“Are Images More Visceral than Words?”

Remarks from Kyle Schlesinger, Cuneiform Press

I’m interested in C. Mikal Oness’s (Sutton Hoo Press) remarks about selecting texts and images for his books: . . . but for some reason I am more comfortable discussing the caveats involved with a visual artist then I would be working it out with a poet writing about pictures. I wonder why? Ekphrastic writing, at least in the most narrowly defined sense, isn’t exactly my thing either, but there are many poems and poets that have written in response to paintings, photographs and films that are of great importance to me as well as many poets whose reputations as visual artists surpassed their would-have-been lives as poets (Vito Acconci and Jim Dine come to mind). And I suspect that many of the people reading this have written some form of inspired response to visual art at some point in time. I’m not directing my question at CMO in particular, but am interested in elaborating on CMO’s statement.

I spend almost as much time in the world of experimental cinema as I do in the world of poetry, so artists’ books are often a place where these two worlds, the worlds of words and images, tend to mingle. I woke up the other morning with a funny question: has a poem ever made me scream? Laugh? Yes. Cry? Yes. Celan makes me cry, and yes, oddly enough, Wittgenstein does too at times. Scream? I don’t think so, at least not in the way that even the most tawdry horror film does. Are images more visceral than words? More kinetic? More emotional? Why is it that even when you know you know what’s going to happen and it happens you jump anyway? This has something to do with suspense and narrative and more. Expectation is the key. As a poet, critic and collaborator, John Ashbery, for example, has spent a lifetime writing about and after visual artists. You never know what’s going to happen in his poems but you do know what will happen in Hitchcock and they’re both classic.

Images more powerful than words? With the words and images traditionally divided (verso-recto) image wins. See (or at least look) first and read later. And even in the books Alice didn’t like (what use is a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations?) when there are no images the image of negative space, text blocks and word forms register before linguistic meaning takes place. Or perhaps that is the part of linguistics that intersects with typography that no one can explain? CMO says (caps his) that the there will be NO ILLUSTRATING THE TEXT by the visual artist in Sutton Hoo Press books. What’s wrong with that? I take it that illustration suggests something to do with the literal interpretation of words? There are many artists (George Schneeman and Trevor Winkfield come to mind) whose literal or double-literal interpretations of the poets’ works work wonders and are decidedly not decorations. So I want to know if an illustration inherently detracts from words while an image informed by, but not necessarily a literal rendering of words, necessarily accentuates the poem? The question itself is problematic, for these terms seem a little archaic for artists book discourse, but that’s changing.


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