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a new zealand journal of poetry and poetics


1,000 Words or a Picture:Could Poetry be a Contemporary Art? 



‘1.1 You are invited to submit either “1,000 words” or “a picture” and
‘4.1 All contributions will be of equal value.’ (KMKO email).
Conclusion: A picture will be worth a thousand words. Or ‘A picture tells a story as well as a large amount of descriptive text’ (Martin).  ‘[A] large amount’: some forms of the phrase claim it takes ten thousand words to equal a picture.  The comparison has been around for more than a hundred years:

The idea that a picture can convey what might take many words to express was voiced by a character in Ivan S. Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons, 1862:
"The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book." (Martin)

But the expression became familiar through 20th century American advertising:

The earliest example that I can find is from the text of an instructional talk given by the newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane to the Syracuse Advertising Men's Club, in March 1911:
   "Use a picture. It's worth a thousand words."  (Martin)

It depends, though, on the kind of picture, the kinds of words. With that in mind I looked for poems that could ‘paint a picture’ in much less than a thousand words. One example is the following, by the Dutch poet Gerrit Kouwenaar (1923-):


Rokend een sigaret van blonde gestolen tabak
sta ik op de landweg
hoe egypte zich mengt met zuring
hoe windstille damp (nog onvergelijkbaar
met gifgas) de verboden geur
als een kamer vasthoudt
hoe de populieren hun zilver tonen
hoe de hemel eensklaps voorgoed van god ontdaan is
hoe de naam stilte zelfs te luid is
hoe er niets gebeurt niets gebeurt
hoe er volstrekt niets gebeurt –
Gerrit Kouwenaar, Vallende Stilte, p. 78



Smoking a cigarette of blond stolen tobacco
I stand in the country lane
how egypt mingles with sorrel
how wind-still haze (as yet not comparable
with poison gas) retains like a room
the forbidden odour
how the poplars show their silver
how heaven suddenly forever is divested of god
how the name silence even is too loud
how nothing happens nothing happens
how absolutely nothing happens –

Number of words, in each version, 67. The image is simple enough: lone teenager in countryside, poplars, summer haze, cigarette smoke. What would not be visible in a picture of that scene are the details that make ‘event’ memorable: the forbidden action, the sudden insight or awareness of God’s non-existence, and the conclusion that this makes apparently no difference: nothing happens.

A.S Byatt, in Portraits in Fiction, describes the difference between a painted portrait and a written one as follows:

A portrait in a novel or a story may be a portrait of invisible things –
thought processes, attractions, repulsions, subtle or violent changes in
whole lives, or groups of lives. Even the description in visual language of a face or body may depend on being unseen for its force. (Byatt, 1)

She points out that any written portrait relies on ‘the endlessly varying visual images’ produced by the ‘constructive visualising work’ each reader does. She finds it distressing when publishers want to use images of real people to represent her fictional characters on book covers, because ‘it limits the readers’ imaginations’ (Byatt, 2).

This, I think, points to the crucial difference between visual images and written descriptions. How accurate do we want the picture to be? The young person in Kouwenaar’s poem is recognisable because of the event, not the physical setting. The event is more inner than outer, the illicit cigarette could be replaced by alcohol, pork, or blasphemy, depending on one’s cultural surroundings. The experience of rebellion, guilt, discovery and independence remains recognisable and invisible.

On the other hand, sometimes a picture can do clearly what any number of words would struggle to convey. Think of a map of the London underground. Description would be complex and useless. But the basic situation is relatively unchanging, in spite of fast trains and hurrying people. Kouwenaar uses ‘event’ as a title; something happens even if to an observer ‘nothing happens’. The element of time is added to the image, however short the moment.

Another fragment of time is considered in the next poem, also by Kouwenaar.

Het heffen van glazen
met uiteenlopende inhoud
en vooral de handbeweging
die de bloody mary aan de lippen brengt
wordt door de lichte luie en ongelooflijk
sierlijke oceaandeining
van zaterdag 7 november 1964
sterk vereenvoudigd
Gerrit Kouwenaar, Vallende Stilte, p. 88


The lifting of glasses
with diverse contents
and above all the hand movement
that brings the bloody mary to the lips
becomes through the light lazy and incredibly
graceful ocean swell
of saturday 7 november 1964
strongly simplified

The image of people at a bar on a ship is familiar enough to not need details of light, colours, distances. A painter or film director would have to make decisions on all such aspects, taking several choices out of the viewer’s hands. The main idea is again a sudden awareness, here of two coinciding movements, the momentary, precise act of lifting glass to lips, and the large, endless undulation of ocean waves; adding the date only seems to particularise that movement. To show the same contrast and interaction would require a moving picture at least, and even then, I think, some remark or voice over would be necessary to convey the thought. Lost in translation: ‘uiteenlopend’ means literally ‘dispersing’, suggesting in this context the swirl of Brownian movement in a liquid.

The value of images or words depends, then, on the effect intended and the amount of information desired by the reader or viewer. Sometimes we want to be told, other times we like to feel intrigued or use our imagination. 

Sources used:

Byatt, A. S. Portraits in Fiction. London: Random/Vintage, 2002

Kouwenaar, Gerrit. Vallende Stilte: Een Keuze uit Eigen Werk (Falling Silence: A Selection from His Own Work)  Amsterdam: Querido, 2008

Martin, Gary. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’.  Accessed 1-2-2009




Last updated 20 May, 2009