Between the 4th and the 30th of May the organization Leuven Stript organized a comic exhibition in the local public library, simply entitled Graphic Poem. For the exhibition Leuven Stript selected 30 comic artists and 30 poets (some of which are quite well known in the low countries), paired them up and invited them to create 30 different graphic poems. I honestly found the exhibition to be rather disappointing: only a few of the presented works actually succeeded in integrating words and images into a larger textual whole that could positively be identified as a poem. To be more precise: the lyric quality of the exhibited pieces was mainly (not to say only) guaranteed by the words (which took on an unmistakable poetic form), while the images either illustrated distinct verses or stanzas or provided a setting for the enunciation of those words. In the end and despite the objections the organizers would certainly make, the exhibited texts seemed mainly to belong to the genre of the illustrated poem, rather than to the supposedly more ambitious form of the graphic poem.
Instead of dwelling on the qualities and flaws of the individual poems showed in the exhibition, I would like to write down some thoughts on the very concept of graphic poetry. I am convinced that these reflections on the possibility and form of graphic poetry could teach us a lot about the functioning of comics as a medium. My post will focus, as most of my texts do, on the formal dimension of the matter and leave aside (for now at least) the important  socio-cultural aspects.
The logical first step in the description of any (new) form is to delineate the research object by forging a working definition. In this particular case one could note, for example, that graphic poetry is not to be confused with forms of visual or concrete poetry; that it is a form of poetry that deploys the graphic devices of a comic book (panels, captions and speech balloons); that it requires an intricate play with words and images (in which the images are not merely illustrations of the words) etcetera, etcetera. The danger of this kind of formal, descriptive definition is that it tends to (pre)shape the very phenomenon that needs to be described. For that reason, I want to opt for a starting point in the form of a relational definition (or better: hypothesis). This hypothesis sounds as follows: ‘graphic poetry is to the graphic novel, what poetry is to prose.’ Although the distinction between poetry and prose is far from clear-cut, this proposition (which will most likely have to be revised) has some advantages. The first (and main) advantage is that is describes the graphic poem as part of a larger ‘literary’ system. It asserts, more particularly, the inextricable link between the graphic poem and the graphic novel. The absence of a formal description allows me, secondly, to approach the problem from a different angle, to surprise the phenomenon from behind.
Poetry in the Gutter
My argumentation will indeed proceed with an outflanking maneuver by focusing on some striking parallels between the structure of poetic language and the structure of comics.
In “Narrativity and Segmentivity, or, Poetry in the Gutter” Brian McHale (2010) argues in favor of “a sufficiently capacious [narrative, SS] theory” (McHale 2010, 27), a theory that should be able to describe the interaction between narrative and non-narrative forms of organization in different storytelling media. The main part of the article is dedicated to the description of one particular form of non-narrative organization (segementivity) that “organizes both [albeit in different form, SS] poetic texts and ‘sequential visual art’” (McHale 2010, 44). This particular form of organization, this segmentivity is defined as “the ability to make meaning by selecting, deploying, and combining segments” (Rachel Blau DuPlessis quoted in McHale 2010, 28). It’s not merely their gapped nature that connects poetic texts and graphic narratives, but also their shared capacity to play off “segments of one kind or scale [...] against segments of another kind or different in scale” (McHale 2010, 28). The best known example of this kind of poetic configuration is obviously the enjambement, a trope in which the grammatical unit of the sentence (measure) is disrupted by the unit of the verse (countermeasure). A similar textual device is used in comics to create or maintain tension by the interruption of the action (measure) at the end of the end of the right hand page (countermeasure).
This structural similarity makes comics an interesting medium for the adaptation of poetic texts (and that despite the striking differences in the cultural appreciation of these media). While a single drawing has to focus on the illustration of a single verse, stanza or poetic image, the comic has the means to recreate the sense of rhythmic segmentation of the poetic text. In the third part of David B.’s autobiographical masterpiece L’Ascension du Haut-Mal (1996-2003), for example, the reader discovers an adaptation of the (first stanza of) the famous sonnet El Desdichado by Gérard de Nerval. Every single verse of the first stanza is reproduced in a caption at the top of a single panel. The segmentation of the comic strip thus mirrors the segmentation of the poetic text in verses. The case of Martin Rowson’s (narrativized) comic adaptation of The Waste Land (1990), the example McHale uses, is certainly more complex. McHale notes after an analysis of the first section of the book that “Rowson often segments his version in different places than Eliot does; he re-segments The Waste Land, filling in where Eliot left gaps, and opening gaps where Eliot’s text was continuous and unsegmented” (McHale 2010, 45). He then concludes that “one version is not homologous with the other. But the two versions are analogous: Rowson’s comic-book is gappy just as The Wasteland is gappy, though sometimes in different places” (McHale 2010, 46).
Both examples also show that the principle of segmentation does not only affect the images, but also the text of graphic narratives. As every comic book reader knows, the words in comics are usually printed inside a graphic container of one kind or another (a panel, a caption or a speech balloon); the text is boxed (or ballooned). And it is precisely this practice of graphically isolating parts of the textual discourse that introduces a sense of rhythmic segmentation, that sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t coincide with the segmentation of the images. This form of textual segmentation can obviously be used to generate a poetic effect. One of the more appealing ‘poems’ in the Graphic Poem exhibition, for example, consisted of a full page drawing (with one or two inserted panels, if I remember well) and a text distributed among a series of connected speech balloons. The chain of speech balloons did not only infuse the text with the sense of rhythmic structuration characteristic for poetry, but did also (and quite interestingly) lead the reader’s eyes over the graphic surface of the page. A similar effect can be found in one of Nicolas Mahler’s hilarious Kratochvil comics. Kratochvil was published as a daily comic in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung between November 2011 and January 2012. Every installment has exactly the same structure: it consists of six panels of equal size, organized in three tiers of two panels each. The comic is a parody on the Romantic ideal of a free life in unspoiled nature. In the installment I want to discuss (Mahler 2010, 31) poetry itself (as part of that Romantic ideal) is targeted. The reader sees five (more or less) identical panels in which Kratochvil stands next to a tree. Only in the one but last panel something happens as Kratochvil kicks the tree. The accompanying text reads: “baum/du seltsames gehölz//du knorriger gesell/stehst überall herum//kann dich nich mehr sehen/baum” (Mahler 2010, 31) (tree/you peculiar bush//you grumpy companion/stand about everywhere//can’t stand you any longer/tree [a half-hearted attempt at translation by me]). It is the segmentation of the text by the panel frames (/ marks the end of the panel, // the end of the tier) in combination with the (ab)use of the poetic register (including a conspicuous anthropomorphism) that signals the poetic nature of the text.
The structural segmentation of graphic narratives by and of itself remains nevertheless a quite unstable base for the comparison with poetry. As McHale correctly points out, segmentivity is not an exclusive feature of comics or poetry. The narrative structure of (some kinds of) film is, for instance, strongly determined by the process of selecting and aligning different shots. But what does connect poetry and comics is a particular kind of segmentation, or better: the particular way in which segments are deployed and combined. In comics and in poetry the different segments co-exist in space and this spatial co-existence  enables connections between different segments that go beyond the purely sequential. The different segments of a poetic text, for instance, are not merely parts of the textual thread that leads the reader from the first word to the last, but do also constitute a network of meaning in which they refer to each other by virtue of their form and/or content. The best known examples of this kind of reference are undoubtedly rhyme (which is an essentially spatial trope) and its graphic counterparts visual rhyme and braiding. This spatial structure finally appeals to another kind of reading that crosses the reader’s horizontal decoding of the text. Roland Barthes points to these different kinds of reading when he notes in S/Z that “just as rhyme (notably) structures the poem according to the expectation and desire for recurrence [retour] , so the hermeneutic terms  structure the enigma according to the expectation and desire for its solution” (Barthes 1974 , 75). The often capricious reading trajectory of a comic book (or a verse novel or any other kind of narrative poetry) could then be understood as the result of a difficult negotiation by the reader between the desire to move on, to discover how the story ends and the desire to go back and explore the texture of meaning woven by and through the text.
After this significant detour we find, with McHale (2010, 46), “that comics appear to be more akin to poetry, even to prestigious avant-garde poetry, than we might have supposed.” In this perspective, one of the major difficulties for the (still to establish) genre of ‘graphic poetry’ seems to be the necessity to formally demarcate itself from a language that is already (and structurally) defined by a feature (spatial segmentivity) that is central to our understanding of (traditional) poetry. I will not attempt to list the different features (because I am honestly not (yet) able to) that could differentiate graphic poems from graphic narratives, but I do want to stress that the mere absence or ‘weakness’ of a certain narrative drive couldn’t be conclusive. (Literary) Poems on the one hand do often have some kind of narrative quality and non-narrative texts on the other hand are not necessarily poems (think of descriptions, recipes and lists). Martin tom Dieck’s La Fm (1999, 2003 & 2004), for instance, couldn’t be characterized as poetry despite the text’s striking lack of narrative organization. In the end, what and how graphic poetry can be (if it can be at all) remains to be imagined, and drawn of course.
David B. (1998) L’Ascension du Haut Mal 3. Paris: L’Association.
Roland Barthes (1974 ) S/Z. An Essay. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang.
Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle (1976) “Du linéaire au tabulaire.” In: Communications 24 (24), 7-23.
Nicolas Mahler (2010) Planet Kratochvil. Zürich: Edition Moderne.
Brian McHale (2010) “Narrativity and Segmentivity, or, Poetry in the Gutter.” In: Intermediality and Storytelling. Marina Grishakova & Marie-Laure Ryan (eds.). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 27-48.
Martin Rowson (1990) The Waste Land. New York: Harper and Row.
Martin tom Dieck (1999) “La FM” In: Comix 2000. Paris: L’Association, 1785-1789.
__ (2003) “La FM (2)” In: Strapazin 73, 29-33.
__ (2004) “La FM (3)” In: Strapazin 75, 17-21.
Steven Surdiacourt is a doctoral fellow of FWO-Flanders at the University of Leuven (Belgium). His PhD research is devoted to the description of storytelling in graphic narratives. He is a member of the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.
Read more editions of our Image [&] Narrative column here.
 – The choice for pairing up comic artists and poets in the Graphic Poem exhibition, for instance, does not only have practical (the artist knows how to draw and the poet how to write), but also socio-cultural reasons. The very collaboration of artists that have acquired a certain position in their respective fields contributes to the legitimation of this relatively new form. This strategy of cultural legitimation is interestingly opposite to the one that should reinforce the graphic novel’s cultural credentials by promoting the literary model of the single, ‘complete’ author. Do finally note that the collaborative dimension of the project is explicitly thematized on the poster and flyer announcing the exhibition.
 – The use of an English term (‘graphic poem’) in a Dutch language context (the Leuven Stript exhibition) emphasizes the relation with that other English concept (‘graphic novel’) that has gained currency by now.
 – The series starts when Krachotvil, a factory employee and an adept of civilization in all its forms (including air pollution), finds himself lost in a forest only populated by the occasional bird and worm.
 – This spatial co-existence is often referred to as tabularity (see Fresnault-Deruelle 1974). I prefer to distinguish between ‘structure’ (in contrast to ‘sequence’) to refer to the spatial dimension of the text and ‘tabularity’ (in contrast to ‘linearity’) to refer to the strategy of reading two or more images ‘simultaneously’.
 – It has to be noted that the meaning of the English word ‘recurrence’ is somewhat narrower than that of the French original. ‘Retour’ seems to refer both to the recurrence of formal elements and to the action (by the reader) of going back to what he/she has already read.
 – Roland Barthes describes the hermeneutic code as “all those units whose function it is to articulate in various ways a question, its response, and the variety of chance events which can either formulate the question or delay its answer; or even, constitute an enigma and lead to its solution” (Barthes (1974 , 17).