A History of Poetry Comics #02

Poetry comics are different than captioned illustrations or ekphrastic poems, which rely on someone else’s drawings for explanation/inspiration. For the most part, poetry comic artists create their own pictures paired with their own words. There are abundant and inspiring exceptions always, but there’s something about an artist showing their singular mind-thought that grabs and holds me.

Poet Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) created what he called “picture poems” drawing inspiration from Blake’s illuminations. I first encountered Patchen’s drawings in his Collected Poems, which I bought at a used book store in San Francisco in the early 90s. Scattered among the collection, starting about halfway, are hand-drawn poems often with lettering dominating the composition interwoven with modern-art-influenced animals and figures or chart-like illustrations. I wanted more!

Much later I found more in Patchen’s We Meet (New Directions, 2008) and The Walking-Away World (New Directions, 2008), which collected his out-of-print works from the 1950’s and 1960’s and are packed with single-panel picture poems, including “What can you do / up here.”

Full color example from “What Shall We Do Without Us?” by Kenneth Patchen (Sierra Club Books, 1984)

The poem falls down the single panel simultaneously following the mythic-looking creature from horned head to clawed feet. “Up here” is underscored by the crescent moon and stars, while “on earth” is shown by a stick-figure person with waving arms who’s easily missed at first. While the words alone would be profound, the picture deepens the meaning, underscoring the wonder left by the question mark.

Another aspect I admire: The poet’s own handwriting is an integral part of the composition, which echos Blake’s illuminated manuscripts. I love seeing the hand of the poet!

P.S. Shout out to New Directions for keeping Patchen’s picture poems in print. How about a full color version?!

Timeline: 1950s, 1960s

Warning: This incomplete history maps my journey as a poet learning about comics and doesn’t follow a strict chronological order.

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