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Super Poetry: Where Poetry Meets Comics

“Low-culture materials like this…achieve a kind of universality that high culture materials no longer bear.”

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Poetry has long been a justifiable literary endeavor. Comics, on the other hand, are only recently becoming not “just for kids.” But what about poetry and comics? In February of 2008, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, held in Chicago, brought together poets that use comic and superhero imagery as inspiration for their poetry. The Poetry and Comix panel, was comprised of authors whose work uses comic book inspiration to compose poetry. Among the panelists were Tony Barnstone, author of Pulp Sonnets, Bryan D. Dietrich, whose Krypton Nights won the Paris Review Prize in Poetry, A. Van Jordan, author of Quantum Lyrics, and Stephen Burt, Harvard Professor of English and author of comic-book inspired poems.

These poets come out of the university system and most teach within that system. In a setting where the basis of what is taught is the literary canon, it is surprising that these poets incorporate characters and stories from a genre that is looked down upon as reading material for children and adolescents. After all, comic books, especially with their movie and television adaptations, can be considered very commercial, with a pre-existing demand and pre-established form so conducive to marketing to the masses.

In an audio interview on From the Fishouse, an audio archive of emerging poets, Tony Barnstone explains how superheros fit into poetry. He says this new merging of the two worlds “may even fit into a new tradition of poetry sequences based upon low culture materials, maybe something like what pop art did with its interest in painting comics, people like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.”

In answer to the question, “Why do this?,” Barnstone replies, “A reflection of the deep psyche of the modern and post-modern worlds is to be found in pulp fiction and comic books. It really is a living mythological tradition… . Interestingly enough, the writers of pulp fiction often thought of themselves as new mythologists.”

Barnstone goes on to say, “It’s really cartoons and comic books and pulp fiction that have come to inhabit our unconscious in a way that we have a commonality of reference. I think that it’s possible to seek out low-culture materials like this in order to achieve a kind of universality that high culture materials no longer bear. Interestingly enough, the project is all sonnets. In fact, it’s all formally regular sonnets, iambic pentameter, 10 syllables per line.”

These poets adapt their poems to these comic book heroes, bringing to the surface society’s modern mythologies. Regardless of these poets’ inspiration, their education, their awards, their ability to be published and employed within the university system, the genre has yet to reach a wide reading audience. Perhaps with time, or through some act of superhero intervention, sonnets about super hero love will be a part of the canon.

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