The Poem as Comic Strip

Graphic novelists let loose in our archive.

by David Heatley and Diane Wakoski
Heightened language—one possible or partial definition of poetry—isn’t the first thing one associates with comics. Yet comic book artists take into account the way words appear on the page to a degree poets will find familiar. How many lines should accompany each image? How high should the dialogue balloon float? The ratio of printed words to blank space plays a role in whether a poem or strip succeeds.

The best of the daily humor strips (think Peanuts) have produced thousands of word-and-picture episodes that occupy about the same thought-space as a good short poem; the terseness can resemble haiku. Then there is Krazy Kat, George Herriman’s polyphonic masterpiece that appeared in William Randolph Hearst’s papers from 1913 to 1944 —a comic feature so blessedly idiosyncratic in its dialects that the only way to start making sense of what’s said is by reading it aloud, like a poem.

As a way to help readers discover (or rediscover) our archive, has invited some of today’s most vital graphic novelists to interpret a poem of their choice from the more than 4,500 poems in our archive, reaching from Beowulf to the present.

Kicking things off is David Heatley, best known for his meticulous renderings of his dreams, always haunting and frequently hilarious. Heatley brings his faux-naïve draftsmanship and masterful color sense to the first two stanzas of Diane Wakoski’s 1966 poem “Belly Dancer.” According to Heatley, “I picked the poem because my work tends to deal with sexuality. My book Overpeck features a teenage girl dealing with her abuse issues while coming to terms with her newfound supernatural abilities: namely, turning herself into a duck so she can hide or fly away.

“Wakoski is writing her poem for the women of the early ’60s, daring them to become more sexual and inhabit their bodies,” he continues. “I liked the tension and dissonance of translating some of those themes into my work.”

--Ed Park
Series Editor

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Originally Published: January 31, 2007


On February 1, 2007 at 8:20am Paula Cary wrote:
I think this is a fantastic idea! What a great way to bring more people closer to poetry who would otherwise continue to overlook it. Will these renditions be displayed anywhere in particular? Please let me, and other poetry fans, know.

On February 1, 2007 at 10:00am Jessie Carty wrote:
I think this is a great idea as well! Makes me wish, as usual, that I could draw.

I have sent this on to my online comic friends to see what they think!

On February 2, 2007 at 10:34am Guy LeCharles Gonzalez wrote:
This is a great idea! I'm looking forward to more.

On February 2, 2007 at 12:31pm wwc wrote:
If we're artists who already do this kind of thing, how can we apply to join this great project?

On February 5, 2007 at 11:12am Kimberly wrote:
Thanks for putting this together. There's a small non-profit publication in Halifax called All Rights Reserved that I manage as a volunteer and we're looking to expand our visual storytelling section with exactly this sort of thing. So if anyone out there is interested, please check us out:

On February 6, 2007 at 8:35am Ó Seasnáin wrote:
I have a hard time accepting this idea. Poetry is not meant to be a graphic novel... It is already a picture, just with words. It is redundant to paint the Mona Lisa again. You would want to use the woman as inspiration, not the painting. I believe it takes away from the value of the art.

On February 6, 2007 at 9:44am Harriet Tubman wrote:
I like to bake pies.

On February 7, 2007 at 7:07am Robert Shreefter wrote:
I think these are great--
I train art teachers and so to have them use
poetry in their classrooms through making art is
certainly a good think.

I usually use David Morice's books--POETRY
COMICS and the sequels.

Will you be having more of these? I especially like
the graphic style of these comics.

Robert Shreefter

On February 7, 2007 at 3:59pm Diane Wakoski wrote:
A friend told me my poem "Belly Dancer" was illustrated by David Heatley, and while I like the idea I am a little disturbed that it is only half of the poem. Where is the other half? To me, this seems creepy, as if people think this is my whole poem, with no development or revelation. Is the other half of my poem illustrated but just not published here? If so, where can I find the other half of the poem. I'd love to know what happened. Sincerelyl, Diane Wakoski

On February 7, 2007 at 4:14pm Emily Warn wrote:
Dear Diane Wakoski,

In our introduction to the comic, we let people know that David Heatley's comic was only about the "first two stanzas of Diane Wakoski’s 1966 poem 'Belly Dancer'? and provided a link to the full poem in our archive.

For readers who want to read the poem right now in its entirety, here's the link:

Thanks for your terrific poem. The response to it has been overwhelming.


Emily Warn


On February 8, 2007 at 11:07am Diane Wakoski wrote:
Dear Emily,
thanks so much for your kind and informative response to my slightly hystical post. Forgive me. And yes, I'd rather have half out there than none. Thank you to the Poetry Foundation for sponsoring this interesting gesture of outreach. Sincerely, Diane Wakoski

On February 13, 2007 at 2:03pm tit wrote:
i love harriet tubman. she is banging

On February 13, 2007 at 2:08pm Mike McCabe wrote:
I absolutely love poetry, and I love the idea of poetry comics! It's very innovative. Keep up the good work guys. Oh, yea and that Harriet Tubman was a great person, don't make fun of her guys.

P.S. I am an up and cmoing poet, but some people call me emo, what should I do?

On February 13, 2007 at 2:10pm I'wan Afuqya wrote:
Comics are very fun to read, and make poetry much more fun and colorful.

On February 13, 2007 at 8:20pm Tad Richards wrote:
Don't forget Walt Kelly, as a comic strip artist who chose his words with the care and precision of a poet.

On February 16, 2007 at 8:13am Mary Lee Hahn wrote:
How will we find these graphic renditions in the

archives? In "Audio/Visuals-->Visuals


On February 17, 2007 at 9:38am Matt Mason wrote:
Great article! I love poetry comics... I found a book called "Poetry Comics: A Cartooniverse of Poems" by Dave Morice (Simon and Schuster, 1982) a few years ago at a used book store and have used it in classes to good effect (it has over 50 poems, from Shakespeare and Keats to Donald Hall and Levertov).

On February 19, 2007 at 3:04pm Mimi wrote:
I am a printmaker and want to illustrate some poems (both dead and alive poets) Do I have to have their written permission? The alive ones I mean.



On February 21, 2007 at 3:42pm Paul wrote:
Not a new idea, but interesting just the same, and not exactly a reverse ekphrastic or a multiple broadside either. Of course the poem must be its own picture, but should these drawings be able to stand on their own if the words were removed, as a good ekphrastic poem must do in the absence of the painting?

On April 2, 2007 at 7:28am muhammad younis bahtti wrote:
these poems are nice but you should to give them a good shape of indea and is hoped it will give more advantigeous to readers and no any daze or difficulty will be more i think

On April 3, 2007 at 3:55pm Dan ONeil wrote:
About three years ago I coined the name, Poemic. I think one poem should be produced, drawn and published as a unit, then priced and sold as such. I think this would be a great way to reach a wider audience, when properly done.

On April 21, 2007 at 2:55pm dhetste wrote:
this is very cool

On May 16, 2007 at 10:34am madelie coas wrote:
grats on the comic strip e-mail me

On March 4, 2008 at 2:30pm Charlie Quimby wrote:
The download link appears to be broken.

On July 2, 2008 at 3:47pm teunisje wrote:
I have to say when I found this article,

and consequently this project, I was

thrilled and delighted! Unfortunately, this

poem in particular has been one of my

favorites for years and I was surprised to

find that my reaction to the illustrated

version was quite negative. I think it was

a combination of the abbreviation of such

a well crafter work and the style in which

this comic was drawn that turned me off.

"The Belly Dancer" feels mysterious and

clean to me, and these drawings feel

abrupt and scattered.

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David Heatley is the author of Overpeck, a graphic novella to be published in spring 2008. My Brain is Hanging Upside Down, a collection of dream, portrait, and diary comics will be published in the fall of 2008. His comics and drawings have appeared in The Best American Comics 2007, An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, The New York Times, McSweeney's, Kramer's Ergot, Nickelodeon Magazine, The Drama, Denver Quarterly and MOME. His . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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