Poetry can be about anything: even Spider-man! To prove this point, I share with you one of Dan’s superhero sonnets. A part of his countless portraits of characters throughout pop culture.
Although this poem is significantly less dense than many of his other greater works, it still contains an interesting twist & view of the message – and thus, might be more instructable as to how a person should understand this idea of writing to communicate.
Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.
This poem is copyrighted by Dan Schneider.
It was only when he first read of Mauthausen,
and of the little Jewish girl- Hildie Meyer,
that Peter Parker understood what he had done
by not stopping the thief who- then- killed Uncle Ben:
Mauthausen, as you can infer from the poem, refers to a concentration camp.
These four lines state the primary thrust of the text – splitting apart the historical reality of war & Peter Parker’s realization of what it means to be a hero. They serve as scene-setting for the inversions of the next two stanzas.
In terms of technique, there is a particular subtlety in leaving the 3rd line open through enjambment. Expanding the guilt beyond not stopping the thief – to a host of other deeper implications that will become clearer as the poem passes. Also interesting is the word ‘then’ – which reinforces the split between historical & present, although this interpretation probably has lesser weight compared to the form of the poem itself – where the ‘historical’ section thrusts itself outwards from Parker’s present.
Beyond that structure, the entire poem utilizes a rhyme scheme – which gives it a lighter tone, helping fit the theme of the poem – which, is ultimately about immaturity. (In other words, as per Dan’s view of how form should contribute to meaning, it is not forced/cliched rhymes for the sake of rhyming)
For in 1943, in her own death mill,
young Hildie always chose to look the other way
as her playmates and friends were led to the showers.
But, what could she do? She had no superpowers,
was weak, starved, only twelve years old. And, anyway,
they were Gypsies, Slavs- she had her family, still…
If I were to point to the line which constitutes the stanza the most – it would be the very first line, because you could call it the ‘head-turner’. On very first glance, I thought that the poem was talking about Hildie as a victim of the concentration camp – but the later lines paint her out as one of those who seems to have escaped it, while her ‘playmates and friends’ went to the showers. Once you get this clear in your head, the ‘death mill’ takes on a different level altogether. In a way, it is one of the many images of an unaware mind (also appearing in ‘Tis Better… – and other ‘de-mythologization’ poems like The Finn & War Comix #1452) that Dan always loves to touch upon throughout many of his poems.
The last 3 lines of the stanza seems to transition into her inner monologue justifying her lack of action against the Nazis. The irony here is that all three races, Gypsies, Slavs, and Jews – would be what the Nazis considered Untermensch, or inferior people. Yet, this doesn’t just serve to outline the historical background – a mere fact – but it brings that divide into our current time. In other words, Hildie isn’t just inferior in terms of her race classification – but her lack of action & status as a child.
Now, the above interpretation might seem like it requires historical background to become clear – but even if you don’t know the details of it, you can still see inklings of the divide. The fact that she was “weak, starved, only twelve years old” or that she had “no superpowers” – and also that she sticks to her joys and ignores others miseries with “she had her family, still”. All of these qualities are immanent in the poem – although they become illuminated with context, and point to what must have been illuminated within Parker’s head – in the narrative of the poem. In fact, the existence of this divide gives a deeper possible meaning to the ‘showers’ that Hildie’s friends are pulled away to – although this meaning is more like a flicker and requires a bit of a stretch to see.
This is where I drop a cultural sidenote that is separate from the core elements of the poem: given that Superman, the definitive superhero & one of the main progenitors of the genre, was born from the idea of an Ubermensch – this provides another cultural layer to the text. Now, Peter Parker is an interesting choice to pick as the main character within the poem – since it’s not only that his backstory fits (“with great power comes great responsibility”) – but also that his character is the exact opposite of the Ubermensch signified by Superman. He’s frequently viewed as the ‘awkward nerd’ superhero – and, in a way, he’s also an avenue for such escapisms.
So, we have all these mappings & connections in place – about the divide between Untermensch & Ubermensch, between those who have the will to stop crime and those who don’t, and between childishness and maturity.
This was where young Parker closed the book, and began
to see that inaction can lead to a pyre –
like millions of Hildies, and that to not be one
could free the world from its need for a Spider-Man.
Poetry can be about anything – as long as we understand the deeper movements and essentials that drive humans to do what they do. Once we understand that, we can use any starting point as a means of communicating those general essentials.
Like, our need to close the book, put away those superhero films, and face a quality of life higher than what we’ve been kept in all this time – to go beyond ‘young Parker’. Our need to, as the first line so slyly enjambs – ‘begin’.
In my first reading of this poem, I went through it faster than I should have – and my mind made a slight psychological misreading at the last line. I read ‘its need for a Spider-Man’ – and then constituted the last two lines in my own mind as somehow just being a recapitulation of Parker’s will to become a superhero. I didn’t read the ‘free the world’ part. Yet, this act of misreading added an extra layer to the text for me.
Our minds are, after all, prone to seeing what we want to see.
In going through Dan’s poetry, there is a constant reminder to be larger than what you are, at any given moment in time. That there are hidden realities just out of reach, and there is a deep mystery at the bottom of everything. Even though a work like Watchmen attempted a sort of critique of the childish dreams implicit in the genre – it failed to be larger than what it was because of a keen sense of nostalgia & too much limits to its vision – an inability to truly extricate itself from the detritus of the genre.
We must go higher. We must say bigger things. The work of Literature is just beginning.