In her article ‘Miremur Stellam: Poetry and Comics’ (Poetry Wales, vol. 50 no. 1), Chrissy Williams remarks, ‘trying to unpack the language of comics, the language of panel transitions and the blanks left for the reader’s mind to fill in, I began to see more and more similarities between comics and poetry’. Me and her both.
As an undergraduate at UMass Amherst fifteen years ago two things began in earnest for me: the serious pursuit of poetry, and the parallel and entirely unserious pursuit of comics. The latter arrived in the form of Buttercup Festival, a means of self-distraction-cum-self-expression which has, in the intervening years, journeyed from the pages of UMass’s student newspaper to the pages of the PN Review via an array of other student and independent periodicals.
I consider myself a dabbler in the world of comics, but even dabbling in comics can throw a revealing light on the mechanics of poetry. Much of this, to my thinking now, comes down to considerations of not just timing, but time itself. A quick look at one of my favorite Buttercup Festival strips, will suggest what I mean. Series 2 no. 15 (have a look) is a two-panelled strip with little action and little dialogue. The joke, if that’s the word for it, is to suggest that the jay’s moment of poise and freedom would, if imitated by the protagonist, end in painful, flopping disaster.
The panel sizes matter: the first is expansive and detailed, the second tighter and more selective. The first clearly contains more chronological or objective time, especially if we include whatever implied misadventure landed the protagonist so high up that tree. But both panels represent the same amount of what I will call emotional or subjective time: the brief, isolated moment of the second panel is as memorable as the larger, slower context painted by the first. The untenable, hanging, beaks-up energy on which the strip ends is permanently arriving, permanently fleeting. The moment is obliterated as soon as we turn away. That is how sequential art plays with time, making subtle emotional movements permanently available.
The interplay between chronological time and emotional time – that is to say between the detail within a panel and the movement between multiple panels – translated into poetry, becomes roughly the interplay between line/stanza length and line/stanza breaks. Here’s a portion of ‘Indian Paintbrushes’, the first of my New Poetries pieces:
Now our daughter
in her chair
and watches quietly the green berries. Up in the weeds
eat each other like fish.
In composing these lines and deciding on the breaks, I am thinking entirely in terms of subjective time: the gentle isolation of our daughter’s waking into its own one-word line; the long, comparatively rich line in which she looks upwards at the berries and sky, watching them for a spell of time; the way this focuses again on the exclusive fascination of noticing the stars.
I don’t want to sound too dogmatic or mechanical about all this. These elements of comics and poems don’t perfectly correspond, and I’ll certainly also break lines for metrical or aural reasons. But this awareness of how time can work in poetry – with a jagged array of line lengths playing against a regular pattern of stanza length to suggest the way subjective time moves within objective time – has arrived as much through my engagement with comics as with poetry.