Throughout his new sketchbook/memoir/travelogue Poetry Is Useless (Drawn & Quarterly), Anders Nilsen insists that there is no greater meaning behind this work. The harder he pushes this idea, the more it feels like he’s trying to hide some huge philosophical secret, challenging the reader to dig deeper to find the meaning that the author claims isn’t there. It’s not hard to find it. Using seven years’ worth of sketches, philosophical musings, and personal anecdotes, Nilsen creates a piece of art that celebrates creative spontaneity and the small details that make life worth living, forcing his audience to look at the world a little differently after finishing the book.
As is the Drawn & Quarterly standard, Poetry Is Useless is an exquisitely designed package. The cover and spine art spotlights the bold abstraction of Nilsen’s work, and the photographic presentation of his sketchbook pages adds an extra dimension to the visuals by showing the physical notebooks rather than transferring their images to blank pages. Every part of a page’s composition plays a part in how the reader interprets its contents, and showing weathered binding and ink bleeding through the pages makes the material even more raw and impulsive. These ideas are going straight from Nilsen’s head to his notebook, and it’s fascinating to see where his thought process takes him.
Some pages feature intricately detailed drawings of locations and people while some show Nilsen experimenting with nonrepresentational graphic elements, highlighting the wide range of his talent as an artist. Crossed out and whited out words become an intriguing visual tool in Nilsen’s hands, introducing creative tension to the page by suggesting that the author has written something he doesn’t want the public to see. One page features an entire section of whited out words in the middle of two humped blocks of black on both sides, and the combination of the hidden text and the asymmetry of the black borders creates an atmosphere of unease that may be reflective of Nilsen’s mental state at that moment in time.
Much of Poetry Is Useless involves a very basic human silhouette that interacts directly with readers by asking questions that force them to consider different philosophical ideas, imagine theoretical experiences, and focus on the sensations they are feeling as they absorb Nilsen’s work. Reading doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and Nilsen uses sections of this book to direct his audience’s attention to the world outside these pages, a choice that plays into a major theme of his work that, despite all the negative things about living, the fact that life exists at all is a miracle that should be cherished. There may not be any intended meaning behind the collected content of Poetry Is Useless, but it’s a work of immense value for those interested in the creative process of a remarkably talented cartoonist, and the interactive aspect makes it an introspective meditation on life, death, and all the things that complicate the journey from one to the other.