Why would you illustrate a poem? The answer is, if you are an artist and think visually, that is what you do. Does this enhance the poem or distract from it? That depends on the quality of the artistic creativity. I say this because I have been reading (and looking at) Poems to See By: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry (Plough Publishing House), by Julian Peters, an illustrator and comic book artist living in Montreal. One has to admire the chutzpah behind this splendid variety of different styles that convey his responses to the poems, all arresting, quirky and revelatory.
I warm to the artist when he writes in his preface, “I did it all for love of beauty.” There is no need to unpick this sentiment; we can all understand and share it. Peters adds, “In setting out to turn beautiful poetry into comics, I wanted to pay tribute to the way these poems made me feel…in the way that, as someone who draws comics, felt the most natural.” It is an intriguing remark. All in all, he has selected 24 poems and divided them into six sections with four poems in each. These sections, “Seeing Yourself”, “Seeing Others” “Seeing Art” “Seeing Nature” “Seeing Time” and “Seeing Death” tend to show how artificial such classifications can be when dealing with poems that suggest several themes – such as Yeats’ “When You Are Old”, which is in the “Seeing Others” section.
Somehow this hardly matters. The reader encounters many poets that he knows and loves – they include Emily Dickinson (the only poet who appears twice), Ezra Pound, Yeats, Hardy, Hopkins, Robert Frost and Shelley, to name a few – and then looks, sometimes with amusement, at other times with a jolt, at the images they have evoked for Peters. I rather wonder what the solemn Wordsworth, for instance, would have made of Peters’ comic take on the line “We have given our hearts away” from his poem “The World Is Too Much With Us”; he depicts a striptease artiste – and follows it up with a youth, seemingly addicted to his smartphone, who morphs into a satyr.
It makes sense to know that schoolteachers often contact Peters to tell him they have used his comic renditions in their poetry classes. Poems of struggle and anguish are where he comes into his own: WE Henley’s Invictus, with its much-quoted lines “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul”, is drawn in graphic black and white images, showing a prisoner who fights his way out of “the fell clutch of circumstance”. What schoolboy would not thrill to that? Or to the khaki-coloured wash of water colours that illustrate Siegfried Sassoon’s Before the Battle”?
WH Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts includes particular details which the artist can usefully highlight, such as the contrast between tragedy and the mundane, culminating in Breughel’s Icarus with his “white legs disappearing into the green Water” and concluding with a woman yawning as she walks past a gallery wall of great paintings. To my satisfaction, two poems by Emily Dickinson have been included; the first, “Hope” is the thing with feathers” shows a beautifully coloured plumed bird against different grey background scenes, while “Because I could not stop for Death” contrives to bring the recognisable New England poet, wearing her habitual white dress, into her own last journey, accompanied by her ominous dark companion.
Peters has provided a startling visual feast for those already acquainted with the poems he has chosen – and a superb aid for those grappling with poetry for the first time, who are seeking an interpretative key to those mysterious words and stanzas.
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