Cartooning Like You Mean It

Cartooning, Teaching & Living – by Tom Hart

Comics as Poetry, Part 1

with 5 comments

I’ve been obsessing about “comics as poetry” for about 15 years. The topic came up on the Studygroup 12 message boards, so I chimed in with this:

It seems to me (despite there being academic definitions) that “poetry” or “poetic” is about a simple communion between author and reader, where the image and meaning making is a task largely given to the reader, through a deft handling of compositional elements by the artist/author. In perhaps one other simple way to word it: a lot left intentionally out.

So poetic is Ben Katchor (left out: specifics of reaction, sometimes, or specifics of internal thought, or exact explanations of dialogue) or Peter Blegvad or “Screw Style” (though to my Western eye that may border on surrealism) or Ben Jones or Kevin H.

There’s a line where a narrative crosses into the “poetic” under this description. Is “Poor Sailor” poetic? Probably, sure.

Poetic also sometimes (though I may disagree) can refer to a virtuosity of language (here: words, pics, etc.) but sometimes that virtuosity is about the dexterity in leaving things in and out. The difference between Blankets and Lynda Barry, maybe. Or Fun Home and Graffiti Kitchen.

Anyway, that’s what I think. Poetry is how much do you give the trusting reader to create a dialogue between her/him and the art? And how penetrating or powerful is that thing that then happens?

Austin English is right to crave it. Go Austin, but be articulate, man, and don’t get sucked in by that Devlinian rhetoric (“EC comics are the worst, man!”)

I was surprised to see people giving poems to cartoonists to draw (but glad some colleagues got good gigs) for this exact reason: you’re asking another artist to add more stuff. It’s probably going to clutter and cloud it and I think Randall hits on the points well. When I think of my favorite real poetry (ie all words), the idea of an illustrations at all is absolutely antithetical to enjoying and experiencing them.

Oh yeah, drawings alone can of course be “poetic”, but it gets hard and weird to define. Renee French and Gabrielle Bell have a poetry in their drawings. In Gabrielle’s case, I think I can almost find the words for it. What is left out is how she feels about what she is drawing. There’s attention and grace, but the absolute understatedness of emotion allows a lot to happen between the viewer and the drawing.

This isn’t true of say, Dave Cooper, a creator whose interest lies in the weird conflicts and tensions he creates between thought and emotion.

In Renee’s case, there’s such a vivid investment in the drawing that it’s hard to know what she’s feeling. Seems like everything: rage, joy love, fear. Her poetry lies in there somewhere, I think.

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Written by hutchowen

February 21, 2008 at 2:27 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Hi Tom,

    I like your idea that “poetic” may have much to do with the level of communion between reader and writer. This was, in fact, something of the basis of a push by certain poets in the 70s and 80s toward what they called “reader-centered” writing or “reader-response” writing.

    There was, though, a marked contrast in what they were proposing compared to say, the fiction of Hemingway, which proposed a strategic “leaving out” so as to allow for a greater level of reader engagement.

    In reader-centered writing, details germane to the “story” or “narrative” were not so much left out, as they were totally disregarded from the beginning, as no story or narrative was being told in the first place. This flew in the face of other poets at the time, whose poems were not quite fiction and, the argument might have gone, not quite poetry, either.

    Think of the enormous difference between the poetry of Tess Gallagher, which is concise, leaving much out, but which proceeds very much in the way of fiction or drama, and relies on our valuing drama and narrative arc to help us unfold what’s going on in the poem … and the poetry of Leslie Scalapino, which is less about what she leaves out than what is actually there *in place of* story or narrative scaffolding.

    In the Gallagher model, reader engagement ultimately goes no further than filling in the blanks. In Scalapino, the idea of narrative, that kind of association, is abandoned altogether, and one must imagine and embrace entirely other values in order to engage with the work.

    That’s probably ridiculously convoluted. I’ll try and clarify and post a clearer response to my blog in the next day or two.

    Hope all is well,

    Gary Sullivan

    Gary Sullivan

    February 22, 2008 at 5:30 pm

  2. […] a related note, Gary Sullivan chimes in about “Poetry in Comics” on my comments page here, and on his own blog, here. This seems to be spurred by Austin English’s letter in The Comics […]

  3. […] seen and best books read in 2008Amazing what 13 years can do…Ivor Cutler RIPKreider Draws Me AgainComics as Poetry, Part 1My bookstack, Feb 29On Themes, Situations, and Characters in Cartooning.La Colombe Coffee […]

  4. […] ‘comics as poetry’ for about 15 years.  Read his essay, Comics as Poetry, Part I, here.   Read Part II […]

  5. […] art and poetry, and also made me think of Comics poetry as a genre in full expansion. Here, check, Bianca Stone’s Poetry Comics with tips on other poetry artist too, and find some hot cartoonists interviewed on their relation […]


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