The Art of Visual Poetry


Review: Pictographs, by Bill Keith. $9.00. Left Hand Books, Station Hill Road, Barrytown, NY 12507, ISBN 1-880516-20. (Web site:


I want to jump immediately into commenting on the book’s design, the color reproduction of one of Bill Keith’s pictographic poems, the glossy black background upon which the horizontal lines and the snake glyphs float, and his name, and the title: Pictographs. And I do jump there because the thrust of the book is visual, as it should be, as it must be. Keith offers a brief introduction to the work of some 48 pages, all beautifully reproduced in black and white. He says of this art, “visual poetry and/or language art,” that it “sublimely ignores language-barriers and emphasizes the symbolical function of language.” True enough, but HOW it says it is the important point. Look at how he proceeds: “Myth is an enduring link between the past and the present.” What is only apparent in the “language art” that he is writing is that these words are on strips of paper cut into lines thick enough to contain the words and placed over a black background, enabling him to split the sentence, with more force that would be had in a conventional poem utilizing line breaks for the visual / syntactical tension, to illustrate just the point he must get, must get the viewer to get: on separate “lines” he has “Myth is an enduring link between” and “the past and the present.” The split is now in his language, as well as the bridge, the link between. And myth is the black underlying bridge now represented by his “visual poetic prose statement.” So it goes. So is the artistry we are introduced to, and so it continues throughout this book.


Each page is a treatment, a construction guided by this artist’s sense of where these myths, as represented graphically, take him. The pages are of glyphs, never meant to be art but meant to convey essential information, taken from the world’s cultures where such visual treatment of message has been primary. Keith is asking us, the readers / viewers, is this still the case? With our culture? With our visual art mainly represented in the form of commerce, advertising and corporate logos? I recognize in Pictographs Mayan, Native Amer-Indian, Celtic, Dogon, Chinese, images from European cave art, as well as contemporary advertising. Where in all of this do we recognize ourselves?


One of my favorite pieces (How large are these I wonder? Are they red


uctions of originals? Are they, as is my guess, reproduced full sized, intended to be pages for a book, this book?) is one that combines Chinese ideograms on an alphabet textual background along with the words “moving images” and “SPIN,” “dizzyingly,” and “Buy.” The tensions, only fully apparent in the visual poem, result in a multitude of readings that revolve about the moving images that spin “dizzyingly” by and which you, viewer and reader,  are enticed to “buy” by such as Spin magazine, the purveyor of commercial moving  images as destructive and more pervasive than the political spin doctors they mimic even as they sometimes criticize.


In the brief bio we learn that Keith “is a painter, collagist, poet and photographer...founded the Malcolm X Art Center...curated with Karl Kempton Visualog IV, an international exhibition of visual poetry.” But we learn most about Keith from this work, Pictographs, and we learn a lot about contemporary publishing, that a press like Left Hand would have so much faith in our culture that it would publish such a beautiful and affordable book. Now we have to learn to support such artistry and such faith.