Anders Nilsen is a graphic artist and novelist, but this collection of sketchbooks doesn’t qualify as a traditional comic book in the strictest sense. There is most definitely sequential art; there are pictures, and there are sometimes panels that feature a recurring personality. What seems to be lacking is an overall narrative, and yet that’s clearly not the point of Poetry is Useless. What comes out of this conversation between Nilsen, his sketchbooks, and the reader is something a bit more sublime than a straightforward story.
Poetry is Useless collects images from over seven years of Nilsen’s sketchbook scribbles, doodles, strips, and other drawn ephemera. Portraiture, landscapes, text, shapes, strange mythical and medieval beasts, and drawings of bizarre, mechanical artifacts joined with root-like, organic forms cascade from page to page in a stream of consciousness. A character is sometimes present, appearing for a page or two then disappearing to the black, featureless silhouette from whence he came. This head and shoulders (the author’s own voice, we can assume) offers an ongoing dialogue on various subjects: philosophy, politics, culture, or relationships, all covered with existential drollness or bemused cynicism. The lines of text are raw, sometimes even blacked out; the solid rectangles of stricken text evoking tantalizing yet unfulfilled promises about the thoughts once written but ultimately censored.
Sometimes the sketchbooks themselves are visible on the pages, splayed open, a hint of inside cover or binding just visible in the creases or on the edge, with white space surrounding the open sketchbook against the page. There are sometimes sketches in the white space. Sometimes, only the sketchbook images themselves occupy the whole of the page. Most of the pictures are in black ink, but occasionally, the ink changes to a bold red. Less frequently, Nilsen includes some full color collage work to mix things up, accompanied by the ubiquitous talking head.
Sketchbooks from graphic artists aren’t entirely uncommon; Chris Ware’s two volume Acme Novelty Date Book immediately springs to mind in comparison. Whereas other sketchbooks more often seem to serve as an almanac of an artist’s creative progression, Nilsen’s Poetry is Useless works as an exercise of viewpoint. Nilsen offers complicated and beguiling commentary on the world as he perceives it, using words and pictures. Through a reading of the text, he argues that poetry is, at the end of the day, a pretension, serving only to describe the world as the poet wishes it were, instead of how it really is. Nilsen’s pictures and commentary suggest a far more pragmatic perspective; a world where nothing inherently has any meaning, yet can still conjure a sense of wonder, beauty, mystery, or just plain confusion, especially when it comes to human constructs and emotions. This perspective, rendered in Nilsen’s scratchy cross-hatch, detailed pointillism, languid organics, and clean inorganics, proves to be a poignant, and deeply eloquent observation on contemporary life. Despite the title, Nilsen ventures into territory just as expressive and meaningful as any work of poetry could possibly be.
Poetry is Useless
by Anders Nilsen
Drawn & Quarterly, 2015