Poetry and Comics: Poems Becoming Comics

The connection between comics and poetry has been made several times by several very smart people.

“{Comics] are also a kind of poetry, an incantation beckoning us to enter their world. The simplicity of their superficial concision can reveal surprising density, layers, and multivalence.”

Ivan Brunetti

“[T]he most fruitful analogy to comics might be poetry.”

Hillary Chute

“The ‘words & pictures’ that make up the comics language are often described as prose and illustration combined. A bad metaphor: poetry and graphic design seems more apt. Poetry for the rhythm and condensing; graphic design because cartooning is more about moving shapes around — designing — then it is about drawing.”

James Sturm

And while I tend to agree and believe that the medium of comics is more a blend of poetry and graphic design than it is novel writing and painting, I want to focus on more than a likeness. I want to look at moments when poems become comics and when comics become poems.

My interest in this starts, as most things do, with my own biography. As soon as I could write, I created comics. When I finally got into reading them, my love of the medium began to be challenged by the narrow scope of material available. In high school, I began to compulsively write poetry. This went on for years and eventually resulted in getting published and being asked to be part of a poetry recital. While I still scribble the occasional poem, I don’t do it as much as I used to and not nearly as often as I continue to make comics. Yet I still read poetry regularly. Besides having an MA in literature, I am subscribed to Poetry magazine, flip to the poems in The New Yorker every week (after the cartoons), and read collections of poems for fun.

So the artistic mediums of poetry and comics both have large places in my life and I have long been interested in the intersection between the two.

An Attempt at a Definition

The question, as always, remains: when is something a comic and when is it not. For me, the medium of comics creates meaning by putting elements in a visual static sequence. Of course, langage has sequence. In English, word order is important. But language works like a river. It flows along and while you hold previous sentences in your mind to understand the one you are reading, you do not look for physical changes between one sentence and another. You follow a narration, not a monstration. Comics work by showing, not telling. The art form takes elements and juxtaposes them in physical space. As a reader, you notice the changes and derive meaning from them. So there is an element of physical repetition that grounds the juxtaposition.

Also, comics are site specific, as Hillary Chute has pointed out. This means both that they use physical space to convey meaning and that they take a physical shape that cannot be altered. If you’ve ever tried to adapt a comic to epub format, you know what I’m talking about. Literature can reflow: the font can change, the size can grow or shrink. Comics don’t work this way. So when poems become more like comics, they also become more site specific. Yes, line and stanza breaks are physical markers that almost all poems share. But the poems can be reprinted in different typefaces and at different sizes. When poems become more visual, their shape matters more. Their relation to the page as a whole becomes more fixed.

So I’m interested in poems that use graphic static sequence and for which the relation of the poem to the physical space (i.e. the page) is important.

Historical Examples

Poems have a long history of using imagery, but most of these would not be considered comics-like. For instance, shaped poetry often presents a poem that is shaped to create an image. While these poems could be considered site specific, they don’t tend to employ visual juxtaposition. The result is a single image, not a sequence. One of the most famous examples of a shaped poem is George Herbert’s “Easter Wings.” While I wouldn’t consider this a poem comic, this poem moves poetry more towards the visual.

image from Wikipedia

As an artist and print-maker, William Blake illustrated many of his poems. Most of these would classify as straight illustrations. “Sick Rose” offers a slight exception. 

image from Wikipedia

There are different versions of this image, but all contain the three female figures. To me, this is the same woman. In each figure, she has the same hair and the same colored dress. If I’m right about this, then what we have is a sequence. Could Blake’s “Sick Rose” be the first example of a poem comic?

The term shaped poetry and concrete poetry are often used interchangeably. For me, concrete poetry tends to have more of an influence from advertising. Also, the meaning in a concrete poem comes more from the typographical effects and placement of linguistic elements than from the words themselves. These typographic effects are not only visual, but often put into a deliberate sequence.

One of the most famous concrete poems remains the brilliant “Bebe Coca Cola” by Décio Pignatari. While the words of this poem have meaning, the visual repetition and clever omission of a repeated word or letter is part of the overall effect of the poem. Also, the poem is a deconstruction of capitalist advertising, specifically a Coke ad in this case. Pignatari is not only thinking of language, but of the graphic effect of his art. As a side note, while the translation above politely turns “cloaca” into “cesspoool,” a cloaca is literally an asshole.

Newer Works

In recent years, many poets have quite explicitly labeled their poems as visual poems or even poetry comics. What follows are a few that I have noticed and whose work I’ve enjoyed.

Catherine Bresner calls what she creates “poetry comics.” Her poems often intermingle words with images, the connections between the two being obscure. So, as with comics, the full meaning of her work comes from what we make of the connection between the text and the image. My personal favorite is “American Sentence” (above) that puts her poem into a series of diagrammed sentences. This turns the lines into spidery physical structures that create visual patterns as they also subvert our reading order expectations.

Monica Ong names her art “visual poetry”. In “Diaspora Nova,” the lines of the text flow along the semicircles of orbits. The stars themselves are superimposed over a photograph. And all these elements together, both images and text, form the meaning of the work. Like a comics maker obsessed with the published product, Ong has also taken her art and made fully realized artifacts. For instance, she has created a working planisphere that reveals a poem.

Not all of Mai Der Vang’s art incorporates visual elements. However, her poem “I Understand This Light to be My Home” does. The traditional stanzas of a poem are interrupted by word clusters that form images, a thumbprint or a sunset. At the end of the poem, we have a sequence of images that, while they are composed of words, shift based on density and tone. The ending gives us a static sequence of visual elements, juxtaposed with textual meaning.

Of course, this is a partial list, limited by what I have come into contact with and what has resonated with me. Still, like me, I hope you find this small sampling inspiring.

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