Once comic strips and comic books entered the popular imagination, it was only a matter of time before poets noticed.
Poet Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) was one of the first generations that grew up with comics. (Comic books being popularized in America in the 1930s, history of comics timelines generally agree.) Associated with the New York School, Koch found a way to be a comics artist and a poet at the same time.
Published posthumously, The Art of the Possible – Comics Mainly Without Pictures (Soft Skull Press, 2004) is one of the books that inspired me to even try drawing poetry comics. It’s witty and aware, alternating between exploding and exploring the comics page, challenging (and defining) the form even when (sometimes) staying inside the lines.
In the introduction to Koch’s comics collection, David Lehman writes: “In 1992, Kenneth decided that not only could he borrow subject matter or adapt a narrative technique from comics but it might be possible to write poetry in a new form based on them.” (p. 9)
The poet’s hand is paramount in these comics that have the feel of being hastily drawn in the spirit of “first thought, best thought.” As the title warns, Koch’s comics are mostly without pictures, leaving words to do the work inside and outside – and even without – panels.
Here are 2 examples.
Koch shows the way to have poetry and comics inform each other while pushing at the restraints of both forms. Comics provides a perfect constraint for the ideas his poems express. I count this collection among Poetry Comics Classics.
Warning: This incomplete history maps my journey as a poet learning about comics and doesn’t follow a strict chronological order.