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.

Words and drawing have gone together for centuries.

My first encounter with the idea that drawings can provide context for words and that words can provide meaning for drawings came through the illuminated poetry of William Blake (1757-1827).

I must have been hungover when they taught the English master in Lit class (anyway I was more into the Beats than the Romantics). Instead I was led to Blake through punk music and specifically Patti Smith (who still stops to read Blake’s poetry at her concerts). In 1977 I was struck by the power words and punk music had to transcend the mundane and deliver an immediacy. I experienced the same power, this time between words and drawing when I encountered Blake’s illuminated poetry.

Blake’s drawings for his poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience are testaments to words/drawings leading to deeper meaning/context. The illumination for his poem “The Tyger” (published in 1794!) for example shows an intertwining of words and drawing. The tree branches become stanza breaks. A stalk of grass stretches the entire left side of the print becoming the first letter of the title. The written tiger’s “fearful symmetry” is belied by the drawn tiger’s domesticated expression. “…what art / Could twist the sinews of thy heart?” Indeed.

William Blake, “The Tyger” (The Project Gutenberg, gutenberg.org)

Poetry and drawing together is a matter of providing the reader/viewer with context to build a shared, deeper meaning with the poet/artist. That’s why Blake’s *illuminated* is a great descriptor. For me, the best poetry comics illuminate — words and drawing together that create something new.

Timeline: Prehistory

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

Sex Pistols

When you spit on me

I keep falling in love with your

nihilism. Go ahead and lick

the scars left after the cuts. I’m

attracted to the scent of your

apathy. I just ripped my shirt for

the fuck of it. You tattoo anarchy

on my palm with permanent ink.

To know you’re flesh I watch for

you to bleed when pierced. So

you want to dominate my so what.

From 1977 (Ravenna Press)

The Rebel redacted
a narrative that has already been written / and forms form / a belief in the finality of history

As part of finding the right tone and context for my punk history of 1977, I redacted a copy of The Rebel by Albert Camus (Vintage Books, 1956, 306 pp.), working on the project between 2014.07.01-2017.11.24. Many themes emerged aligned with the punk attitude of the 1970s as well as my later interest in anti-narrative and history (like the page above).


1977 is here! It’s my new book, a collage of poems and charts and maps that re-creates the feeling I had when I first heard punk music.

You can be first to have a copy by heading over the Ravenna Press and buy online here. Or …

Those of you who can make it to the release party 4/21 may want to wait … the first 77 get a bonus cassette and poster that evening when you buy a copy from the author.  #merchandising

Thanks for supporting small presses and independent bookstores!