24th June 2015
Poet Chris McCabe reflects on the popularity of poetry comics and the debt they might owe to William Blake.
William Blake appears in The Poetry by Heart timeline for the year 1789 with his poem ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. This poem is from his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which demonstrated a new way of bringing together poetry and visual art that built on the manner of earlier (often religious) illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. In The Poetry Library’s current exhibition Poetry Comics Blake is featured amongst the poets and artists on show with the implicit question: If Blake were to begin his endeavour today, might we not consider it as a work that falls into the medium of comics?
Blake, as both a poet and an artist, was able to fulfil this kind of work himself: etching the words and images into the same copper plate to make one complete experience for the viewer. As far back as the beginning of Chinese ideograms we know that there has been a human wish to combine words and visual images. Poetry Comics shows us how modern artists and poets have explored this idea, combining poetry and sequential art to create new and surprising works.
The Poetry Library has a collection of over 150,000 items in every form and medium imaginable: epics, ballads, sonnets, haiku. There are even poetry balloons, beer-mats and T-shirts. What has been surprising is finding how many poetry comics exist in the library. Dadaist picture poems from the period of the First World War, broadsides from 1950s San Francisco, collaborations between New York poets and artists and small press publications from the 1970s. The greatest surprise has been finding that Poetry Comics is a currently thriving scene and that anyone can get involved in this exciting hybrid art form.
Chrissy Williams, my co-curator on this exhibition, is also a poet who has published a number of publications which combine poetry and sequential art, including The Jam Trap (Soaring Penguin Press, 2012) and Angela (Sidekick Book, 2013). She describes how she first became interested in Poetry Comics like this:
‘I had abandoned comics when I was younger, and it was only in coming back to them as an adult that I started to see the creative possibilities inherent in their structure. The visual language of the panel to panel transitions made me think of the transitions from line to line in poetry – how much is left unsaid, in both, for the reader to complete for themselves. And the line itself – both mediums concern themselves with trying to do more with less, with using the most economic (yet expressive) line possible. It struck me there were useful things both mediums could learn from each other, and the exploration started there.’
Chrissy organises a poetry comics workshop which invites poets and artists to come and make poetry comics together. In the exhibition at The Poetry Library there is a whole display case with loose-leaf pages assembled across each other in layers of cut-up colours and words. There is a real sense of fun and possibility. Pencil, ink and colour invite words to sit both in and outside of the panels. There is an image of a mountain with smoke firing out of it and the words read, above and below: ‘O Fire of love, newly arrived. / How armourless. Fiend of Hell.’
The exhibition also has some suggestions on how poetry comics work and how you might make them yourself. A sentence in bright pink curves around a column in the library: WHAT HAPPENS OFF THE PAGE IS AS IMPORTANT AS WHAT HAPPENS ON IT. Chrissy says:
‘When the line is at its most economic, you might see only a few marks on the page – this allows for even those with the most limited artistic ability (and I count myself among them) to work up ideas. Thinking of it as a collage between poetry and sequential art also means you can use found images to make ideas work. What interests me most about the process is finding new ways to explore the page.’
Perhaps the easiest way to make a start with your own poetry comic is to pick up the little booklet at The Poetry Library which simply says on the cover ‘see what happens…’. Who knows, this could be the start of your own beginnings as a maker of poetry comics? The best thing about this form is that you can work on it alone, with a collaborator, or in groups, and there is no end to the possibilities.
Poetry Comics at The Poetry Library is open Tuesday-Sunday 11-8 until 12th July.
There will be a further exhibition of new poetry comics work at the Poetry Society’s Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden from 1st September. This work will be drawn from a forthcoming anthology to be published by Sidekick Books: Over the Line: An Introduction to Poetry Comics.
Chris McCabe is the Poetry Librarian at The Poetry Library, Southbank Centre. His poetry collections are The Hutton Inquiry, Zeppelins, THE RESTRUCTURE and Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, 2015). He has recorded a CD with the Poetry Archive, has had work included in numerous anthologies and was shortlisted for The Ted Hughes Award in 2014 for his collaborative work with Maria Vlotides, Pharmapoetica. His plays Shad Thames, Broken Wharf and Mudflats have been performed in London and Liverpool and his prose book In the Catacombs: a Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery, also published by Penned in the Margins, documents his search to find a great forgotten dead poet.