Textuality and the Visual


Marjorie Perloff

“Pictures,” declares Morris Eaves in his provocative “Graphicality: Multimedia Fables for ‘Textual Critics’,” “remain a thorn in the side even of cyberspace. . . . video and audio . . . remain grotesquely primitive, complicated, and elusive beside the reasssuringly streamlined and stable letters and lines of standard, searchable, intermeasurable ASCII text. . . . the relation of the graphical to the textual remains an unsolved foundational issue” (Eaves, pp. 26-27).

An “unsolved” issue, at least in the case of reproduction: Eaves is quite right to argue that no computer-screen image of one of Blake’s illuminated plates can possibly capture the color, texture, and materiality of the original. But, as I shall suggest below, the case is quite different when the verbal / visual text in question is produced directly for the reproducible printed page or for electronic dissemination.

In the eighteenth-century context within which Blake was making his books, Eaves reminds us, “texts and pictures were reproduced by different technologies. . . .they were created by different skills practiced by artisans working with different tools and materials in different shops, printed on different presses, and in many instances, sold in different marketplaces. . . . [the] separation of graphical and textual modes of production assured deep inefficiencies, slowed production, [and] increased costs” (Eaves, p. 3). Hence, according to Eaves, neither producers nor consumers knew how to deal with Blake’s illuminated books and his reputation languished. When, in the 1860s, poets like Rossetti and Swinburne came to his “rescue,” they played down his role as visual artist in favor of his poetry. The visual images were now pronounced secondary and “decorative”– in Swinburne’s words, “the mere husk and shell of the Songs” (see Eaves, p. 14). The poems were said to be “clothed” in an “incomparable charm of form.” And so it remained for almost a hundred years.

In Eaves’s view, Swinburne’s was a calculated and cynical move to “save” Blake, whose work would have remained unknown, in view of the production problems I cited above. And although recent Blake scholars and editors have tried to bridge the poetry/picture gap, it remains difficult, if not impossible, to produce inexpensive editions, much less anthologies, that will give readers a proper sense of what the illuminated plates are really like . Even on hypertext, which theoretically can provide “good” reproductions of the illustrations, the imbalance remains, for not only is accurate reproduction impossible, as I noted above, but editors, as Eaves points out, continue to stress linguistic codes and to use “graphical means to a linguistic end.” The simple fact is that words, lines, and stanzas can be reproduced exactly as Blake wrote them; pictures cannot. So once again, the verbal takes precedence over the visual.

I agree with Eaves’s conclusions but not with his rationale for them.

For one thing, as W. T. J. Mitchell points out in Blake’s Composite Art, there is a particular “rivalry between text and design in Blake’s illuminated books” which is largely a “matter of conflicting aesthetic appeals. To open one of Blake’s books is to be confronted with two equally compelling art forms, each clamoring for primary attention. . . . I suspect . . . that there are many readers like myself who find it difficult to read Blake’s text in his illuminated books with any extended concentration.” [1] Then, too, Mitchell suggests, Blake’s pictures don’t really “illustrate” his text; they are symbolic analogues, sometimes distracting rather than reenforcing meaning. The motives of Swinburne and Victorian editors and critics may thus have been less cynical than Eaves assumes: perhaps they felt that Blake’s difficult poetry would only gets its due with a minimum of distraction. Or perhaps they felt, as have most art historians, who tend to regard Blake as a marvelous eccentric rather than as a major artist, that however fascinating the illuminated books may be, it is the poetry on which Blake’s reputation must finally rest.

This raises a larger question implicit in all three essays in this section. To put it crudely: is intermedia art additive–verbal plus visual and hence separable into verbal and visual domains which are not necessarily comparable in mode or quality– or should intermedia art be regarded as something Other, with its own criteria and modes or reception? And, if the latter is the case, can we backtrack and expect “composite” texts like Blake’s illuminated books to fit comfortably into the accepted canon of Romantic poets or Nineteenth-Century English Painting or, for that matter into the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1? How, in other words, are such texts to be disseminated?

In the case of Blake, it is not only possible but quite normal, to read the poems independently. Indeed, the plates often confuse rather than support our readings of the poems, as when, in the case of “London,” the plate depicts a boy leading an old man with a crutch and, below, the same little boy maintaining the fire of life. The political and social meanings encoded in the poem itself–as embodied by the references to the chimney sweep, the “hapless soldier,” and the “youthful harlot”– play no part in the visual image. Here, then, we still have a verbal-plus-visual code and hence the possibility, if not desirability, of textual presentation that subordinates one to the other. But when it comes to the postmodern bookworks, installations, and hybrid art forms discussed by Mary Ann Caws and Renée Riese Hubert in their respective essays, the situation is radically different.

The artist book, as Hubert demonstrates in her masterly study, “Bookwork, or Editing as a Fine Art,” is now an important intermedia genre, attracting a wide range of artists whose techniques are extremely sophisticated. Hubert’s examples, all taken from the 1980s and 90s, range from Tom Phillips’s justly famous A Humument, his “writing through” of the Victorian novel A Human Document by William Hurrell Matlock (a book whose subtleties and complexities Mary Ann Caws also discusses); Helen Brunner’s A Primer of Ritual Elements (book one), an assemblage of mutilated fragments derived from various documents; Harry Reese’s Arplines, which plays in complex ways on the Dada and Surrealist work of Hans Arp; Buzz Spector’s A Passage, Broodthaers, and Kafka, books that “shortsheet” and transform some famous originals; and Walter Hamady’s Gabberjab Number Six, perhaps the most literary of the group, which parodizes contemporary theoretical discourse, the high culture/ popular culture divide, and bookmaking itself. In all five of Hubert’s examples, the dominant mode is one of appropriation or, as she puts it, “editing.” The parodic is central to Spector’s as to Phillips’s and Hamady’s project.

The artist book, says Hubert, “has not received the attention it deserves,” primarily, she suggests, because its main mode of dissemination is the exhibition catalog rather than the critical review or scholarly discussion. What she doesn’t quite say is that the audience is thus a coterie audience of exhibition goers, a fact not surprising given the artist book’s normal mode of production. As Hubert’s bibliography makes clear, the presses in question–Turkey Press (Reese), Perishable Press (Hamady)–are primarily the private presses of the artist himself or herself: Johanna Drucker called hers “Druckwerk.” The artist book, in other words, is the individual creation of an artist-publisher-distributor, who presides over every stage of production. As such, the contemporary artist book can be understood as a reaction to the commercialism and commodification of the publishing industry on the one hand, and the depersonalization and lack of individual “signature” of electronic publishing on the other. The production of an artist book, usually published in miniscule editions (fifty to one hundred copies) would thus seem to empower the individual author-artist, whose work cannot be tampered with as was Blake’s (or later, William Morris’s or Ezra Pound’s) by manipulative editors, greedy publishers, or careless printers.

But of course this freedom from institutionalization is more illusory than real, since power merely passes from publisher to gallery: someone, after all, must exhibit these artist books otherwise no one will know of their existence. Collectors like Marvin and Ruth Sackner (whose archive in Miami, Florida is legendary) and art libraries must be urged to purchase them. Exhibition catalogs thus become competitive and advertising takes on increasing importance. Most important, given their necessarily high prices, artist books cannot, at least at the moment, enter a larger public arena. How would one anthologize Spector’s Kafka, a “volume” with a black interior that contrasts with the light cover of which only the frame remains visible. Hubert tells us that the book “has undergone radical reduction: sections of the pages have been torn out, producing a sloping effect which in itself deserves the appelation of kafkaesque since no viewing or reading can take place without going ‘downhill’.” “The artist,” she further observes, “has eliminated the anecdotal and narrative aspects of Kafka’s oeuvre so as to display its philosophical essence” (Hubert, p. 26). But in this case the reader/viewer must see the object whole and must see it in the original (“the black sloping surface has lost its smoothness”) to get its full effect, an effect the reproduction (see Hubert, figure 12) cannot duplicate.

A similar conundrum occurs in the case of Ian Hamilton Finlay ’s wonderful garden installations, described in such moving detail by Mary Ann Caws in “Building Textures, Keeping Difference.” Like the artist book, of which Finlay is also a major exponent, Stonypath or Little Sparta, as Finlay’s Scottish garden site is called, can be understood as a protest against what Caws dismisses as the “dull and dreaded sameness” of ordinary texts. Finlay began as a concrete poet and his individual plaques, works on paper, paintings, and large glass pieces have been reproduced and disseminated widely. James Acheson and Romana Huk’s recent collection Contemporary British Poetry, for example, contains an essay by Nicholas Zurbrugg called “Ian Hamilton Finlay and Concrete Poetry”–testimony that Finlay has finally been acknowledged as a central figure in postwar British poetry. But the nine small illustrations in Zurbrugg’s essay focus on individual concrete poems rather than on Stonypath, and they can hardly give the reader more than an inkling of the inventiveness and imagination that characterize Finlay’s work. [2]

Who is to blame for this situation? Certainly not Zurbrugg who was probably given a tight budget nor the editors whose academic publishers evidently felt they couldn’t make room for large-scale illustration in a set of essays on poetry! Indeed, Finlay is usually classified as an “art” rather than a “literary” figure; Yves Abrioux’s excellent recent study Ian Hamilton Finlay (MIT Press, 1992) is characteristically subtitled A Visual Primer. But packaged as a “visual artist,” Finlay has failed to win the wider audience that he deserves, and now that Stonypath has been closed by the local government, for the absurd political reasons Caws details in her essay, one wonders how the work is to be disseminated more broadly.
Academic indifference to the work of Finlay and Tom Phillips, to the Arakawa / Gins Mechanism of Meaning, the exhibition made so immediate by Caws’s vivid personal account, to the Arplines of Harry Reese or the Gabberjab series of Walter Hamady, is especially unfortunate given that these are postmodern texts par excellence and hence no longer “verbal and visual” but verbal-visual in new and complex ways. These texts are not classifiable as “poems” or “paintings” or “photographs” or “novels” and they are surely not illustrated books. As such, neither the university art department nor the English or Comparative Literature department does them justice. What Caws’s essay implies, although she does not say so directly, is that we need a new department, course of study, critical mode, and especially new publishing outlets that might accommodate what “verbovisivocal” artists (Joyce’s term) are actually doing: not only book art but exhibition, installation, performance, photowork, site sculpture, and so on.

A first step in this direction has been made by Johanna Drucker’s new Journal of Artist Books (JAB) and the Granary Press, which is the publisher of some of her own artist books as well as her scholarly study The Century of Artists’ Books (1995) and Judd and Renée Hubert’s forthcoming study of contemporary exemplars of the genre. More immediately: we need more inexpensive editions of artists’ verbal-visual works on the model of The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Smithson’s widow Nancy Holt and beautifully produced by New York University Press in 1979. In this edition, the layout was based on Smithson’s own design: text and image (mostly photographs but also drawings and graphics) were totally in sync. But–and here is the downside Morris Eaves talks about– consumerism soon won the day. The second edition, now called The Collected Writings of Robert Smithson(University of California Press, 1996) is a clever repackaging job: the publisher has added a sizable section of fugitive pieces (mostly interviews in the art magazines of the late sixties and early seventies, but also juvenilia) and a new introduction by Jack Flam. Along the way, Smithson’s own layout has been largely destroyed: the proportion of text to image has been altered so as to get more words on the page, and the pictures are no longer placed in meaningful relationship to the text. The photographs, moreover, are smaller and have less contrast and the printface (Star Type, Berkeley; 10.5 / 13.5 Bembo) is quite ordinary. The 389-page volume sells for almost twice the amount of the 221-page original but constitutes a serious violation of Smithson’s very particular aesthetic.

A related case is that of Susan Howe’s poetry. Until recently, when Howe began to gain a wider audience, she published with very small presses where she could supervise production. As someone who began her career as a concrete poet, Howe has always paid a great deal of attention to the look of her poems and, in her case, the visual is inextricably bound up with the verbal so far as meaning-making goes. Mainstream publishers, unfortunately, are rarely sensitive to this issue. To take a specific example, consider Howe’s Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (1987), originally published by Awede in Windsor, Vermont and printed on letterpress in an edition of one-thousand. Figures 1-5 illustrate the book’s title page with its circle made of two red double-tipped arrows that don’t quite meet (1), [3] the frontispiece (2), the “EXTRACT from a LETTER (3), which provides a frame structure for the lyric text, the title page for the first section (4), and the first eight-line stanza of the poem (5). In this frontmatter, most of the versos are left blank.

Reprinted along with Thorow and Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk in the collection Singularities (Wesleyan, 1990), Articulations reads quite differently. The punning and phonemically charged passage “from seaweed said nor repossess rest / scape esaid,” originally placed by itself on a blank page (see figure 2) has been moved to the title page (figure 6), presumably in order to save space. On the other hand, the new edition contains a two-page historical background sketch called “The Falls Fight,” in which Howe, evidently in response to reader puzzlement as to her Hope Atherton story, provides the necessary historical background as well as her own meditation on its meanings. And finally, the opening page (figure 7) now contains not one but two stanzas (see figure 5 above), again in order to save space. Further along, sections centered in the original are often moved left and in the case of “Taking the Forest,” Howe was told to eliminate one whole section (she chose “Light inaccessible as darkness” Articulations, p. 28) so as to meet page number requirements.
All in all, then, Articulations, as represented in Singularities is simply not the same poem that appears in the Awede edition. The same thing happened when Howe’s A Bibliography of the King’s Book or, Eikon Basilike (1989), beautifully produced by Paradigm Press, the type used for the cover and title page being hand set by the poet Rosmarie Waldrop, again in an edition of 1,000 copies, was reprinted in the New Directions volume The Noncomformist’s Memorial (1993). The first Eikon Basilike is an artist book; the second is presented as just one more poetic sequence (albeit a sequence with very distinctive lineation–lines being placed diagonally, upside down, etc.) in a volume of poems.

Thus, although the artist books and visual poems discussed by Caws and Hubert may seem to be the unique products of their authors, in practice, if a text is to reach more than a small coterie audience, its production is likely to be subject to a number of constraints that counter its author’s intention. Wesleyan and New Directions are hardly commercial presses and even so they have to operate on budgets that don’t allow such “luxuries” as the red double-arrow circle design of the Awede edition of Articulations. And since in Howe’s poem, more than in Blake’s illuminated books, the visual design is an important element in the text’s larger meaning, one can only hope that publishers will become more sensitive to questions of layout, design, and typography. Indeed, they must become more sensitive, given that the basic unit in much of the most interesting new poetry is no longer the line and certainly not the stanza, but the page itself– a page whose visual design determines the semantic structure. Take, for example, Maggie O’Sullivan’s new anthology Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK.[4] This a small-press book (Reality Studios) but inexpensively produced and priced competitively. It uses ordinary paper and type fonts but does, like the “Light & Dust” website I mentioned above, respect the layout of the visual poems that fill its pages–poems, for example, by Susan Howe, as well as by such visual poets as Joan Retallack and Diane Ward. Here, I would posit, graphic signifiers no longer function primarily as bibliographical codes; they take their place as central to the semantics of the text. And, to return to Morris Eaves’s “unsolved foundational issue,” unsatisfactory as electronic presentation may be in the case of the reproduction of Blake (or Rossetti or Pound), it works much more effectively when the texts in question are designed for cybertext in the first place. Some examples may be found on such excellent new visual poetics websites as Kenneth Goldsmith’s Ubuweb: Visual, Concrete, and Sound Poetry, and in John Tranter’s new online magazine “Jacket.” [5] Perhaps Ian Hamilton Finlay’s marvelous “garden,” closed to visitors in Scotland, will reopen in another form here.


W.J.T. Mitchell, Blake’s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 13, and see Chapter 1 passim.

See Nicholas Zurbrugg, “Ian Hamilton and Concrete Poetry,” Contemporary British Poetry: Essays in Theory and Criticism (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), pp. 113-41.

The book’s cover has the same circle of twin arrows but the author’s name is above it and the book’s title below; the circle itself is empty.

Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK, ed. Maggie O’Sullivan, with an afterword by Wendy Mulford (London: Reality Street Studios, 1996).

Ubuweb is located at http:/www. ubuweb.com/vp. See also Light & Dust Poets at http:///www.thing.net/grist/l&d/lighthom/ htm. John Tranter’s Australian journal “Jacket”, at http:///www.jacket.zip.com.au/. For further connects, see the homepage of the Electronic Poetry Center at http://wings.buffalo/edu/epc.