Comics in Education: “Ut Picture Poesis” – The Shared Experience of Poetry Comics
Columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.
Comics have long been used to illustrate classic literature. In our last post, we even talked about the ways in which comics have been paired with the likes of Shakespeare to create some amazingly satisfying visual delights (see No Fear Shakespeare’s Hamlet – its great!). Many other great adaptations of classic texts also exist in comics form.
But today I want to talk about visually adapting another kind of classic literature – poetry. When people think about comics, they naturally think “story”. After all comics are also known as “sequential art”, implying the passage of time, which is an important part of narrative storytelling. Poems, on the other hand, tend to be more abstract, and often exist as moments in time. Additionally, poems use highly sensory language, which calls to mind heightened imagery for the reader. One might ask, does a poem really need visuals added to it? Are the words alone enough?
The relationship between poetry and visual images has been known for ages, however. In ancient Rome, they discussed it a lot – consider for example this phrase: “poema pictura loguens, pictura poema silens,” which roughly translates to “poetry is the verbal picture, and painting is the silent poetry,” which Horace then shortened to “ut picture poesis,” which is simply, “As is painting, so it poetry.”
Basically, both painting (or drawing) and poetry are ways of communicating perception – what one sees in the mind’s eye. Both are liberating forms of expression, unencumbered by the conventions of more formal modes of communication. My students tend to love both for the same reason, they can toss their grammar rules out the window. Which isn’t to say that there are not rules in poetry or comics, just that it’s a much freer form of self-expression.
Comics and poetry are alike in more than just the freedom of expression they offer. As I mentioned before, both are visual mediums. Though poetry often exists in text only, the way the text is displayed on the page is in itself a visual metaphor. Are the lines broken into neat little stanzas? Or, are they displayed staggered across the page? Are the words formed into a particular shape, such as a diamante poem (in the shape of a diamond)? Or, are the words creating their own random path across each page, or even falling off the page altogether?
Consider the placement of the words in the poem “Lazy Jane” by Shel Silverstein, at left.
What does the placement evoke? Perhaps a “shower” of words tumbling down into the mouth of Lazy Jane who wants to catch the rain in her mouth? Though Jane is drawn at the bottom of the page, the placement of the words is very intentional and works in harmony with the art to create more than splendid image – its an idea he is communicating.
Silverstein is a master at combining evocative images with poetic text to create a wonderful effect.
Let’s look at another. Consider first, just the text for Silverstein’s poem, “Union for Children’s Rights”:
Strike! Strike! For Children’s Rights Longer weekends, Shorter school hours Higher allowances, Less baths and showers! No Brussel Spouts, more Root Beer And seventeen summer vacations a year! If you’re ready to strike, sign up right here.
Now consider that same poem as Shel Silverstein drew it – as poem/comic:
There is something instantly magical about the way Silverstein chooses to represent the poem. Instead of stanzas, Silverstein writes the lines as protest signs carried by the children. The art adds a dimension to the poem that text alone does not carry. That little extra something is actually a window into Silverstein himself – his personal vision of his own poem. That is not something we normally have access to when reading poetry. Which is why poetry can be so difficult to interpret at times – so full of allusions, symbolism, and metaphors that may or may not be familiar to us. Having the chance to “see” the poem, instead of merely “reading” the poem, provides an entirely different experience.
Reading poetry comics allows the reader to “experience” the interplay of visuals and language in a way that is different from text alone, or even poetry picture books. There is a rhythm to a comic that mirrors the punctuated nature of poetic verse, with its stops, starts, and flows.
The artist Seth describes it this way:
“When I am writing a comics page (or sequence of pages) I am very aware of the sound and ‘feel’ of how the dialogue or narration is broken down for the panels. If you have to tell a certain amount of story in a page then you have to make decisions on how many panels you need to tell it. You need to arrange these panels — small, big or a combination of the two — and decide how to sit them on the page. All these decisions affect how the viewer reads the strip; there is an inherent rhythm created by how you set up the panels. Thin panel, thin panel, long panel: this rhythm is felt by the reader, especially when you put the words into the panels. When writing a comic strip I am very aware of how I am structuring the sentences: how many words; one sentence in this panel; two in this one; a silent panel; a single word. These choices are ultra-important in the creation of comics storytelling, and this unheard rhythm is the main concern for me when I am working out a strip.”
“I imagine poets feel this same concern. If you read any free verse poetry you can see how the poet has made certain decisions for how to break the thoughts apart and structure them, often in a way that defies a system.”
Reference: Carousel, Volume 19, Spring/Summer Issue 2006, pg. 17-24
Speaking of rhythm and panel placement…
Another comics poet was Kenneth Koch, from the New York School of poetry. Known for his inventive combinations of words and images, Koch released a number of books over the years. One of his last books is The Art of the Possible: Comics Mainly without Pictures, which has been called “part journal, part sketchbook”. This collection of visually inventive poems are sure to inspire you and your students and provide for much discussion.
One of my particular favorites from this collection is “Different Kinds of Hemispheres”.
“Different Kinds of Hemispheres” By Kenneth Koch Northern Hemisphere. Southern Hemisphere. In every hemisphere, there is a different kind of life. Sometimes this causes problems. One day a man From the northern hemisphere Met and fell in love with A woman From the southern hemisphere. They married and had children - one boy and one girl- Who lived on the equator. They felt they had to.
There is something tremendously poignant and resonant in this poem, especially for children with divorced or separated parents. The text is meaningful, but as text alone it definitely loses some of it power. There is something about the visual, with its abstract lines, stark divisions between north and south, the boxed in phrases that are separated one from another, that lend the theme of the poem a metaphorical punch that isn’t there in the text alone.
The poems of Silverstein and Koch contain visuals and text that exists simultaneously, as far as we know without one preceding the other. As we saw when separating out the text from the visuals, the poems lose something. They are not meant to stand apart, but are meant to be experienced together. But that is not the only format for poetry comics. Many comics artists have collaborated with poets to create visual representations of their text-only poems, which in turn creates an entirely different experience. In such cases we are not only experiencing the voice of the original poet, but we are experiencing the poem as filtered through the mind of the artist – his or her own perception of the poem, its themes, and meanings.
The Poetry Foundation hosted a “Poems as Comic Strips” project some years back where they encouraged comics artists to select famous poems and adapt them as comics. The results were nothing if not interesting. Consider the Russel Edson poem “Of Memory and Distance” adapted by one of my favorite comic book artists, Jeffrey Brown.
Of Memory and Distance By Russel Edson It’s a scientific fact that anyone entering the distance will grow smaller. Eventually becoming so small he might only be found with a telescope, or, for more intimacy, with a microscope.... But there’s a vanishing point, where anyone having penetrated the distance must disappear entirely without hope of his ever returning, leaving only a memory of his ever having been. But then there is fiction, so that one is never really sure if it was someone who vanished into the end of seeing, or someone made of paper and ink....
What I suggest (and I suggest this for your students as well), is for you to read the text only version of Edson’s poem a few times to take in his meaning (or what you interpret his meaning to be). Once you have done so, click the link below to Brown’s comic version of the poem. Brown is known for his “bittersweet” portrayals of failed personal relationships. He is never afraid to be vulnerable or unappealing in his comics, and that also shows in his artwork.
After viewing Brown’s comic, what are your thoughts on his interpretation of the poem? I admit, the first time I experienced the comic, I was surprised. Brown’s interpretation was so different from my own. And yet, by experiencing his mental image of the poem, my own experience of the poem was enriched and enhanced. It became a shared experience – not between two (myself and the poet), but between three human consciousnesses (myself, the poet, and the artist).
The Poetry Foundation actually has a series of these poetry/comics collaborations. I enjoyed some more than others, but all are worth your time. You can read more about the project here.
Poetry comics (or comics poetry), have many applications in the classroom. At the very least, comics poetry can be used as a visual support to enhance and strengthen student comprehension. Poems can often be daunting for students, because the meaning is not always apparent – much more so for struggling or readers reluctant to do the work of ‘digging deeper’ to uncover the mysteries there. The visuals may allow for students to feel less intimidated, given that the poem is presented in a format that is appealing and friendly for students. It’s a very easy way to introduce works by Poe, Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare and more. It also can provide opportunities from some deep discussion, by inviting students to compare their understandings of text-only poems versus the interpreted poems of the comics artist.
But another, more important strategy (in my opinion), is to invite students to create their own poetry comics – creating their own interpretations of poems using visuals. This requires students to actually do the work of interpreting the poem, and then share that interpretation with others through the format of a comic.
There are many other resources on the marriage between poetry and comics. A good book to check out is Poetry Comics: An Animated Anthology by Dave Morice. It combines some of the best classic poetry, re-imagined in comic form. There’s also the newly released Comics as Poetry anthology. There are also many websites, from the “Poem as Comic Strips” project at PoetryFoundation.org, to websites completely devoted to the genre of poetry comics.
If you have a chance to use poetry comics in your classroom, we would love to hear from you.
Until then, here is a lovely article on Poetry and Design to read…
Homework: Read “Seth on Peanuts: Comics = Poetry + Graphic Design”
Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.
Posted on October 22, 2012, in Columns, Comics in Education and tagged A Light in the Attic, comics, Comics as Poetry, David Morice, Different Kinds of Hemispheres, education, Jeffry Brown, Kenneth Koch, Lazy Jane, Of Memory and Distance, Poems, poetry, Poetry Comics, Poetry Comics: An Animated Anthology, Poetry Foundation, Russel Edson, Shel Silverstein, The Art of the Possible, The Art of the Possible: Comics Mainly Without Pictures, The Poem as Comic Strip, Union for Children's Rights, Where the Sidewalk Ends. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.