Comic artist Julian Peters is inspired by great poetry, and for a specific reason. Poetry, he writes, shares common characteristics with comics — the notion of rhythm, repetition of visual elements, and the use of juxtaposition, to mention three. That’s what poetry and comics have in common, but Peters wanted to go beyond what he saw as obvious.
It was the love of beauty, the beauty inherent in great poetry, that led him to visualize what that poetry might look like in comic art. So he set out to “translate great poems into the visual language of comics.” The result is Poems to See By: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry.
It’s a delightful book. More than that, it’s a beautiful book. Perhaps it’s because I was a fan of Classics Illustrated comic books when I was young, but to see familiar poems translated into comic pictures adds depth and understanding, with the comics becoming a kind of poetry themselves.
Peters has assembled 24 poems and organized them into six “seeing” categories — yourself, others, art, nature, time, and death. The poems are all well known, including “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson, “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy, “The World Is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth, and “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe. The text of the poems are including in the drawings, and then the poem in its entirety follows.
“Annabel Lee” becomes the story of young love between a boy and a girl. Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” becomes the presentation of a patchwork quilt. One of the most haunting presentations is “Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Peters draws all of the human characters with skulls for faces, with the exception of the narrator/poet, vividly bringing the meaning of the poem alive.
If I have a favorite in the book, it’s “Buffalo Dusk” by Carl Sandburg. Peters overlays drawings of buffaloes and buffalo herds on shopping center parking lots, freeway overpasses, subdivisions, and business districts, punching home Sandburg’s point of the passing of the buffalo and the passing of what was once America.
Peters is a comic book artist and illustrator who in recent years has begun to focus his work on poetry. His master’s degree in art history included a thesis on two graphic novels. He says his favorite artist is Aubrey Beardsley, and his favorite poets are T.S. Eliot, Arthur Rimbaud, and William Butler Years. He lives in Montreal.
Poems to See By demonstrates how an artist’s understanding and interpretation of a poem can both communicate what the poem is about and provide a way to grasp it. It’s no wonder his works are often used in classrooms — visually teaching well-known poetry.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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