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, poetryfoundation.org 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.
One of the most beguilingly gentle sensibilities in the comics field today, Jeffrey Brown says he once aspired to be a poet, in a mode inspired by Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End and the work of Russell Edson, whose “Of Memory and Distance” he illustrates here. Indeed, Brown’s connection with poetry runs so deep that though his debut, Clumsy (2003), bears the subtitle “a novel,” he almost dubbed it “a collection of poems.” The book, he explains, is “broken down into these one- or two-page stories that are essentially trying to capture and distill the essence of a particular idea or moment . . . the same thing that good poetry does.”
The scruffy Jeffrey Brown stand-in who appears in much of Brown’s work is recognizable in his illustration for “Of Memory and Distance,” in which a “scientific fact” is transmuted to the mystery of human identity. Brown’s art bounces off the words to tell a more specific story, that of a new life coming to be—a narrative at once unique and true to the emotion of the text. The lovely twist? The poet Edson’s father was a cartoonist, turning this piece into a Möbius strip of memory and discipline.
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