"Holy Historical Circus Parade, Batman!"
Everywhere I went the other day, I kept hearing "We all live in a yellow submarine." It was playing on the IPOD as we were driving to the Sunrise Diner for breakfast; and a few minutes later, it was playing on the restaurant sound system as we placed our order. Maybe not all that much of coincidence, except that the night before I had added Yellow Submarine to my netflix list, and I had been up early that morning, re-reading The Mersey Sound (1967), a collection of Beatles Era poems by the three contemporary British writers known as the Liverpool poets: Adrian Henri (1932 - 2000) Roger McGough (b. 1937), and Brian Patten (b. 1946). These three poets emerged in the 1960's from the cultural explosion described by Edward Lucie-Smith as "The Liverpool Scene," which included most prominently the advent of The Beatles and the success of their performances.
Of all their poems, the most endearing (to me, anyway) are the Bat Poems, part of "an affectionate, half-frivolous, half-serious cult of Batman and Superman." Henri's "Batpoem," McGough's "Goodbat Nightman," and Patten's "Where are you now, Superman?" (an alternate version of which is entitled "Where Are You Now, Batman?") further mythologize these "folk heroes of pop" who are already admired precisely because of the ease and skill with which they cross the boundaries between the real and the fantastic. For more background on the Liverpool Poets, check out Lucie-Smith's book, The Liverpool Scene (1968), a blog-style collection of "poetry . . . with photographs of the poets and their surroundings . . . direct quotations taken from tape-recordings with the three poets . . . quotations from other sources . . . rambling conversations." In this way, Lucie-Smith conveys not only the poetry, but also the "scene," surrounding the poets and their work (see pp 5, 8, 9).
In the Bat Poems, Henri, McGough, and Patten present an authentic populist political agenda, pondering issues such as street crime, the war in Vietnam -- and the ability of Batman and Robin to heroically "clean up the town," "smash the Vietcong," and "attract the attention of passing solutions." McGough's poem is the bedtime prayer of a hopeful narrator who numbers Batman and Robin among those friendly neighborhood law enforcement officials in whom he places an innocent trust. This same sense of innocence and security appears in his whimsical description of their bedtime routine.
God bless all policemen
and fighters of crime,
May thieves go to jail
for a very long time.
They've had a hard day
helping clean up the town,
Now they hang from the mantelpiece
both upside down.
A glass of warm blood
and then straight up the stairs,
Batman and Robin
are saying their prayers.
They've locked all the doors
and they've put out the bat,
Put on their batjamas
(They like doing that)
They've filled their batwater-bottles
made their batbeds,
With two springy battresses
for sleepy batheads.
They're closing red eyes
and they're counting black sheep,
Batman and Robin
are falling asleep.
Henri's "Batpoem" is an imperative call to action, somewhat more forceful than McGough's nighttime reverie but equally sentimental. The speaker, who longs to be just like Batman, has pinned all his hopes on the arrival of the great crime fighter. He requests Batman's assistance not only in matters of local crime and foreign wars (satirizing the solipsistic nature of imperialism) but also in his love life. Gotham City is a romantic never-never-land of dreams come true and twentieth-century damsels in distress (confident and sexually sophisticated, they are kind of the inverse of Bill and Ted's "Chaste Medieval Babes"). Growing up in post-industrial Liverpool proved to be a rich resource for Henri, McGough, and Patten, ideal for the Gotham-like environment of their poetry. In the Bat Poems, mythical Gotham City and contemporary Liverpool have merged to provide a setting that is crime-ridden yet arcadian.
Take me back to Gotham City
Take me where the girls are pretty
All those damsels in distress
Half-undressed or even less
The Batpill makes 'em all say Yes
Help us out in Vietnam
Help us drop that Batnapalm
Help us bomb those jungle towns
Spreading pain and death around
Coke 'n candy wins 'em round
Help us smash the Vietcong
Help us show them that they're wrong
Help us spread democracy
Get them high on LSD
Make them just like you and me
Show me what I have to do
'Cause I want to be like you
Flash your Batsign over Lime Street
Batmobiles down every crime street
Happy Batday that's when I'll meet
Patten's vision is the least hopeful, an "amalgam of innocence, bizarre situation, childhood daydreaming, pathos and tenderness" (British Poetry 1964 to 1984: Driving Through the Barricades, Martin Booth 136). He revives the ubi sunt lyric in his nostalgic, cynical poem of lost innocence and childhood heroics, making an ambiguous comment upon the superhero concept. In his poem, Captain Marvel, the Purple Monster Sir Galahad, Zorro, Clark Kent -- all are missing, dead, or worse. The popular heroes, now that their audience has grown up to embrace "Real Life," have been rendered powerless. The daring escapades they once performed were made possible, it seems, only by the simple faith, the pocket money, and the "celluloid imaginations" of the narrator and his childhood peers. Nowadays, their faded belief in the triumph of good over evil resurfaces only occasionally. Instead, a resigned world weariness has replaced the naive, implicit trust of McGough's "Goodbat Nightman" and the adventurous hope of Henri's "Batpoem."
Where are you now, Superman?
The serials are all wound up now,
Put away in small black boxes
For a decade or so. Superman's asleep
In the sixpenny childhood seats.
Batman and Robin are elsewhere
And can't see the Batsign thrown out
By kids with toffee-smeared mouths.
Captain Marvel's SHAZAM! echoes round the auditorium,
But the magicians don't hear him,
Must all be dead . . .
The purple Monster who came down from the Purple Planet,
Disguised as a man, is wandering aimlessly about the streets
With no way of getting back
Sir Galahad's been strangled by the Incredible Living Trees,
Zorro killed by his own sword.
Blackhawk's buried his companions
In the disused hangers of innocence
And Flash Gordon likewise wanders lonely,
Weeping over the girl he loved 7 universes ago.
We killed them all simply because we grew up;
Who made them possible with our uneducated minds
And with our pocket money
And the sixpences we received
For pretending to be Good.
We think we are too old to cheer and boo now,
But let's not kids ourselves.
We still cheer and boo
But do it quietly or at General Elections
Where it is still possible to find a goodie
Now and then.
Clark Kent (alias Superman)
Committed suicide because he failed to find new parts.
The bullets that bounced off him on the screen
Wormed their way in to Real Life.
But who cared then for real life?
We had our own world with our own celluloid imaginations
And now we have a different world,
One that's a little more cynical
And that we are convinced is more real.
Our batsignals now questions flung into space
To attract the attention of passing solutions . . .
[nothing omitted, all ellipses appear in original]
The Liverpool poets are famous for combining high-brow and low-brow. They wrote in reaction to conventional form and content, favoring a more inclusive style to accurately express the evolving social / cultural consciousness of their contemporaries. According to Henri, they brought "the domain of the marvellous within the confines of everyday life." In his theoretical work, Henri observes that "Art could go into the streets, be a political act, take away the barrier between fantasy and reality, affect the quality of daily life, seek inspiration from humble and despised objects, create an environment of its own" (Total Art: Environments, Happenings, and Performance, 27). Their poetry relies on a complex, intertextual network of literary traditions and popular culture, including comic books, television shows, movies, children's games, songs, graphic novels, advertisements, slogans, and folk motifs. The Bat Poems exemplify this democratic intertextuality, eliminating cultural hierarchies, bridging social gaps, assimilating literary and popular traditions, and extending the conventional boundaries of poetry.
Contemporary writer, reviewer, and artist of many kinds, Curtis Cotrell (also my old friend from James Joyce Quarterly days), has done something similar in his cleverly titled poetry sequence, "Comics Trip," an alphabetical ode to an entire generation of cartoon characters and superheroes. What a nostalgic trip it was just to sit down and read through the wealth of cartoon imagery he has organized in these poems! I also like the way that, like the Liverpool poets, Cottrell weaves in serious current events:
The Great Pumpkin
Good grief! A pumpkin
Has taken root in my yard:
Washed up by the flood
From Hurricane Katrina
Just in time for Halloween.
& social commentary:
Nancy and Sluggo,
Quite an unlikely couple.
Right way and wrong way
Or is it a class conflict
& creative existentialism:
Focused through alien lens
Brings the ring power.
You are only limited
By the freedom of your will.
Not to mention
an aesthetics of common decency
(in manner of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)
and startling imagery:
Hawk nose and square jaw,
A grotesque hieroglyphic
Of law and order:
Law of commercial design;
Art of sequential order.
Icon of action:
Car curves around a corner;
Tracy dodges past,
Swasticated arms and legs,
Coattail signifying speed.
A reader complains,
"Your villains are so ugly!"
There's nothing cute about crime.
& retro recollections:
Beany and Cecil
The big seasick sea serpent
Had buttons for eyes.
They began as hand puppets
Before they became cartoons.
& last but never least -- my favorite! -- the intertextual pun:
"Et tu, Bluto?" exclaims Popeye!
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Wednesday, April 28th
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