Essay

The Poem as Comic Strip #5

Another graphic novelist let loose in our archive.

By Paul Hornschemeier and Ted Kooser
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.

--Ed Park
Series Editor



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Originally Published: September 19, 2007

COMMENTS (11)

On September 21, 2007 at 4:29pm Poet Hound wrote:
Is there any chance this series will be gathered up into a book? It would be a terrific way to connect people with poetry by way of comics. It would also be astounding to see these in the Sunday Comics across the country, if only...

On September 21, 2007 at 6:51pm Jessie wrote:
Thanks for posting this- what a wonderful

collaboration! One of my favorite poets and one

of my favorite artists reflecting each other's

vision. You totally made my day.

On September 23, 2007 at 7:25pm Linda Muckley wrote:
Bravo

Such fun

I've keep my poetry and cartoons in seperate boxes...until now

On September 24, 2007 at 7:17am Cait wrote:
I've never seen anything quite like this. Art and writing -- my two favorites -- combined. I might have to try some of my own poetry in comic form. And wouldn't it be great if these poetry comics ended up in the Times?

On September 26, 2007 at 4:16pm thomas wrote:
There is a general rule in cinema that if you

have a voiceover describing a chicken the last

thing you really want accompanying that is a

stock shot of a chicken. An exterior of a

henhouse maybe, or a red pickup or the rolling

clouds will give the voiceover greater depth

and texture. To create a poetic resonance, in

other words, the last thing you want to do is be

descriptively repetitive.

So I have to complain a little that the graphic

interpretation of the poem here does just that

and the effect is too illustrative, too shallow.

Every frame simply reiterates the text. Some

disonance, discord, juxtaposition is a real

opportunity for creativity and would have

helped immensely. There's no mention of a

stray dog in the poem, for example, but one

lurking in the weeds might've helped. Or, if the

poem compares leaves to people, why isn't

that comparison explored artistically?

Also, considering the vast, rushing, whirling

empty spaces of the poem, the decision to do

every frame as a static, eye-level composition

probably could have benefited from some

variation.

Lastly, the ghost people going down the slide is

far, far too derivitive of The Family Circus

cartoon. Although still fairly young, I'm certain

that Mr. Hornschemeier is capable of far

greater ferocity in his art than Mr. Keane.

On October 15, 2007 at 4:15pm F. David Mencken wrote:
There's a lot of promise in this direction. In The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition, Helen Vendler talks about Berryman's cartoon aesthetic:

"The reductiveness and garishness and violence we associate with cartoons – and do not normally associate with our "sensitive" therapeutically-presented selves – are Berryman’s startling comic means toward representation of his irrepressible Id."

--F. David Mencken

On October 16, 2007 at 2:27pm wrote:
This is my favorite so far. Great job.

On February 15, 2008 at 1:16pm Gwen wrote:
I liked it. Even though it was literal.

On February 18, 2008 at 10:43pm Human23 wrote:
Thomas has excellent points above

regarding the literalism of these things.

Still there's something quiet and lonesome

with many of the images here that doesn't

seem to cramp or conflict with the poetry

of the language.

On June 5, 2008 at 11:03am PREACHER wrote:
IN AS MUCH THE ARTIST HERE

HAS SUFFERED VERY BADLY

MY GRAMMER AINT CORRECT AT ALL

IT MAKES ME WONDER SADLY

IS POETRY DRY WITH NO DELIGHT

AND DOESN'T IT YET RYME

OR HAS THE POETRY WE NOW READ

REDUCED PRIMORTIAL SLIME

On July 2, 2008 at 4:03pm teunisje wrote:
I think that this is the most successful so

far; the artist's use of the literal considers

and expresses the mood created by the

poet in a way that is immediately obvious

to the reader. A more 'artistic'

interpretation could have been successful,

but the poem itself is so simple and

solemn that I feel the illustrations are well

mated to the text.

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Biography

Born in Cincinnati in 1977, Paul Hornschemeier was reared in rural southern Ohio. He attended The Ohio State University, where he began publishing his experimental comics series Sequential, and later graduated with honors in Philosophy. After graduating and moving to Chicago, he concluded Sequential and began work on a new series, Forlorn Funnies, which produced the graphic novel Mother, Come Home, and garnered Eisner, Ignatz, . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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