Image [&] Narrative #5: Graphic Poetry: An (im)possible form? by Steven Surdiacourt

21 Jun

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 [1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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 [4] 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] [5], so the hermeneutic terms [6] structure the enigma according to the expectation and desire for its solution” (Barthes 1974 [1970], 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.

Graphic Poems

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 [1970]) 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.

[1] – 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.

[2] – 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.

[3] – 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.

[4] – 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’.

[5] – 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.

[6] – 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 [1970], 17).


Posted by on 2012/06/21 in Image [&] Narrative


3 responses to “Image [&] Narrative #5: Graphic Poetry: An (im)possible form? by Steven Surdiacourt

  1. madinkbeard

    2012/08/30 at 19:02

    I posted some replies/comments on this article here:

    I hope you’ll take a look.

  2. Steven Surdiacourt

    2012/09/14 at 09:11

    Thank you for responding to my little thinking exercise about comics and poetry. I tend to consider blog posts as ideal means for trying out new (and not always perfectly streamlined ideas) and I do believe that these pieces of wild thinking have a lot to gain from critical exchanges. That being said, I’d like to try and explain briefly some of my argumentative choices. First of all, I agree with you that ‘graphic poetry’ might not be the most fortunate label. It’s conceptual vagueness is (partly) a consequence of its derivation from that other concept (‘graphic novel’ that is) which is hardly better defined and for which the reproach of ambiguity also holds. This vagueness and ambiguity seems, however, not to have stopped artists and critics from using it. My encounter with the label ‘graphic poetry’ on (at least) two different occasions (the exhibition I described in my initial post, two books by Flemish artist and writer Lies van Gasse (here and here) seems to suggest that it is already out there. It was actually my own perplexity about the particular concept that incited me to think about the relationship between poetry and comics. But since I do not really care for conceptual quarrels, I gladly settle with the more precise (but less elegant) ‘comics poetry’. Secondly, the argument of my initial post focused in first instance on the ‘poetic nature’ (which I tried to describe in terms of ‘segmentivity’ and ‘tabularity’ (the hermeneutic code is, by the way, a structural component of the story)) of graphic narratives. My interest (like McHale’s) lies mainly in the specificities of storytelling and, more specifically, the interaction between narrative and non-narrative forms of organization in comics. I am (and was) very much aware of the existence of comics that would fit my category (or categories); I actually argued that every (!) comic is fundamentally determined not only by sequentiality, but also by segmentivity and tabularity. The rather long description of textual segmentivity in comics was the consequence of my assumption that every comics reader would be familiar with visual, but less so with textual segmentivity (which seems to be (to me at least) less obvious). (Paradoxically, the attempts to avoid any form of logocentrism have resulted in a certain negligence of the text in comics studies.) Thirdly (and most importantly) I did not mean to deny the existence of comics that have been or could be called comics poetry. The final sentence of my argument was simply a rhetorical (and, in hindsight, clumsily formulated) trope that allowed me to close the argument without concluding and an invitation to respond. I consider Craghead’s work as a complex and therefore interesting borderline case (and that is the reason why I didn’t mention it), since I have some trouble characterizing it as ‘comics’. (The big questions, I am afraid, are at the same time unavoidable and unanswerable and that is what makes them so interesting). Personally, I would rather see his work as an exponent of the tradition that starts out with Mallarmé; This is a Ghost could then be described (in a rather reductive manner, I admit) as Un Coup de Dés cum drawing. The importance of the text in creating the poetic effect (in the page you included: the play with ‘lost’ and ‘last’) seems to support this. The other example, which I didn’t knew, is more easily recognizable as an example of ‘comics’ and seems therefore to be more important for the current discussion. What is interesting in the case of John Hankiewicz’ What Had You Better Feel is that the first (or better left) panels of each block form a perfectly legible non-narrative sequence: a kind of description of a bored man in some uncomfortable waiting room. It is the coupling of the constitutive panels of the described sequence with a rather uncanny panel that gives the comic his ‘poetic’ feel. This, however, does not exclude the reading of the four double panels as a ‘simple’ albeit peculiar sequence: every second panel would then be the symbolic translation of the emotional or mental state (?) of the person depicted in the first panel. Every block depicts, in this reading, one single moment in two different forms (the position of the chair remains, after all, identical in the panels of each block). The example shows that the distinction between ‘poetic’ and ‘non-poetic’ forms is far from clear-cut, but should rather be conceived as a continuum – an idea, that seems to be present in your definition (echoing Jakobson’s description of the poetic function) of poetry as a text which foregrounds his own formal properties). The main (and maybe unavoidable) danger of such an approach is that the degree of ‘poetryness’ might too readily be equated with the degree of narrativity of a particular text. I do think that it is crucial to stress that not every non-narrative text is poetry and that many poems have a certain narrative structure. Finally (and I hope my closing sentences are more dexterously formulated this time) I am looking forward to your reflection on the difference between comics and comics poetry. I am convinced that this discussion is very important, not only because brings under the attention a neglected part of the comics production, but also because it helps to deepen our understanding of the functioning of comics in general.


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