The Dark Knight Rises — in Poetry

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Contrary to popular belief, superheroes don’t only reside in comic books and films. They’re very alive in novels and poetry.

According to Stephen Burt in his 2009 article, Poems about Superheroes:

Sometime after 1985, something happened to make, or let, poets pay attention to comic book superheroes. Something similar happened, a bit later [after 1999], to the literary novel … [these novels and poems] testify to a new legitimacy, not for comics as a medium, but for superheroes.

In the rest of the article, Burt attempts to explain the rise of superheroes in literature. One reason is that people of all ages can identify with superheroes; Mythical allusions don’t go over reader’s head. Plus, a superhero subject makes poetry more accessible, which is extremely important for a genre that makes even the strongest tremble in fear. Superheroes’ double identities are also very relatable, as they signify the “inner and outer, the past and present self, the adult who writes the poem and the child or youth to whom the adult speaks.”

One of my favorite superhero poems is Simon Armitage’s 1992 poem “Kid,” which explores teenage angst through the voice of Robin striking out on his own, no longer batman’s sidekick. According to Burt, Armitage was a juvenile probation officer whose live work was helping young troublemakers find a straight and narrow path. Armitage often used his daily job to influence his poetry.

Burt explains this particular superhero poem can be considered “literary” because it invokes its Romantic heritage:

But more than that, “Kid” has layers of meaning that can’t be realized upon a first reading. To get at the poem’s theme or message, you have to perform a close reading that so many students who dislike English classes loath. But this particular poem can be fun to dissect especially if you know the Batman comics. Although I’m not a regular reader of Batman, I’ve been told that “Kid” alludes to specific issues in the comic series.

Here’s the poem:

(if you want to hear Armitage read it himself, check this out.)

“Kid” by Simon Armitage

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 turned the corner.

Now I’ve scotched that ‘he was like a father

to me’ rumour, sacked it, blown the cover

on that ‘he was like an elder brother’

story, let the cat out on that caper

with the married woman, how you took her

downtown on expenses in the motor.

Holy robin-redbreast-nest-egg-shocker!

Holy roll-me-over-in the-clover,

I’m not playing ball boy any longer

Batman, now I’ve doffed that off-the-shoulder

Sherwood-Forest-green and scarlet number

for a pair of jeans and crew-neck jumper;

now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older.

Batman, it makes a marvellous picture:

you without a shadow, stewing over

chicken giblets in the pressure cooker,

next to nothing in the walk-in larder,

punching the palm of your hand all winter,

you baby, now I’m the real boy wonder.

“Kid” asks the audience to question the reverence given to leaders and reinforces the idea that anyone can be a hero. Armitage’s details Robin’s concrete actions, as he rejects his assistant status. In line 15, Robin “doff[s]” his uniform; he literally takes off his submissive symbol. But “doff” also encompasses a respectful connotation — opposite of what Robin wants to convey.

By doffing his “number”, Robin insults Batman by acknowledging and refusing to give respect to his teacher. He knows social rules pressure him to honor his mentor, but he consciously does not. As Robin literally takes off his uniform, he figuratively slaps Batman in the face. Yet Robin’s detest for Batman does not emerge from nothing.

In previous lines, Robin scorns Batman for ditching him in the gutter as well as dating married women (ln 4-5, 9-10). Batman’s actions cause Robin not only to reject his uniform but also in later lines foreshadow Batman’s demise (ln 20-24) by picturing the beloved hero cooking chicken intestines alone in the middle of winter.

Just as children must comprehend their parents for who they are and reject certain teachings, so too does Robin. He sees what Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye calls “phoniness”, and chooses to create his own path, rather than follow Batman, symbolizing the choice to accept or reject learning.

Interestingly, Robin’s uniform is described as “Sherwood-Forest-green” (ln 12), the place where Robin Hood originates (and a play on names). Robin desires to rid himself of his past and make a name for himself. However, he trades his sidekick clothes for a simple “pair of jeans and crew-neck jumper”, not another costume (ln 17).

After seeing Batman’s faults, Robin believes he can do more good as an every-day human than as a superhero. He appeals to the audience’s attachment to the superhero’s alter-ego, promoting an idea that we do not need arrogant superheroes to save the day, upholding Batman’s motto that anybody can be a hero.

And who said poetry can’t be fun?

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