Anne-Marie Levine

From “Picture This: When Text Is Not Enough
by Anne-Marie Levine
American Letters and Commentary, Thirteen, p. 104, 2001


con text, as in con brio, means “with the text.”
con text as in contest or pros and cons, means “against the text.”

Why must text be or not be, enough? Enough for what? The context is always there, in our minds and imaginations, as well as on the page, and it is crucially important; it works with or against the life and reception/perception of whatever we write. There are always images accompanying the words in our heads. We don’t write words without calling up images or even sounds in our minds or on the page. “I couldn’t bear not to leave a stain upon the silence” (Beckett) The question is, do we include those images/sounds as text? Do we make them explicit? What if the image appears on the page as well as in the mind? We have been conditioned to believe that if words do not stand alone, it follows that they are unable to stand alone, that they are somehow weak or deficient. Words accompanied by images are not as respectable as words that stand alone. “Illustration” is mostly a dirty word, a “mere” word, among visual artists as well as writers. But why deprive ourselves?

Roland Barthes about writing: “According to the Greeks, trees are alphabets. Of all the tree letters, the palm is loveliest.” And he includes a photo of a palm tree in his book, Barthes by Barthes.

It has always mattered to poetry what surrounds or accompanies, the poem, what supports or fights with, the poem. The typeface and size, the placement of the poem on the page, the visual and aural effects of the line breaks. Context is desperately important to the life of a picture on a wall. How a picture is perceived may depend on where it is hung, what images surround it, and the quantity and shape of the space around it. Text is never enough. Chefs pay attention to the composition of a menu as well of a dish. They know that any food on a platter, or in a meal, relies for its taste on the color, smell, and texture of its companions. Try an all white or an all black dinner, a la Sophie Calle. Try serving broccoli with your rhubarb. Context is almost all. Performers pay attention to the placement of compositions on a con/cert program because if the pieces are all in the same key, for example, the listener will quickly tire, even if she is not conscious of the keys because she does not have perfect pitch. A balance of tempo, texture, and style matters. Con/text, always context.

Mieke Bal (Reading Rembrandt) writes “Studying images [as a literary critic] has made me aware of how strongly privileging the word impedes insight into the enormous influence of visual images on thought, imagination, and social interaction in our culture.” She has become aware that the study of texts and their illustrations by the same artist (Blake, for instance), or of images and the captions that “illustrate” them (17th century emblems), or of images meant to illustrate well-known stories (Biblical episodes), all show “the inexhaustibility of the one medium in terms of the other. Poems will never be fully illustrated, nor can the plates ever fully be understood with reference to the poem.” Even context is not enough.

And even context is text. So my question is, why not accompany a text with its visual, musical, verbal, documentary or pictorial “links?”