Picturing Prufrock


Julian Peters creates comic-book adaptations of poetry, with subjects ranging from Keats to Poe to Rimbaud. His latest is T.S. Eliot’s classic, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In an interview, Peters explains why he chose it:

First off, because it is one of my very favourite poems. The language is incredibly beautiful, of course, and lord knows I can relate to Prufrock’s indecisiveness. And it is one of those poems that has always spontaneously created a multitude of vivid images in my mind’s eye. I also think it is just the sort of poem that works best as a poetry comic. First because it lays forth a narrative of sorts, and second because it is not too concrete in its imagery, so that in converting it into visual form there is little risk of being too straightforwardly illustrative. …

[U]ltimately the most challenging aspect of making poetry comics for me is getting the pacing right. There should be a rhythmic flow to the comic that captures the corresponding flow of the poem. Achieving this is mainly a matter of how to break up the text between the panels, how to arrange the panels, how to pace the visual narrative, and where to place the text in relation to the imagery. Of course, these aspects can be judged the most successful the less the reader is immediately aware of them.

Last month, a Boston Globe profile of Peters’ work underscored the connection between comics and poetry:

“[O]nce people realized that comics are a medium that can be used to express any number of things,” Peters says, “there was no reason they couldn’t be paired in a more serious way with poetry.” In 2007, the Poetry Foundation furthered the connection with an intriguing series called “The Poem as Comic Strip,” in which cartoonists interpreted some of the poems in the foundation’s archives. The comics are still online at the foundation’s website.

Peters’s work is a great argument for the commonalities between poetry and comic books. The lines of poetry and his comic panels hang together with an unexpected ease, as if their forward rhythms are in synch. Both the words and the images unroll across the page, visually, with the panels sometimes matching the line breaks or stanza breaks. Poetry, unlike most prose, can involve leaps of thought from line to line, which jibes with the way comics leap from panel to panel.

(Hat tip: Micah Mattix. Drawing of Prufrock’s opening lines courtesy of Julian Peters)