Poems to See By Reminded Me of My Love for Poetry

Poems to See By. Plough Publishing House. March 2020

24 classic poems get the graphic novel treatment in Poems to See by—this is poetry like you’ve never envisioned it before. Writer and artist Julian Peters visualizes the words of poets in myriad ways, making this book quite the page-turner.

Poems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry

Julian Peters (Writer and Artist)
Plough Publishing House
March 31, 2020Poems to See By. Plough Publishing House. March 2020

Reading Poems to See by made me realise that I haven’t read enough poetry since I left university—and I’ve been missing out. Because poetry is amazing! The rhythm, the imagery, the emotions—poems evoke so much from a handful of lines than they have any right to. And I need more of it in my life.

I loved Peters’ interpretations for most of the poems—his ability to create so many different art styles is nothing short of amazing. I feel like I’ve witnessed the work of multiple artists, but it’s all Peters. He incorporates sketches, bas relief, charcoals, watercolours, classic comics styles, European styles, pastels, crayon-esque designs, manga-style, and patchwork. No two styles are repeated, which is exactly what a collection like this needs—no two poems are alike and they deserve art that is as unique as they are.

But while I marvel at Peters’ ingenuity and range in terms of artistic abilities, it’s his vision of the poems that I really enjoyed in Poems to See by. The one interpretation that really stood out for me was Maya Angelou’s ‘Caged Bird’, which Peters relates through patchwork cushion covers. It’s a startling but stunning retelling of the poem—and it works! The colors that the poem evokes—not through colour-based words but its descriptions—Peters manages to weave (pardon the pun) into lifelike tableaus of cushion covers that many of us would have in our own homes. Not gonna lie, I reread this poem so many times because I loved Peters’ interpretation so much.

‘Caged Bird’ isn’t the only poem that stands out in this collection. Robert Hayden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’ is going to break your heart—I love how the art itself tells the story. The words add more gravitas and emotion.

Peters’ interpretation of WB Yeats’ ‘When You Are Old’ is so unexpected—this is the poem where he uses the manga art style. The clothes and hair are very clearly Victorian, but the triangular faces, big eyes, and line-art are immediately recognisable as manga. It’s not what one expects from a Yeats poem but it’s such a great fit—who knew Yeats could read like manga?

Talking about subverting expectations, Peters expertly juxtaposes Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ with illustrations of the horrors of the slave trade. It’s not the scene that comes to mind when you first read the poem, but Peters’ vision fits heart wrenchingly well with Hardy’s words.

Then there’s William Wordsworth’s ‘The World is Too Much With Us’ which Peters uses to illustrate humanity’s obsession with the digital world and their subsequent apathy to each other. I’ve never been a fan of Wordsworth’s but Poems to See by may just change my mind.

I could wax eloquent about almost every poem in this book but I’d best stop while I’m ahead because the point of this review is to make you read the book.

The only poem I felt didn’t translate well was Robert Frost’s ‘Birches.’ I’m not sure why the majority of the poem isn’t illustrated—it’s the only poem that’s given such uneven treatment and it falls flat. The art is beautiful, no doubt, but the poem leaves one feeling very little.

Though I really enjoyed encountering Peters’ versions of these poems, I think the structure of Poems to See by was backwards. The illustrations—with text from the poems—are shown first, followed by the poem in its original text form. But I would have much preferred it the other way around so I could interpret the poems myself and then compare my vision with Peters’. It’s difficult to ‘see’ poems—what you envision in your mind’s eye is subjective and individualistic—and though it’s fun to see how someone else views the poem, I would have liked to let my own imagination run wild for a minute.

More than anything else, Poems to See by has reminded me about the power of poetry—how it stays with you long after you’ve stopped reading the words and evokes so much thought and emotion. It’s clearly time I delved into poetry a bit more—I’m going to be spending the next little while reading and writing poetry. And re-reading this book, of course.

Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir