Poetry By Heart Blog

Poetry Comics

24th June 2015

 

Image courtesy of paulktunis.com

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.

 

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Poems for Comparing

7th June 2015

 

When I was Head of an English Department at a sixth form college in Sussex back in the 1990s we developed what we called an ‘induction unit’ for students choosing to do English Literature A level with us. From September to November we introduced Year 12 groups to a very wide range of authors and genres offering, we hoped, a veritable smorgasbord of stimulating literature. It was fun to create and to adapt each year and once our new students got over the shock of being told, ‘Don’t worry about the set texts yet…’ they seemed to enjoy the induction unit too!

 

We wanted to avoid anything resembling a set text like I avoid red kidney beans after experiencing a severe case of food poisoning from an insufficiently cooked batch of the red devils many years ago. We did not want to launch in to a detailed analysis of whatever Jane Austen was on the specification that year much as we all loved her novels. No, we wanted to work on generic skills to do with reading texts and writing cogently about them through work on as many different styles of literature as we could effectively pack in to eight weeks.

Of course as the narrator in L.P. Hartley’s ‘The Go Between’ wearily states, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Today such reckless disregard for the prescribed texts on a specification would probably lead to disciplinary procedures but of course all of us who have ever taught English know and promote in all kinds of ways the value of ‘wider reading’ as a way of enriching the taught and assessed curriculum.

For Poetry by Heart team members it has been very rewarding to hear from teachers about how they are using our freely available online poetry anthology. We have heard not only from those whose students are actually participating in the competition but also those using the collection of 206 poems and 63 First World War poems as a valuable classroom resource without necessarily entering the competition. Making use of the anthology to encourage wider reading and to allow the honing of ‘English’ skills is often mentioned in the feedback we receive.

One demanding element within pre and post 16 English specifications concerns the requirement to compare texts. In the build up to the start of teaching the new GCSE specifications in English there has been much debate about the requirement for students to study at least fifteen poems and to show understanding of the relationships between texts. In A level over many years the importance of making comparisons and seeing connections between texts has been stressed in assessment objectives.

So, all this thinking about wider reading and comparing texts led me to consider what poems I might put alongside some of my favourites in the Poetry By Heart anthology to encourage the development of those generic ‘comparing’ skills that are valued so highly.

Below are 6 suggestions with the (A) poem taken from the Poetry By Heart anthology and the (B) poem chosen from outside our anthology. Some are challenging and some more straightforward. Some might suit a little summer holiday wider reading assignment for Year 9 or 8 before the onset of GCSE and some might suit Year 11 or 12. All the (A) poems are of course available at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk whilst the (B) poems are easily accessible at various sites like www.poemhunter.com

1)      (A) ‘The Soldier’ Rupert Brooke and (B) ‘Drummer Hodge’ Thomas Hardy.

This is a popular pairing and one that has cropped up on many an exam paper over the years but it’s a good one. Brooke’s soldier’s death produces a ‘…corner of a foreign field/That is forever England’ whereas Drummer Hodge’s body lifeless after a Boer War battle is absorbed in to the South African landscape. ‘Yet portion of that unknown plain/Will Hodge for ever be.’

2)      (A)’Ae fond kiss and then we sever’ Robert Burns  (B) ‘Since there’s no help come let us kiss and part’ Michael Drayton.

Two moving poems about love and loss and in Drayton’s case lingering hope.

3)      (A) ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ William Blake  (B) ‘The Sluggard’ 1715 Isaac Watts

Taken from his collection ‘Divine Songs’, Watts’ poem is an example of the kind of morally uplifting and ‘improving’ verse that remained very popular for many years after its publication. Blake’s poem of course is much more morally ambiguous and challenging whilst seeming to adopt the conventions of eighteenth century poems for children.

4)      (A) ‘On the Death of Robert Levet’ Samuel Johnson (B) An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell’ John Dryden.

Different approaches in style and tone to commemorating the sadly departed.

5)      (A) ‘You are old father William’ Lewis Carroll (B) ‘The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them.’ Robert Southey.

Lewis Carroll’s famous poem from ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and the poem by Southey that it so amusingly parodies

6)      (A) ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Night’ The Gawain Poet  (B) ‘Piers Plowman’ Lines 1 to 21 William Langland.(A pairing for Year 12 perhaps?)

Sir Gawain is a favourite amongst the Poetry By Heart team as it reminds us of the remarkable winning recitation of the poem by our first champion Kaiti Soultana in 2013. You can see her recitation here: http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight/ Comparing these two magnificent middle English alliterative poems would encourage the appreciation of sound effects and the texture of words and would really draw attention to the acoustic quality of verse. The opening 21 lines of ‘Piers Plowman’ show the start of a spiritual journey just as Gawain is journeying in his poem:

‘In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,

I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,

In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,

Wente wide in this world wondres to here.’  (‘Piers Plowman’ The Prologue – lines 1 to 4)

 

What poems would you choose to pair with poems from the Poetry By Heart anthology? It would be great to hear from you.

Mike Dixon is a former Head of English and former Head of a sixth form college on the south coast. He is now an education consultant and delighted to have been part of the Poetry By Heart team since the launch of the project in 2012. mike.dixon@poetrybyheart.org.uk

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