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October 22, 2007

The Poetry of Comics

From the drawing board of Leland Myrick


“If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry”

Emily Dickinson

I took part in a panel discussion at last summer’s San Diego comic convention that started me thinking again about a subject that’s been spinning around in my head for a while—the relationship between comics and poetry, and whether some comics can be called poetry. It didn’t take me long, honestly, to come to the conclusion that many comics, though they might not have started out as poems, are in their finished forms closer to poetry than anything else.

During the panel discussion in San Diego, I got quite a few questions from the audience about the process I went through with my :01 graphic novel MISSOURI BOY. I had mentioned in my introduction on the panel that each chapter in MISSOURI BOY had begun life as a poem, none of which (except for the last chapter) were meant at the time of their writing to be anything but poems, poems to be put away in a drawer somewhere or possibly to be read aloud to friends and family at a poetry reading. Much of what I’d written around that time was about my early life in rural Missouri, and the poems that eventually became MISSOURI BOY were written over a span of almost ten years and were quite different in form, ranging from blank verse to haiku. When the idea finally gelled that I would take all these disparate poems and meld them into one coherent graphic novel, I began to think about the process of turning poetry into comics, and in thinking about the process, I began to feel my way toward the kind of book I wanted MISSOURI BOY to be when it was finished. What I did NOT want was a book of illustrated poems. What I wanted was a graphic novel that moved through time and in the end told one large story through a bunch of little moments strung together, the little moments fairly clear in themselves, but the larger story more indistinct as seen through the scattered lenses of the individual chapters.

One of the most important things that happened in the transformation from poem to comic was the loss of words. My editor, Mark Siegel used what became an important phrase for me in the early stages of the book when I was still struggling with keeping the language of the original poems intact—Let the words fall away. And so I did. In my head I saw the words falling away, floating leaves settling on the floor around my drawing table. And when I did, the transformations occurred for me, small enchantments twisting poetry into comics. When I told my friend Jane (who taught me more about poetry than anyone else) about this process, she said, “Oh...don’t let the words fall away! Let me have them.” One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received, and I’ll always love her for saying that.


When I finished MISSOURI BOY, I didn’t stop thinking about the connection between poetry and comics, because the chapters still felt like poems to me, and I began to think about the other graphic novels and comics I’ve loved, and I began to think about which ones felt like poems to me. And a lot of them came to my mind. And I decided that, for me, certain books are poetry, in the same way that MISSOURI BOY is still poetry. They feel like poems when I read them. The magic mix of the language, the arrangement of the words on the page and the pictures conjures poetry.


The moment near the end of Dave McKean’s CAGES when the artist and his love are talking about creativity and then walk out on the balcony to see the city rising beneath them—that’s poetry. The moment in Taiyo Matsumoto’s BLACK & WHITE when Kimura has a leisurely conversation with Suzuki and then kills him, Suzuki knowing all along that he’s going to die—that’s poetry. The moment at the end of Lark Pien’s LONG TAIL KITTY, when Long Tail Kitty carries the bunny-chewed shoe to the sleeping woman—that’s poetry. The moment in Keiko Nishi’s shojo manga, THE SKIN OF HER HEART, when Lin-Lin turns down an offer of marriage from the factory chief’s son and the rain stops. That’s poetry. And I think even if Dave McKean or Lark came up to me and pointed a finger in my face and told me absolutely not, their books are NOT poetry, I’d smile and nod, and they’d still be poetry in my head and in my heart.


This all may lead one to say that I am just playing with words. And that would be true. But, if I stretch my mind and try to come up with a definition for poetry, I can never settle on anything that strays very far from Miss Dickinson’s definition that I started with. Novels can be poetry, and graphic novels can be poetry, and films can be poetry, and sometimes, for a little while, people can be poetry. They may not be verse, the physical manifestation of poetry that usually starts on the left side of the page and turns back on itself. But poetry is not the same as verse. Not for me, and not for Emily Dickinson.




I agree with you. I help run a poetry series and I've often wondered if there were a way we could host a reading for comics artists. I asked John Porcellino when he was in SF but he wasn't enthused. I attended one of Alison Bechdel's bookstore readings for Fun Home and she brought along a laptop & a projector; a sheet was hung and Bechdel read the words aloud. I thought that worked well, in that instance at least.

First Second has set out to track down and capture every Leland doing great comics work.

I'm also doing an adaptation of a poem into a GN (or is it a GP?), Lewis Carroll's "Hunting of the Snark". Pacing, rhythm, atmosphere are quite different from typical "prose" copy. In my case, it's a 500+ line poem so maintaining continuity while also keeping it "oneiric" is time-consuming.
Keep up the good work and good luck!

This was a fantastic post. Thanks, Leland.

Nice post. Food for thought.

e.e. cummings, you might be unsurprised to discover, was fond of Herriman's KrazyKat. The imagist poets placed a great deal of stock in the order in which imagery is used to elicit a reaction and the great effect that has on the meaning that gets perceived. Cummings thought visually and of his poems as “little pictures,” sound paintings. Sort of emotional narrative imagery.

[Jim Ottaviani, and now First:Second, seem to have a monopoly on cartoonists named Leland...]

Well said, Leland. I very much enjoyed MISSOURI BOY, and I do consider it poetry.

Perhaps it's the reading experience itself that differentiates "poetic" comics from more "prosaic" comics. When I read, speak aloud, or listen to a poem, it is a very physical act (Robert Pinksy describes this very well in THE SOUNDS OF POETRY) that I sometimes call "dancing at attention."

I am alert to the friction between syllables, the pattern of breath, the repetitions and variations, the almost-spatial movement of the language. This happens in certain prose passages as well, but never so intensely and so bodily as with a true poem.

And I draw a close parallel between this sort of experience and the experience of reading comics such as CAGES or Jim Woodring's FRANK or Seth's CLYDE FANS or Jason Lutes's BERLIN, to name only a few. Feeling the progression of images in the gut as well as the brain.

Here's another interesting take on the same idea:


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