Dispatches | May 05, 2011

Could Gary Jackson’s new book of poems work as a book of graphic poems? Is there such a thing? His poems are steeped in the world of comics already. Why stop with graphic novel-esque illustrations on the cover? Seriously: graphic novels are a smash, why not graphic poems? Isn’t that what William Blake did? Why does the press-printed world of what I think of as mainstream poetry seem segregated from the omnipresent, omnipotent icon?

Like anything, of course, it’s out there, on the internet. Just searching for “graphic poems” (and there might be a better name), I came across these collaborations of big-time Graywolf poet Nick Flynn. Apparently, there was even a panel at AWP. And once I remember seeing computer-animated poems at a poetry reading (at a tech school, of course). But these seem more like side-projects, post-publication fun. Of course, literary arts journals regularly present poems in the vicinity of images; the new VQR has gone so far as to superimpose poems onto photographs, a mode which stands out to me in the big journal milieu (while also slightly reminding me of my high school lit mag). But what about graphic poems from the get-go?

Is visual culture on the verge of invading the sacred province of poetic letters? And why has the hermetic separation persisted, as opposed to the novel? Is it because concrete, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E and other experiments in poetry have already accommodated the text-as-image, image-as-text urge? Is it because of poetry’s ineradicable spoken/oral/aural roots? Because you can’t perform graphics?

Yet, you can. That’s what that awful animated poetry at the tech school was. But here I’m biased, surely. So is it a technophobia, then? Poets are notorious Luddites.

How would Bakhtin weigh in? Is the novel’s accommodation of visual culture a sign of its superior health as the royal genre? Is the graphic novel yet another instance of “novelization,” of the novel’s heteroglossic taking on of yet another tongue (or set of eyes)? Are my sanctified notions of “poetry,” of poetry-for-the-page (as opposed to, then, spoken-word? what about the computer screen?), of poetry streaming down from “big presses” into mostly academic and Indy presses with puny, insular readerships—whatever we want to call this thing, this genre Gary Jackson’s first book has entered through Cave Canem, however Cave Canem might care to define what it privileges and publishes—is it all an antiquated charade? A relic of a relic, and that’s why it hasn’t accommodated the image like the newer, more vibrant novel has? Is my “discipline” living in the past, or worse, delusional, like old genes long past expression, hanging around and only very occasionally entering the mix?

But I exaggerate. Over the last century mainstream poetry has taken on dialect, prose, confessionalism, racy issues, racy language, fragmentation. Maybe it’s a little behind the novel (and visual art, for that matter), but we can’t all be hares. Anyway, by implying that poetic genres are dead, doesn’t Bakhtin mean, like, epics? And since mainstream poetry has some record of accommodation, is novelization slowly but steadily reaching into my minor genre?

Maybe. But I wonder: how much of what we think of as “poetry” is resistant to novelization, is reactionary? And as it changes and accommodates, at what point does it stop being “poetry”? What is that essence that thing we go to poetry for, that can’t be found in prose, comics, graphic novels, movies, or Madmen? Something shorter? Something with lines? Something with beauty?—emotional impact as a result of some or all of the following: image, music, compression, voice…

No doubt, the “we” is problematic. “We” don’t agree, if we ever did. And maybe that’s a good thing: a little press, a website for all comers. Self publish! But is this scenario heteroglossic thriving or genetic dead-end delusion?

Allegiances aside, I suspect that there is pretty pervasive resistance to mainstream poetry mixing with the image, as if Yeats’ 1880’s pronouncement in “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” were fixed in our ears (as, no doubt, he would have it): “words alone are certain good.” I feel ok saying Rossetti’s sonnet captions on some of his paintings seem like a bad idea. But what about Blake, whom Rossetti must have had in mind? It’s harder to write-off the graphic-poetic projects of William Blake.

Then there’s the ekphrastic poetry craze (poems about works of art), still pretty strong since its resurgence in the 80s and 90s, coinciding, not surprisingly, with growing media-image inundation; you almost never see the work of art depicted alongside the poem. As I encourage my intro-to-poetry students, the poem should stand on its own, should not need the help of the image (though it is, of course, supplemented by it, if and when a reader seeks it out). But is this assumption predicated on internet availability?—or worse, on the ivory towerism that you should know the work alluded to, or, at the least, have the knowledge and means to seek it out? That such a poem (which too often, it’s true, deals with “great”, “high”, European art) is intended for those who have access? Heaven forbid a poet provide her own visual enhancement for the workshop! Does such resistance smack of antidemocratic gate-keeping?

Good Lord, but what would Whitman say? Whitman let everything—all manner of speech and desire and rhythm and character and faith—onto the poetry express, right? Or Eliot? His poems take on all kinds of weird freight. But there’s a wrinkle. For while The Waste Land, for example, teems with inclusion and allusion, and is the example of modern poetry’s heteroglossia, nevertheless, for everything it lets in, it keeps even more out. Including uninformed, unelect readers.

There is this notion, is there not, that poetry is the highest, strongest, most concentrated form of the written word. We talk of its survival, of its staying strong. The notion of a contest between description and depiction goes way back, of course. And then there’s music, too: the three ancient sister arts. As soon as you get them distinct in your mind, they meld again. It’s largely a question of difference. Word and image are so similar; where one occurs, the other so easily can, too. Is it a narcissism of minor difference? How hard would it be for Graywolf to print comic icons alongside Jackson’s words? The difference in production cost doesn’t seem to be the issue.

Supposedly, words claim the province of sound, thought, and time to a degree that the image cannot. Thought, time, and development lead to argument, which leads to intelligence. This slips too quickly into: less reading means more images, tv, video games, comics, movies and porn, leads to dumber people, dumber culture, dumber (certainly less) words. Images are simple; they’re for finding the right bathroom or train, right? They lack the nuanced capability of words…

But does the inclusion of image really enervate—or emasculate—the word? Isn’t this a particularly western bias? Isn’t all this pervasive concern for the “strength” of language oddly reminiscent of epic masculine heroics? Can’t image supplement word? Can’t they collaborate?

It seems that, for now, in mainstream poetry, they cannot, for the most part; but I wonder how long this will be the case. What would Jackson’s Missing You, Metropolis be like with graphics? Would Jackson’s verbalized superheroes lose their power? I confess, something about this collection seems missing. As well as being largely about comic book characters, his poems are very visual, very narrative, speech-bubble spare. I’m imagining some illustrated scenes, or icons of superheroes scrambling around the pages. But alas. This is serious poetry.