Picture Window

Judith Saltman, column editor

Art for Art's Sake: The Illustrated Poem

Amanda McKinlay

"Poetry is what Milton saw when he went blind" (Don Marquis quoted in Anthony). Poetry is a language that paints on the mind's eye images more beautiful and more powerful than the physical eye can behold. Poetry reflects our familiar world back to us with unfamiliar distinction. What illustrator dares to reproduce such personal and powerful visions of the imagination, which poetry's words inspire? Illustrators of children's poetry picture books do.
The problem is that illustrated editions of a traditionally oral literature do not exercise children's imaginations. Jane Healy believes today's children have lost the ability to form their own images from words they hear or read. Constant visual stimuli from television and video games, feels Healy, have altered the physical structure of the listening and reading centres of children's brains. Listening and reading become laborious as text becomes impossible to picture and, therefore, understand and remember. Over-illustrating one of the last remaining oral art forms--the poem--does not help. Herein lies the premise for an examination of modern illustrated publications of poems. Do illustrated poems interfere with children's ability to imagine?

"Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what was seen during a moment" (Carl Sandburg quoted in MacDonald). Children who "keep looking around for meaning instead of creating it inside their own heads" (Healy 210) will have difficulty decoding poetic images. So economic are the words in poetry that an illustrated poem must interpret much of what the poet intended to leave to readers' imaginations.

The idea of illustrating poems seems almost ludicrous. A poem's ambiguity can be its greatest asset--even Carl Sandburg does not expect to fully understand his own poetry. Poetry is about the word, the sound, the "search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable" (Sandburg). Nevertheless, illustrators of children's picture poetry books presume to know.

"I know the 'Jabberwocky'," said Megan, eleven, when I pulled Graeme Base's illustrated version of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" out of my bag. "Our teacher told it to us from his memory."

"What is a jabberwocky?" I asked.

"Our teacher made us draw what we thought it looked like. Mine was part lion and part dragon. But I don't really know what it's supposed to look like."

Megan took the book from me and flipped through the pages. "Oh, now I know. I guess I was wrong."

Children who read illustrated poems accept the illustrator's interpretations as factual representations of the poem's words. Hence, they may have "trouble overriding an interpretation that was imposed on them" (MacDonald). Graeme Base explains that his illustrations are the fulfillment of a "long-cherished ambition to illustrate this highly evocative poem." Indeed, a "highly evocative poem" such as "Jabberwocky" does stimulate wild images within the imagination. Unfortunately, Base's ambition to bring his pictures to children robs these children of the opportunity to experience the highly evocative poem that so enchanted Base. Even after I explained to Megan that no one really knows what a jabberwocky looks like, Megan still felt that her interpretation was incorrect.

Base's Jabberwocky is an example of a picture book that uses poetry as a showcase for an artist's work. Pictures completely dominate the text; their excessive detail leaves nothing to the imagination. Stretching the seven-stanza poem across thirty-two pages also detracts from the rhythm of the poetry, which is often one of the most engaging elements of a poem. Illustrations compete with a poem's rhythm: the poem "begs readers to continue while the illustration tempts him to linger" (MacDonald). Charles Keeping's interpretation of Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman errs foremost in this way.

Noyes' anapestic verse gallops forth like the highwayman. Yet, Keeping's illustrations pull back on the reigns, commanding attention. Perry Nodelman believes that illustrations are most effective when they depict the "moments before or after something important happens" (Nodelman 253). Keeping applies to this theory, employing static illustrations to encourage the "forward thrust" (Nodelman 253) of the action-packed verse. Yet, this static element, combined with Keeping's style, creates a haunting and hypnotic effect that slows the rhythm's pulse from a thrust to a throb. Keeping's dark illustrations effectively reinforce the foreboding mood of the poem. But darkness eclipses the romantic theme of "The Highwayman." Spooky outlines of the highwayman and his horse are traced and re-traced to give the appearance of X-ray photographs. Like veins, branches of bare trees spread across a full moon. Like blood, shadowy lines drip from every image: the waves of the horse's mane drip; Bess' flowing tresses drip; the rings in the wooden planks of the inn drip. Ultimately, blood drips in thick, wavy streams from the breast of Bess and from the bullet in the head of the highwayman.

Keeping's illustrations of "The Highwayman" are exquisitely rendered. His drawings are simple enough to force readers to listen to the words, yet complex and illusive enough to stimulate readers' own imaginations. Nevertheless, Keeping's illustrations do halt the rhythm of "The Highwayman" and impose an overpoweringly dark mood upon what may otherwise be interpreted as a bitter-sweet romance. Readers' personal interpretations may be sacrificed.

Nowhere is this sacrifice more prominent than in Susan Jeffers' treatment of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Jeffers' illustrations dissemble the power of Frost's words. Jeffers separates Frost's lines to provide herself the opportunity to illustrate each one. The poem's rhythm and rhyme are wasted. "Whose woods these are I think I know," the first line of the poem, sets the stage for an illustration of a snowy forest. However, the setting jumps for a page to a village, as Jeffers steals the chance to show off a sketch of a charming, snowy neighbourhood from Frost's second line: "His house is in the village, though." With the following line, Jeffers jerks us back to the woods.

Children listening to the poem should begin to fall under the spell of a silent snowfall and a peaceful wood. However, Jeffers' lively illustrations overwhelm and contradict the intended mood. An animated Santa Claus figure in a sleigh jars our attention from the woods and competes with a large, white horned owl in the forefront of the reader's vision.

Suddenly, the peace is shattered and panic spreads through the forest. Cute bunnies, squirrels, and birds flee as the jolly, bearded man makes an angel in the snow. Frost's serene thoughts seem trivial compared to the abundance of distracting action and detail in the illustrations. Jeffers says that despite the six months she spent illustrating Frost's poem, she is "still haunted by it" (Jeffers). Unfortunately, children who read Jeffers' version will notice nothing haunting whatsoever.

Television and a lack of oral storytelling may have altered the way in which our children's minds work. Librarians, educators, and parents have the opportunity to revive the power of the spoken word, and thereby revive the imagination. "We pass the word around [...] we read poetry; we meditate over the literature [...]; we reach an understanding. Society evolves this way" (Thomas). Let children originate their own images. Let children meditate. Let us "make a commitment to the power of the word and to renew our trust in childrens ability to be moved by that power alone" (MacDonald).


Works Cited

Anthony, Edward. O Rare Don Marquis. New York: Doubleday, 1962.

Carroll, Lewis. Jabberwocky. Illus. by Graeme Base. New York: Abrams, 1987.

Frost, Robert. Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. Illus. by Susan Jeffers. New York: Dutton, 1978.

Healy, Jane M. Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

MacDonald, E.K. "The Illustrated Poem: An Uneasy Alliance." School Library Journal 36 (1990): 28-30.

Nodelman, Perry. "How Picture Books Work." Only Connect, 3rd edition. Ed. by Sheila Egoff et al. Toronto: Oxford, 1996.

Noyes, Alfred. The Highwayman. Illus. by Charles Keeping. New York: Oxford, 1981.

Sandburg, Carl. "Poetry Considered." Creative Quotations. 31 Jan. 2002

Thomas, Lewis. The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York: Viking, 1979.

Amanda McKinlay is a student in the Master of Arts in Children's Literature program at the University of British Columbia.

Volume 6, Issue 1, The Looking Glass,, 2002

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