or away from the light: / I am the light"), and proceeds to five poems about the Atom, a physicist who can shrink to any size. Van Jordan's Atom can stand toe to toe with an elementary particle or experience Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle firsthand: "Do you think / if I could have managed my life / at 6' and 180 pounds," this Atom asks, "I would have shrunk / to near invisibility just to be seen?"
These "quantum lyrics" become allegories for their genre, illustrating, with plenty of puns, the uncertainty that many poets have about whether present-day poems can find much certainty, or get much notice. The same poems illustrate the paradox by which we turn to a miniature, and an often overlooked, art form for durable records of the fleeting self. The Atom (who becomes both a wave and a particle) muses, "No one felt my hand / till it was pure vibration": becoming an invisible vibration, the Atom becomes like the poet who reduces himself to words, to waves of sound. Scratch a superhero poem and you may find an allegory of poetic vocation. T. S. Eliot called poetry an escape from personality; Allen Grossman writes that the self in poetry must be "departicularized ... in order to attain its efficacy for another." In order to use his special powers for others, the poet, like the Atom, must first lose his particular substance: he must use his special abilities to disappear.
Superheroes are not just people with special abilities; they are, almost by definition, people whose abilities give rise to double identities, either secret (Peter Parker, Clark Kent) or comically public (the Fantastic Four, for whom the demands of family and fame—paparazzi and so on—get in the way of saving the world). Secret or public, the double identity of the superhero can provide clear analogies to the life of the poet, and to the expectations most of us, most of the time, bring to a modern lyric poem: the biographical person becomes someone else in order to exercise the powers we find there, and that "someone else," that inner woman or man, is who the poet "really is" all along. In poems about superheroes, Rimbaud discovering that Je est une autre, or W. B. Yeats distinguishing the poet from the "bundle of accident . . . who sits down to breakfast," become Clark Kent as he rushes into a phone booth, Bruce Wayne in the Batcave, the Atom as he shrinks to heroic size. Albert Goldbarth's poem "Powers" lists superheroes by
their "secret identities": Spectral Boy, who looks like someone's
winter breath (and so can enter "criminal hideouts" through keyholes,
etc.) is "in reality" Matt Poindexter, polo-playing dandy;
The Silver Comet, whose speed is legendary and leaves
small silver smudges on the page as he near-invisibly zips by, is
ironically wheelchair-bound and Army-rejected
high school student and chemistry ace Lane Barker;
The Rocket Avenger parks cars; Celestia is a bosomy
ill-paid secretary. It could happen—couldn't it? —
What separates such lines from prose memoir, what makes them work as verse? Their knowing asides ("ironically," "etc."), their scare quotes and near-quotes, their onrushing information, and (most of all) the way that Goldbarth's knowingness does not rule out enthusiasm: he loves, even as an adult, the idea that all of us might have secret identities, powers that move about in us unrealized—it is, "Powers" implies, the work of poetry to find them, as it is the work of this particular poem, by the end, to remember and praise the "powers" of Goldbarth's father, who worked hard and wore himself out to pay the bills. (The father in "Powers" may seem too good to be interesting, but never too good to be true.)
We see in the superhero's dual identity one reason why superheroes might fit new poems, why the defining qualities of the superhero since his invention in 1938 (with Action Comics #1, with Superman) fit the effects we expect from lyric poems. Other poems pursue other reasons. Poets may use superheroes to represent youth, their own (as in Hayes and in Goldbarth) or somebody else's (as in the poems about Robin). The dual identity of the superhero represents not only the inner and outer, but the past and present self, the adult who writes the poem and the child or youth to whom the adult speaks (as Goldbarth in "Powers" addresses his younger self). And yet, as important as the dual identity is to superheroes and their poems, as important as youth is to the history of comic books, neither connection explains why superheroes appeal to poets now, as they did not in (say) the 1970s.
Nor does simple recourse to nostalgia. American teens and preteens—especially boys—have read superhero comics since their inception. Yet references to comics in American poetry from the 1940s and 1950s (Karl Shapiro in "Drugstore," Phyllis McGinley in "Portrait of Girl with Comic Book") refer to comics as a medium, not to costumed heroes as a genre (McGinley's girl is probably reading romance). LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) used the Green Lantern oath ("no evil shall escape my sight") as an epigraph in 1964, but did not assume his readers knew much about superheroes, nor did he retell their stories at length: Jones's "Green Lantern Solo" anticipates Armantrout's "America" ("the completely free are the completely innocent, of which / no thing I know can claim"), but Jones says nothing more specific about the hero whom his title names.
What happened to occasion this sudden interest in superheroes? Two causes seem clear: the first cause also speaks to the rise of superheroes in fiction and film as well as poetry; the second speaks instead to how contemporary poets see poetry now.
The first cause is simply that superhero comics got a lot better: the most important, most ambitious literary uses of the genre, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, appeared in book form in 1986 (the term "graphic novel" became popular at that time). The journalist Gerard Jones, who wrote a book (Men of Tomorrow) about the first superheroes' creators, dates the near-respectability of the genre to those graphic novels and to the first Batman film, in 1989, a box-office hit that critics also admired. "No characters have survived the shifting mass-culture sands," Gerard Jones concludes, as well as superheroes have; indeed, "they may be more popular and more culturally relevant now than when they were new." That new respectability made it easier—allotting a few years for generational change—for people who had grown up reading their adventures to write literary novels about them, easier to make more movies about them (Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, and now Watchmen), easier to mount an exhibition about them at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ("Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy," which opened in September 2008), hence easier to write, rewrite, and publish serious poems about them too.
To see the second cause, we might start with Richard Howard's encomiastic preface to Krypton Nights. "For a poetry as convincing and accomplished as this," Howard wrote, "for a mythology exhaustively researched, one looked for models, prototypes, antecedents." But Howard finds almost none: "there is no antecedent High Versification in our theology of Comic Books," he continues, "though we can ... wonder why not?" Howard uses the terms "mythology" and "theology": Dietrich treats Superman—so Howard has noticed, so Dietrich says in interviews—much as Alfred Lord Tennyson treated Dante's Ulysses, as Dante treated Homer's Odysseus, as Donatello and Randall Jarrell and Howard himself treated the young and giant-slaying King David. They are myths, familiar stories with unrealistic, larger-than-life characters, whose deeds the implied audience already knows.
Dietrich has Jor-El ask, from beyond the grave: "What if I told you your gods were dead / and where to find the bodies?" To teach to almost any undergraduates the poetry of even the recent past is to wonder whether the gods are dead—past familiarity, not only past belief. Comic book superheroes matter more, for these recent poets, partly because the myths and the once-familiar texts of the past can matter so much less. Bright undergraduates stumble over references that would have seemed transparent to poets on first publication in 1959 or 1971, but that do require footnotes now: consider—to take only short American poems that appear in many anthologies—James Merrill's "Marsyas," Adrienne Rich's "Orion," Ashbery's "Syringa," Robert Creeley's "Heroes," with its Latin tag (hoc opus, hic labor est) and its joke "That was the Cumean / sibyl speaking." The attempt to construct a distinctively modern mythology—a set of stories about heroes, unhampered by realism, that will do for us, for the poet's own generation, what classical and Christian stories once did—dates back in America to Hart Crane, who used Pocahontas and the Wright Brothers, or perhaps to Longfellow, who used Hiawatha, and to Walt Whitman, who used himself: but all those writers expected their American readers to know the Bible too, even if they believed (with Whitman) that the "overpaid accounts" of classical texts were on their way out.
We may understand modernism as a change in the relation of poet to audience—modernist poets said, as Randall Jarrell quipped, "Since you won't read me, I'll make sure you can't." Nonetheless most of those poets (though not Ezra Pound) expected their readers to recognize a great deal of the work to which they allude. But English-speaking people under fifty, and especially Americans, who read contemporary poetry may not recognize allusions to Acts or Romans, to Anchises or Marysas, even if they do recognize Persephone or the Sermon on the Mount; those who do recognize such things may well have sought out such information in college, or in adulthood, in order to better enjoy the modern poetry for which such knowledge provides appropriate tools. ("I belong ... to the last generation that learned Latin, that read Virgil, that knew about the descent into the underworld," says Seamus Heaney in a recent interview.) Readers who learn about Tithonus and Tiresias from Tennyson and Eliot, Aeneas from Heaney, are less likely, should they go on to write many poems, to use Tithonus or Aeneas themselves: some of those readers are the American poets writing second and third books now.
The first poets who saw such a change coming lamented it, even if they had no brief for revealed religion and no great classical training themselves: think of Jarrell's magnum opus of teacherly frustration, "A Girl in a Library," or of the poem by Edgar Bowers with its epigraph "Who is Apollo?" presumably asked by one of his students at the University of California-Santa Barbara. "How shall a generation know its story," Bowers' verse-essay begins, "If it will know no other?" The poem, "For Louis Pasteur," celebrates not only the eponymous scientist, but also Joseph Meister, "the first boy cured of rabies," who protected Pasteur's mausoleum from a Nazi raid. Bowers' poem mounts a defense of historical memory, but it also testifies to the victory of science—over barbarism (Nazis), over ignorance (nineteenth-century resistance to vaccination), and over classical education (not Apollo, but Pasteur). The nineteenth-century debate about scientific modern as against classical education, the debate that set Matthew Arnold against T. H. Huxley, has ended, and Huxley has won. The consequences of that victory for citizenship, for ethics, for the economy, lie far beyond the scope of this essay: I do not mean to imply that they are bad ones. Rather, I mean that the recent cluster of poems about comic book heroes tell us something about the broader consequences that secularization, educational emphasis on the sciences, and popular neglect of much Biblical and classical material has had for contemporary poetry (and perhaps for the arts more generally).
With that material no longer so familiar, poets look for something to take its place: for Dietrich and Powell, for Hayes and Armantrout and Gailey and Parmenter, that "something" includes, though it is not limited to, Wonder Woman, Batman, Iron Man. Superhero comics' writers and editors (not only the egregious Stan Lee) liked to say that their creations were our myths: Jack Kirby even called his last major work The New Gods. The first important study of superheroes from the standpoint of literary criticism, Richard Reynolds' Superheroes (1992), bears the subtitle A Modern Mythology: Reynolds notes "a tendency for [superhero] comic creators to legitimize their offspring by stressing their resemblance to legendary heroes or gods." Poems about superheroes can do so too. Indeed, in the most ambitious single poem about superheroes I have encountered, called (not quite parodically) "***!!!The Battle of the Century!!!***", Albert Goldbarth insists that his battling heroes and villains are versions of a Manichean monomyth, avatars of the oppositions at the heart of all life: "Belief; and Doubt," "Fire; and Water," "nothing ... Then something ... This is the First Plot." Goldbarth continues:
When two millennia go by
it's 1939, and Marvel Mystery Comics #1 is on the stands and
introduces its credulous adolescent audience to The Human Torch
(whose body is that, essentially, of a Superman flambé;
who hurls his fireballs—like snowballs, see? only fire—
with force enough to burn through steel, and can ensnare
the nefarious crimelords of his day in webs of fire ...
to The Sub-Mariner [as in marinate, not marine]
who is really Prince Namor of Atlantis, undulant son
of the subsea royalty, ocean-breather, and commander
of the waves to do his bidding—and by extension, waters
Each premiered in a separate sock-and-pow adventure, of which
he was the star,
but unlike calls to unlike, over barriers
of distance and time, with the undeniable inner pull
of gravity or magnetism: Matter; and Antimatter.
Cops; and Robbers. Done; and Meant-to-do. By July of 1940
the two are sparring with a grim, persistent, hydro-pyro inevitability
that so far—with lapses and revivals—has lasted over fifty years.
Having established the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner as modern avatars of primordial opposition, Goldbarth then turns the poem into family elegy: "For forty years, my mother lay down at my father's side each night. / Now ten years after his death, we lay her there again." The one-line sentence brings listeners up short, compared to the "sock-and-pow" cascade of impossibly lengthy syntax that came before. The poem depends, as Goldbarth's effects often do, on the further opposition between the enthusiasm with which his lines fly on, and the existential limits that leave us speechless, the limits of life and death, beyond which we have nothing more to say.
Writing in the 1980s and 1990s, Goldbarth, like Dietrich, finds versions of eternal truths, substitutes for classical myth, and symbols for existential crises in comic book superheroes. Some poets of the 1960s and 1970s looked instead to fairy tales. Reviewing Anne Sexton's career, Helen Vendler asked in 1981 "whether Grimm and Andersen can possibly rival as imaginative sources the Bible and Greek mythology." She implied (rightly, I think) that they could not: no poetry single-mindedly founded (like Sexton's) on such "childlike, vengeful" sources could satisfy a capacious adult mind. But poets younger than Sexton, younger than Jarrell, now face a dispiriting choice: even those so familiar, early on, with classical and Biblical material as to find sources there for their own work may find that their peers do not know what they mean—that they seem, even when they reread themselves, antique, "academic" in the pejorative sense, far from the common life. Goldbarth and other poets have, in consequence, sought ties to the myth-like stories that American culture still knows (such as Superman's origin), or else to the stories (the Atom's adventures, say) whose relative obscurity makes them not forbiddingly "academic," the prestigious and well-guarded property of prior generations, but unexplored and unintimidating, the property of fans.
They are, too, stories of a sort we recognize: knowing Superman, knowing Wonder Woman, we know what superheroes are, and what a secret identity is, even if we have not read Luke Cage, Hero for Hire or Atom #1, "Master of the Plant World" (on which Van Jordan founds the poem quoted above). Most of the poems in Barbara Griest-Devora's Superheroes and Other Ways to Spend the Night, and some of those in James Cummins and David Lehman's much better-known Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man, depend on our knowing what superheroes are in general, what kinds of stories they inhabit, and how their dual identities function, even though Cummins and Lehman's "superheroes" are contemporary poets lightly disguised, and Griest-Devora's ("Ocean Man," "Millennium Man," and so on) are ones she made up.
What do comic books and fairy tales share with each other, but not with stories of Moses, or of Aeneas? One answer is that we believe they are written for children: however much we treasure them as adults, however sophisticated we consider certain later, self-conscious examples, we think of the genre as something children read. Not coincidentally, both Arrmantrout and Gailey use fairy tales too: in the title poem from Gailey's Becoming the Villainess—whose style echoes Sexton to a fault—a girl "wanders into a forest / where lions and wolves lie in wait. / The girl feeds them caramels from the pockets of her paper dress. / They follow like dogs." Arrmantrout used—and attacked—the fairy-tale heritage near the start of her own career:
We know the story.
back to find her trail
devoured by birds.
The years; the
This poem, "Generation," reminds us that "we know the story," for example, of Hansel and Gretel, and of the Babes in the Wood: we know that a woman alone will become, in such stories, either a victim or a wicked witch, and such "knowledge" reinforces patriarchy, which is Armantrout's point. Poems about superheroes, like poems about fairy tales, find value in stories associated with childhood. They follow, we might say, the trend that Leah Marcus identified in the seventeenth-century poets (among them George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Robert Herrick) who found in such "low" subjects as childhood and children's games "possible solutions to the ... disorientation and cultural fragmentation," the breakdown of coherent world pictures, in their own times. Arrmantrout casts suspicion on all such solutions, with Rapunzel as with Iron Man; Goldbarth and Dietrich instead embrace them.
We have had far more poems about fairy tales than we have had about Superman and his ilk—enough of the former, indeed, for a hefty anthology. But poems about fairy tales have particular limits. Not only do they address the concerns of children (often, as in Jarrell and Sexton, as in "Generation," they address Freudian versions of family life), they portray a premodern, pre-technological world. They may (as Sexton did) use obtrusively contemporary language, but they cannot, of their nature, take full account of a secular, complex, technologically inflected scene. Nor can they draw on the full range of modern life—its language, its settings, its professions and expectations about adolescents and adults—already available in the sometimes quite elaborate narrative worlds from which superheroes come. The difference between poems based on fairy tales and poems based on superhero comics is, in other words, the difference between science fiction and fantasy, considered as subgenres of fictive prose: the world of the Atom, the world of Superman, is a world with a recognizable history, one that includes Darwin, Einstein, and Louis Pasteur.
That world also makes possible the dual identity that defines the superhero, the dual identity that separates superheroes both from fairy-tale protagonists (who can be transformed, but can be only one thing at once) and from classical and Biblical heroes, who may disguise themselves but are not permanently defined by that disguise. Superheroes' stories, by contrast, occupy at once and constantly the métier of heroic myth and the métier of more or less realist fiction, of troubled marriages, unreliable boyfriends, malfunctioning teapots (or jetpacks) and so on: as Umberto Eco once put it, superheroes combine mythic aspects of "emblematic and fixed identity" with aspects proper to "novelistic characters." Thor, the reincarnated Norse god, is also Don Blake, the doctor who walks with a crutch; Chameleon Boy, the thirtieth-century shapeshifter (of whom more below), is also Chameleon Boy, who can't get a date. This dual identity in a secular world is what fairy-tale figures, when we read about them in fairy tales, can never have; it is (as Eco came near to suggesting) what superheroes in superhero comics always possess, and it appears in all superhero poems.
We might wonder—as Vendler wondered about Sexton—whether these "new myths," or New Gods can equal the old ones, in their own rights as literary creations or as resources for poets now: we may wonder whether we can ever take them (as people once took, say, Aeneas) with entire seriousness as examples and counterexamples for our own lives. If we cannot, that inability says something else about new superhero poems, too—something the best of the poems say about themselves, and something about where poetry now stands. If new poems are to superheroes as older poems are to the Bible, to the Roman heritage, or to Greek myth, and if superheroes do not seem as serious—cannot seem as serious—as Biblical characters, Greek gods, or Virgilian heroes, then it is no wonder that new poems cannot seem as serious, cannot do as much ethical or social work, as poems about Biblical characters, classical gods, or heroes once did. William Carlos Williams's warning that people die daily for lack of what we find in poems seems less plausible, seen through these recent writings, than Frank O'Hara's "If they don't need poetry bully for them." Goldbarth's enthusiastically offhand style (not only in poems about superheroes) points to the paradoxical place that poetry has in the culture he knows (it is the culture we know, too). On the one hand, we look to poems not only for well-wrought language, but for wisdom (say, after we bury a parent); on the other hand, we treat poetry as a hobby, a fan's odd passion, as something most people do not need, or read, at all.
By choosing to build poems around stories of superheroes, a contemporary poet shows that he knows that we, his imagined readers (among which he must count himself) cannot take poets and poetry quite as seriously, quite as often, as English-speaking readers long ago did—not, anyway, in public, before people who may not share all our hopes and our tastes. The titles for Goldbarth's books indicate the not quite serious, the disparaged contemporary materials that fit so well into his poems. They indicate, too, his ambivalence about how, whether, and for whom his poems are important: Popular Culture, Budget Travel through Space and Time (but also The Gods and To Be Read in 500 Years). The marginal status of superheroes now—not authoritative or "high," but no longer beneath notice—can also offset, for Goldbarth and Dietrich and others, subjects that might otherwise seem too serious to sustain: the death of parents, the memory of genocide, or the inbuilt self-loathing endemic to masculinity as some poets see it. Other poets now choose, for similar reasons, other material retrieved from popular culture, from the margins of the respectable: pulp novels and toys in Goldbarth's other poems, campy or trashy Hollywood films in Powell's later poems (or in David Trinidad's), Barbie in one book by Denise Duhamel (who also contributed to Jim and Dave).
Superheroes, by virtue of the imaginative projection made easier by comics' form, show extraordinarily powers that are hard for many adults to take seriously, powers that would not work in the real world, powers that make sense only within the specialized milieus the comics themselves set up. They are milieus that aficionados have trouble explaining, much less justifying as worth sustained attention, to those not already involved. The most "advanced" superhero comics now require an almost fanatically committed reader, what the comics critic Douglas Wolk has labeled a "super-reader," able to see how each new incarnation of Iron Man (say) critiques the versions in earlier comic books: "picking up a superhero comic book right now, if you're not already immersed in that world," Wolk explains, "is likely to make you feel simultaneously talked down to and baffled by the endless references to stuff you're already supposed to know." "Contemporary superhero comics aren't really meant to be read as freestanding works," he continues: they refer so heavily to one another, and to their own shared past, that none has its full or its true sense on its own.
Behind Wolk's claim stands Eliot's remark, from "Tradition and the Individual Talent," "No poet ... has his complete meaning alone." Another comics critic, Geoff Klock, goes so far as to liken the "open-ended," "never ... definitively completed" diegetic universe of superheroes (where Iron Man's origin, say, may be revised and rewritten again and again) to literary tradition and revision as explicated by Harold Bloom (where Whitman and Stevens "rewrite" or "revise," say, Wordsworth, again and again). Increasingly since The Waste Land and The Bridge—and especially since the 1970s—the readers and writers of modern and contemporary poetry may have felt more and more like the readers of comic books: writing for a niche, not for a wide public; fantasizing public powers (as in various claims about the subversion wrought by avant-garde techniques) that American poetry now cannot possess; addressing, of necessity, only an audience able to see this revamped sonnet, that change rung on Gertrude Stein, as a late move in a long-running game. "The secret language of comics," writes Wolk, "is the argot that comes from the experience of searching for gems together in a huge pile of rubble." Reading contemporary poetry is not quite like that, but we might ask how different it is. Poems seem more specialized, and less important, than they did 30, 60, 90, 120 years ago. And the implicit analogy, in Dietrich and Goldbarth and others, between contemporary poetry and superhero comics makes one such reaction to those changes: to believe that poets are unacknowledged legislators is perhaps like believing that Superman can fly—a suspension of disbelief, an abridgement of realism, necessary in order to enter into the universe of a certain work of art.
Fans and publishers speak of a Marvel Universe, or a DC Universe, in which all the characters owned by one company share a history, told and retold by dozens of writers over hundreds or thousands of issues. That history, Klock argues, lets the best superhero comics not only mimic, but trope, the complexities of literary tradition. For such effects within one comic book, for such effects brought from comics into poems, we can do no better than the aptly named Legion of Super-heroes, a series (now fifty years old) about super-teens in the thirtieth century, who came from far-flung planets to form a super-team on Earth (its headquarters sometimes resemble the United Nations). LSH (as fans call it) remains notable in the comic book world for the difficulties it gives its artists (who must draw over and over, as one of them complained, "twenty-six characters, twenty-six costumes, super-futuristic settings" and frequent crowd scenes) and for its unusually devoted, often female, fans. The Legion of Super-Heroes is now the subject of a book-length sequence of short poems by Ray McDaniel: if the book (it will be his third) meets the standard set by the excerpts in journals, it will be the best book of poems about superheroes yet. Because the Legion had so many members, writers could, without spiking the series, kill some of them off; they did so regularly. McDaniel, like Goldbarth, uses the not-quite-serious superhero milieu to offset the gravity of group elegy, but unlike Goldbarth he leaves us unsure whom he mourns when he writes, in a poem called "Persistence":
In the last exploit of the Espionage Squad,
all the useless heroes will die
except Chameleon Boy, his neural net
polyform and plasticene, eternal.
But yes, the Phantom Girl, Shrinking Violet,
the Invisible Kid. A lost city looms
behind the wrecked and ruined dunes.
Forty thousand colors, eighty thousand ages.
The world is not like this at all.
"The world" (the real world) "is not like this" (not like the "wrecked and ruined dunes" on which Phantom Girl died). But we may not be sure which world—the Legionnaires' or our own—suffers by the comparison. Our friends will die too (though probably not all at once), and they will not even get the chance to visit lost cities, to make their deaths important. The colorful language of poetry, in such poems, even when it depicts melancholy and mourning, consoles us for the colorlessness of our lives, and that is why superheroes, and poems about superheroes—and tragedy, considered as the fall of important men—can give pleasure: so McDaniel's stanza suggests.
The analogy between literary history (a complicated, frequently self-referential world of verbal forms that we may find it hard to take seriously, given its distance from our ordinary concerns) and a superhero comic's milieu (a complicated, frequently self-referential world of visual and narrative forms, one that we may find it hard to take seriously, given its distance from our ordinary concerns) remains implicit in "The Persistence of Espionage," with its contrast between "the world" and the unearthly planet on which "useless heroes" die. That analogy grows unmistakable in McDaniel's "Sense Maps of the United Planets," an homage to all the Legionnaires' home worlds. Composed, like some Anglo-Saxon texts, in versets of alliterative prose, "Sense Maps" suggests that the distance between us and the LSH may be no more and no less than the distance between us and the earliest English poems (especially "The Ruin"). Here are McDaniel's versets about Imsk (Shrinking Violet's home world), Bggtzl (Phantom Girl's), Durla (Chameleon Boy's) and Trom (Element Lad's). On these worlds, all the natives have, or had, the same powers as the relevant Legionnaires (the virgules occur in MccDaniel's original text):
Infinitesimal Imsk shrinking's season / transport for tourists the giant's architecture / transpiring even now / perspective here burgeons and billows / falling-down world, misplaced, minor
Bggtzl which is barely / phantom phase-shifted to mists / export of black and ashy intangerines / Bggtzl which passes through you / which eludes
Durla about which everything / clans and cults and custom rigid for the regulation of pure shape / molten membership / irradiated and ruined fluids / the changelings / forbidden, this place / soil-face and ovum-oceans
and murdered Trom / pillage for plunder / leadened and leavened / alchemical legend / lost monks and lost meditations / empty of elemental / her seas shout / her salts foam and form / salt of her seas follows suit
Bggtzl attracts notice because the planet (like Phantom Girl) can become intangible; so does the Atom, in Van Jordan's poems, and so does the poem itself in John Ashbery's "Paradoxes and Oxymorons": ''You miss it, it misses you, you miss each other." Shrinking Violet can reduce herself to any size; on her home world, everybody is "minor," and ordinary human beings seem like giants, people who cannot belong. Durla, once a regimented theocracy with advanced technology, became inhospitable after something like a nuclear war (the "six minute war"); Trom was destroyed by a genocidal "space pirate"—only Element Lad survives. All these worlds might be microcosms of modern lyric, which (as many theorists note) can reflect the absence of its speaker, which (as Alastair Fowler has remarked) has become inextricable from elegy, which (as Grossman announces) makes the human person communicable by making it also "intangible," absent, departicularized.
All these worlds ("Sense Maps" presents eleven more) thus identify the work of reading lyric with the work of discovering apparently inconsequential, not-quite-serious science fiction comics about super-powered teens. It's tempting—though it might be going too far—to identify the "misplaced, minor" planet of Imsk; the minors (young people) usually identified as the intended readers of superhero comics; the minor sub-genre of poems about superheroes; and the apparently minor, or inconsequential, status of poetry in the English-speaking world now (a status to which these poems certainly speak) with the valorization of "minor literature" in the works of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In a "minor literature,"—so Deleuze and Guattari write in their book about Kafka—"there are only collective assemblages of enunciation," rather than individual master works, and every individual (author or character) also stands, willy-nilly, for a political entity not coextensive with a dominant nation-state (e.g. black Americans, German speakers in Czechoslovakia, or Jews). Nobody ought to equate even the strongest issue of LSH, or the strongest poem about it, with "The Metamorphosis" or The Castle, and yet Legion, in the light shed by McDaniel, seems oddly fit for Deleuzian terms: a minor or disregarded sort of art, produced literally by a collective of authors, in which every individual (Phantom Girl from Bggtzl, Chameleon Boy from Durla, and so on) stands for a planet, a "nation," of people like her, from which she has emigrated, to live on Earth. In a minor literature (Deleuze and Guattari also claim) "language stops being representative in order to now move towards its extremities," away from semantic fixity, towards pure sound: Bggtzl, Durla, Imsk, Cargg, Daxam, Trom.
Laying any supposed resemblance to Kafka aside, some broader sense of minor-ness, some celebration of the minor, the inconsequential, the "participatory" (in Henry Jenkins's sense) and the fan-based, may be the last and the strongest of the threads that connect superheroes in poetry now to the circumstances in which poetry now, whether or not it contains superheroes, gets made. At their most broadly familiar (Superman is Clark Kent, and comes from Krypton) superheroes let poets appropriate myth-like figures and expect that readers will recognize them, in an era when Biblical and classical sources seem less available for such use. When they are less broadly familiar (the original Human Torch fights the SubMariner; Chameleon Boy comes from Durla) superheroes nonetheless allows poets to use myth-like figures and stories, to retell (as Goldbarth does) preexisting tales, while standing apart from high culture, from the sometimes intimidating or alien past. These uses (of very famous superheroes and of less well-known ones) are not antithetical but complementary; in both, superheroes stand in for older myth, while their places at the centers of new poems show how far we, as readers and writers, stand from the readers whom older myth could serve.
Such rewritings, such enthusiastic appropriations, point to the relative insignificance of poetry in our culture as compared with others, or with the English past, and with the ways in which poetry looks now less serious, less consequential, than before, and more like the making and reading of comic books. And those pointings prompt aesthetic accomplishments, too—they have, in particular, consequences for tone. Part of the tonal effect attempted in Dietrich's and Parmenter's sonnets, and throughout McDaniel's poems, comes from the surprising similarity between what they know about comic book heroes—a depth of knowledge not associated with wisdom, nor with high-culture reward—and what they know about technique in poetry, a depth of knowledge historically associated with those things (as when Aristotle calls poetry "wiser and weightier," philosophoteron kai spoudaioteron, than philosophy and history), but associated, too often, with a remove from modern American life.
Poems about superheroes, famous or obscure, announce their divorce from expectations about high culture, antiquity, "academic" difficulty. At the same time, the same poems can draw an analogy between the cultural space of contemporary poetry and the referential mythos in which superheroes, and their super-readers, move. We read comics when we are ten, or twelve, or sixteen, and discover that our peers, at some point, expect us to set them aside; we write poetry, for ourselves and for our friends and for our classmates and teachers in poetry workshops, through college—and then we discover that the adult world has much less room for it. Contemporary poetry, in other words, looks now (it never looked quite this way to Jarrell, nor to Bowers) like a subculture, or a fan culture, pursued in adult life by devoted amateurs and struggling professionals who know that most people, most serious readers (of literary novels) find little time and less use for it in their adult lives. These devotees, these amateurs and professionals, congregate at specialized gatherings, called San Diego Comicon or the World Science Fiction Convention, or the Modern Language Association, or the Associated Writing Programs, in part for professional reasons, but also to maintain their presence in a social network of fans, among people who care about the same things, who believe that the Atom or the Batman, Albert Goldbarth or John Ashbery, speak to them. It would be wrong to say that these poems about superheroes speak (to us or to anyone) with the same depth as the strongest poems about heroes and myths out of the pre-modern past—Yeats's "Cuchulain Comforted," Tennyson's "Ulysses"; it would be even more wrong to think these new poems aspire to the public resonance of, say, Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. Part of the new poems' burden is that they cannot. It is time, nonetheless, to see the powers within these poems about superheroes, written only since about 1988, about a kind of character that has existed only since 1938: to see how, together and singly, poems about superheroes speak to us, and to the way we read poetry now.
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About the Author
Stephen Burt teaches English at Harvard University. He is the author of Randall Jarrell and His Age (Columbia, 1999) and two books of poetry: Popular Music (CLP/Colorado, 1999) and Parallel Play (Graywolf, 2006). He has also edited some posthumous writings of Randall Jarrell, most recently Jarrell's lectures on W. H. Auden, which is available from Columbia University Press.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Editor: Jonathan Freedman
Managing Editor: Vicki Lawrence
Associate Editor: Michael Byers