Essay

The Poem as Comic Strip #5

Another graphic novelist let loose in our archive.
Introduction

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. This time around, Paul Hornschemeier lends his talents to a poem by 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 19th, 2007

Poet and essayist Ted Kooser is known for his honest, accessible verse that celebrates the quotidian and captures a vanishing way of life. Brad Leithauser wrote in the New York Times Book Review that, “Whether or not he originally set out to…[Kooser’s] become, perforce, an elegist.” Populated by farmers, family...

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...

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  1. September 22, 2007
     Poet Hound

    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...

  2. September 22, 2007
     Jessie

    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.

  3. September 24, 2007
     Linda Muckley

    Bravo

    Such fun

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

  4. September 24, 2007
     Cait

    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?

  5. September 27, 2007
     thomas

    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.

  6. October 16, 2007
     F. David Mencken

    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

  7. October 16, 2007
     Anonymous

    This is my favorite so far. Great job.

  8. February 16, 2008
     Gwen

    I liked it. Even though it was literal.

  9. February 19, 2008
     Human23

    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.

  10. June 5, 2008
     PREACHER

    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

  11. July 3, 2008
     teunisje

    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.