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.
When Paul Hornschemeier read Ted Kooser’s “The Giant Slide,” he was hit with a moment of clarity. “I saw the entire comic, just as it is in the finished version, all of the panels just floating there along with the time and beats of the poem,” he says. Such vision—automatic, piercing, fraught—also energizes Hornschemeier’s new graphic novel, The Three Paradoxes (Fantagraphics) in which a superficially pleasant night spent at his childhood hometown generates a trio of unsettling episodes. (Appropriately enough, it’s the sight of a drainage pipe that gets Paul’s memory flowing.) Each foray into the past is heavily stylized, presenting a childhood rumble in glaring citrus half-tones, a philosophical interlude in ancient Greece as a crumbling dime comic. It’s entirely fitting that Hornschemeier’s take on Ted Kooser’s poem reads like a lost chapter of The Three Paradoxes: The derelict amusement park in Kooser’s poem whirls itself to life, a seedbed of memory, more potent for its whiff of mundane decay.
Hornschemeier compares poetry to “painting with a single hair, capturing something in an economy of masterful gestures,” and reading the last five panels of “The Giant Slide” is like watching that single hair get smaller and smaller, as Hornschemeier pans, zooms in, zooms out, the panels gaining in emotion as if poignancy could be measured like velocity, to land perfectly on those final four syllables, at which point it needs to disappear. This is painting without a brush.
Download PDF >>
Originally Published: September 19, 2007