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.
In our latest installment of “The Poem as Comic Strip” Ron Regé, Jr., has an electrifying take on Kenneth Patchen's “The Snow is Deep on the Ground,” from 1943. Appropriately enough for someone who’s a recording artist as well as a visual one (he plays drums for the incandescent pop group Lavender Diamond), Ron Regé first caught wind of Patchen via his interest in music. “When I was in college, I used to check lots of LP records out of the library,” he explains. “I came across the record Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz. I really liked it. A lot of records of beat poets reading to jazz sound hokey, but this one was different. The poems were abstract, beautiful, and intense. Patchen’s performance was very specific. It didn't have the bombastic tone of Kerouac reading to jazz, which reminded me more of Lenny Bruce, or even Lord Buckley.” Shortly after this encounter, Ron Regé remembers, he saw a Patchen book “printed with wild typography. Many of the pages had really big words and letters—perhaps there were pages written in all caps? It looked great.”
Patchen came to mind as Ron Regé browsed through the Poetry Foundation archives. He explains his treatment of “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground” this way: “The poem makes very broad reference to both God and war. It felt very real and present to me. . . . I tried to draw this comic in the most natural, artistic way that I could. Therefore the art is specifically simple, and the letter forms are fanciful and ornate. The ‘sequential’ comics aspect of the piece is very subtle. The panels are variations on the same image; the only real ‘movement’ is the dropping of the horizon. The ‘beloved’ changes only slightly from panel to panel. Like anyone's ‘beloved,’ she is always the same, yet also always new, exciting, and slightly different.”
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Originally Published: September 19, 2007