ONCE ROY LICHTENSTEIN demonstrated the painterly potential of the comic strip, could new literary applications for this distinctively American art form be far behind? Dave Morice, a poet who also happens to be a master cartoonist, provides the definitive answer with Poetry Comics. In revitalizing and brilliantly transforming the governing idea behind the old "Classics Illustrated" comic books, Morice's work arrives with that quality of inevitability that attends any bright-as- a-lightbulb idea whose time has come. No doubt there are many mixed-media artists who will wonder why they didn't think of it first.
With a small press in Iowa City, Morice began publishing Poetry Comics as a serial periodical in July 1979. Fifteen issues appeared over the next 28 months, eliciting rave notices from professional poets and from such People people as George Burns and Elizabeth Taylor to whom, for a lark, Morice sent copies, printing their invariably amusing responses in a special letters column. The magazine's concept beguiled with its simplicity. With "Abuse the Muse!" as his half-ironic motto, Morice would take poems by Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Keats and Wordsworth, Whitman and Emily Dickinson -- great anthology pieces, mostly, but also a scattering of more recent works -- and illustrate them with a panel per line or stanza, employing a striking variety of cartoon styles. To a generous selection from the magazines, Morice adds 50 new pages of "animated verse" for this always funny and frequently instructive "book you wish you'd had in English 101."
Licensing the roving hands of contemporary pop culture and letting them roam over the grand body of English poetry, Morice translates or jubilantly mis-translates verbal images into visual ones, discerning an unexpected but somehow appropriate narrative line in poems where none was apparent. As told by a Humpty Dumpty type to his shrink, Keats's sonnet "When I Have Fears" turns into a lovers' quarrel. Walter Savage Landor's "Rose Aylmer" orchestrates a visit to a carnival booth. Even better, Jonson's "To Celia" ("Drink to me only with thine eyes") takes it hero and heroine from cocktail party to wedding altar via the plot complexities and deathless imagery of true romance.
More often than not, Morice exploits a deliberate incongruity between poem and drawing, as when the lines of an Emily Dickinson selection ("I'm nobody! Who are you?") are mouthed by Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. William Blake's "The Tyger" is narrated by a mad scientist in his gothic castle; Thomas Carew's lovely "Song" ("Ask me no more where Jove bestows") features an all-animal cast with a giraffe duet that is particularly affecting. These choices are not merely frivolous. Paradoxically, the zany juxtapositions make us pay closer attention to the lines themselves. No great poem suffers thereby.
If anything, Morice's antics deepen our pleaseure in, and our understanding of, poems we thought we knew well; the drawings act now as parodies, now as glosses on the material. Take Morice's "cutist" treatment of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," for example. Subverting Keats's tone, Morice manages nevertheless to capture something of that poem's eeriness and fairyland enchantment. Only someone with a real sensitivity to the poetry would choose, as Morice does, to mediate an excerpt from Charles Olson's "Songs of Maximus" with figures out of Edvard Munch or to cast Walt Whitman, "a Kosmos, of Manhattan, the son," as a gray-bearded Superman aloft in a futurist fantasy.
"Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding," Walt is first seen sitting in front of a television set, chugging a can of generic beer. Suddenly an exclamation point replaces the question mark in his mental balloon. "Unscrew the locks from their doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!" he roars, shedding his civilian clothes to reveal a cape with a stylized W on it. "From Paumanok starting I fly like a bird," and we're off: in a single bound Whitman has leaped over the New York skyline, "speeding with tail'd meteors, throwing fireballs like the rest," exploring the earth from the democratic vistas of outer space.
To strike a single sour note, I find it dismaying that the volume omits "The Hollow Men," Morice's collaboration with the ghost of T.S. Eliot. But it would be churlish to close a review of this remarkably imaginative book with anything other than an expression of delight. If, as Oscar Wilde wrote, the proper function of criticism is to see the object as in itself it really is not, Poetry Comics performs a critical service all the more valuable for being so entertaining.