I will assume that by now you are familiar with the Funky Winkerbean storyline about the recurrence of Lisa's breast cancer. Lisa has had quite the life in this strip, from her teenage pregnancy and the giving up of that child to adoption to her reunion and union with Les to her first bout with the illness that (it has been announced) will claim her this autumn. And if you have a newspaper of any size that still has a decent Comics section, you probably have had at least one article like this one from my local paper.
There are a couple issues to tease out here, and I think they have direct relevance to poetry, and poetry manuscripts in particular.
First, the gut response that "this isn't a subject for the comics". I think this is an emotional reaction that expresses a personal use of the comics: as pure escape. It's certainly fair not to want your flight of fancy tinged with tragedy. However, it is equally unfair to hold an entire art form accountable for one's own purposes. Yes, there are comic strips that are pure whimsy. There are also poets that tend toward pure whimsy (Ogden Nash comes to mind). But I'm surprised that people who object to the presence of the unfunny in the comics consider themselves "traditionalists", ignoring the difficulties presented in "serious" strips like Mary Worth, The Phantom, and Prince Valiant (a personal favorite).
Which leads us to point two: you should enjoy the comics you enjoy, and I will enjoy the comics I enjoy. Neither of us should feel the need to tell our newspapers to take the other's comics away. How is it a reasonable response to tell a publisher not to serve someone else? There is an intelligent position here, one already practiced by many papers six days week with Doonesbury: Put the subject comic in appropriate context. Doonesbury runs on the editorial page in most papers in this area.
So what’s the application to poetry and poetry manuscripts? First: The simple getting over of what’s “appropriate for poetry”. Diane Lockward recently blogged about an expectation of niceness in poetry that some people have. That needs to be gotten over – anything can be the subject of a poem. I could personally stand to see fewer about death and George Bush, but that’s my preference.
And preference is how we get to context. A manuscript – generally – has a consistency to it. A tone, if not a theme, though I tend to prefer thematically linked books (or collections with some good narrative sequences, at least). Within the manuscript, a poem that’s way off on theme or tone can disrupt the experience of the collection in a way that subtracts from its value – even if the offending poem is itself good! That’s my issue with some poets’ later collections – they mix their experiments into the pages in a way I have trouble enjoying – and it’s my sole complaint against the newspapers running the Lisa’s Cancer story. My complaint’s not with Funky Winkerbean writer Tom Batiuk, but with the editors who haven’t adjusted to his content. It’s a different collection – not part of the one it’s stuck in with now.
But then who reads the comics any more anyway (wait, there’s another similarity to poetry…..)