What I’m calling poetry, Roland Barthes has called “the obtuse meaning.” Describing it as outside the superficial message (meaning for the purpose of narrative) of an image as well as outside its symbolic meaning (bringing in other specific secondary ideas from the culture), he claims the obtuse meaning is the “epitome of counter-narrative” and “it can come and go, appearing and disappearing.” This continuum between narrative and counter-narrative is what I have called “drama” and “poetry”, and it has obsessed me most of my career. I have spent most of time WAAAY believing in the far end of that contiuum, toward the poetic.
At that time when I was failing, I was inarticulately substituting vagueness for rigor. Empty space is a part of the poetic part of the continuum, but it still requires work to prepare for the reader, and requires work to create. I didn’t realize at the time, but poetic images are created using the images of our society: people, places, and time etc., not just our own vague imaginations.
UMBERTO ECO: “I would define the poetic effect as the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed.”
Now to this day I tell certain students -those shooting for emotion and a certain complexity in their initial stages to write dramatically and over the top. To imagine the murder, the betrayal, the villain, and then to tone it down later if need be. To tone down the drama once the extremes have been entertained and rejected.
The instincts for dramatic narrative were never within me very well. As I began to learn the tools, I tried to create stories and characters that were unique, with believable inner struggles and outer problems. And I began to create more interesting situations, and more compelling poetic moments.
Still, I believed that this was all training to go back to attempting to create the completely poetic image, the moments that exist outside of specific narrative, the story that the reader is guided to daydream, and images that open internal landscapes in the viewer. It’s an ideal that still haunts me.
How much do you give the trusting reader to create a dialogue between her/him and the art? Can you create a space in the reader for something else to appear? And how penetrating or powerful is that thing that then happens? In comix, this is the best place to see the transitions between panels at work.
((What can the transitions between the panels mean? Often the key here is the transitions.))
In examining this further, I realize I can identify artists who do this well and begin to quantify what it is they leave out. Yoshiharu Tsuge, first and foremost, noting his story “Screw Style” (though to my Western eye that may border on surrealism). His peer Yoshihiro Tatsumi does it well also, though what he leaves out is the characters beliefs, thoughts and feelings. In Western comics, I always though Anders Nilson was getting there. Ben Katchor. (Left out of Katchor comix: specifics of reaction, sometimes, or specifics of internal thought, or exact explanations of dialogue.)
Of course, drawings alone can be “poetic”; And though it gets hard and weird to define, I’ll try to describe it more in the next chapter. Renee French and Gabrielle Bell have a poetry in their drawings. In Gabrielle’s case, what is left out is how she feels about what she is drawing. There’s attention and grace, but the absolute understatedness of emotion allows a lot to happen between the viewer and the drawing. This is what Barthes refers to, describing again “The Third Meaning” when he says “no parody, no trace of burlesque.” Unlike Bell, Dave Cooper, leaves little out emotionally, but his visual interest lies in the weird tensions he creates between thought and emotion while provoking the reader to experience the whole thing viscerally.
In French’s case, there’s such a vivid investment in the drawing that it’s hard to know what she’s feeling. Seems like everything: rage, joy love, fear. Her poetry lies in there somewhere.
JOHN GARDNER: “...The writer must rise above his physical plot to an understanding of all his plot’s elements and their relationships, including those that are inexpressible.”