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This article is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

5. The Illustrator as Critic
Gregory O'Brien
Aged twenty-one, I fortuitously timed my final year at university to coincide with the first year (of only three) that C.K. Stead convened a poetry workshop in the Auckland University Department of English. Midway through the course, when the twelve workshop members were asked to submit a long poem for the group to critique, Karl dropped a sequence of ten new poems titled ‘Paris’ into the mix. As someone not at the time inclined towards orthodox literary criticism, my response to the poem was to make ten drawings, one for each verse, which I photocopied and handed around the class. Karl liked the drawings sufficiently to submit scrubbed-up versions of them, along with his poems, to Auckland University Press, which published ‘Paris’ as a chapbook in 1984. I still think of illustration as, in some fundamental ways, an exercise in critical reading – a sifting through a text for visual elements and relationships, ever mindful of tone and imaginative shape. For me, illustrating was also a means of gaining an education. I came to C.H. Sisson by way of a 1996 commission to provide cover images for two of his Carcanet books. I read my way through Wilson Harris, Bill Manhire, Janet Frame and lately John Dennison spurred on by illustrative assignments. Bearing in mind Jorge Luis Borges’ prescription that creativity, in whatever medium, should embody ‘the active aesthetics of the prism’ rather than ‘the passive aesthetics of the mirror’, I believe illustration offers a compelling example of ‘creative’ literary criticism – with the writing to hand meanwhile casting its own not-uncritical eye back across the ...

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