I am a poet, but I am also a semiotician, someone who does semiotics. What have these two got in common?

On the face of it you might think nothing: that they are almost diametrically opposed. Poetry is often seen as about freedom to express emotion, and semiotics is a forbidding social science subject which analyses and dissects everything to death obsessively.

The more I think about it there are not only deeply connected, they are mutually enriching. This is topic I have considered before, but it came up my agenda recently. I did a workshop at a client of mine De La Riva in Mexico City before Semiofest. During my piece about packaging claims I talked about rhetoric and how visual rhetoric worked to sell FMCG products. For some reason I felt I needed when making a point about poetry to recite one of my favourite poems.

An Irish Airmen Foresees His Death by William Butler Yeats. It’s for me the perfect poem, a condensed, elegant ode to one’s duty to oneself and one’s own convictions. An ex-student of mine Adelina Padilla Vaca told me that she had been inspired by this and after conversation she went ahead and wrote a blog post on smuggling Walt Whitman into a client presentation.


This is not something I’ve ever tried to do, so kudos to her! But it made me want to reflect on the relationship between poetry and semiotics. So I thought I’d set down here in 5 sections the ways in which I find they have similar concerns and their main overlaps and intersections.

Ferdinand de Saussure

Charles. S. Peirce


Both poetry and semiotics are about meaning making. However, you might think that that is where the similarities end. Poetry is about the intensely private, the vicissitudes of emotion expressed subjectively, whereas semiotics seeks to account for public meanings, the web of inter-subjective cultural meanings we subscribe or are conditioned into (however you see it).

Poetry is about expressing the ineffable in verse. Sometimes it is about tangled emotion and things that are hard to express in prose. The best poetry leaves us with our emotions shaken.

Carlos Williams described a poem as a ‘little machine for meaning’. We can’t puzzle out why there’s certain things have such a powerful impression on us that we cannot measure. That is just poetic logic. Semiotics is about teasing out meaning, and WHY and HOW things mean in forms that are difficult to pin down meanings for example, even in complex multi-modal text. The best poems are characterised by semantic density, which is to say a lot of meaning is packed into them. A great example is this part from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.

Whereas prose is about imparting information and getting to the point, poetry invites us to rather linger on the words. Poems are also often characterised by their associative diffuseness and extreme polysemy a diversity of meaning and potential interpretations. Brands want to amplify but quarantine their meaning, poems are happier to be more open source. Umberto Eco, in his book the Open Work which was about the ways in which late 20th century work was characterised by inviting multiple interpretations. He quotes the French poet Mallarmé.

 “To name an object is to suppress three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem, which is composed of the pleasure of guessing little by little: to suggest . . . there is the dream».

Poetry tests our understanding of language to breaking point. Of course, we have nonsense rhyme for example as practised by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Linguist Noam Chomsky wrote in proving that using correct grammar usage does not guarantee meaning: “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.” Poetry is the form where language can be tested to destruction and meaning thrown widely. And it is all about its aesthetic effect. After Roland Barthes’s Death of the Author it is very much about revelling in the bliss of the text. For instance this:

Here is the time for the unutterable, here, its country. Speak and acknowledge it. More than ever the things that we can live by are falling away, supplanted by an action without symbol.

This is not nonsense, but I struggle to make sense of it. It is from the Ninth of Maria Rainer Rilke’s Duino’s Elegies. I have read this work a number of times. I’m still none the wiser as to what it’s actually about. It is mostly baffling, but I keep going back because it shows me what sweet madness poetry is capable of and the state of puzzlement it leaves me in feels beautiful.


Semiotics is about a perspective and a new way of seeing… On my course I say that semiotics is a way of seeing that is different from the norm… Because as US General Patton once said “if everyone is thinking the same, then someone isn’t thinking”. This is as true for the world of culture as it is for the world of brands. Semiotics can be seen as a form of hyper sensitivity to picking up on how signs combine to work us over to lay bear those mechanisms. I always use the film The Matrix as an analogy and talk about how semiotics makes the invisible visible.

One important prerequisite of doing semiotics is step outside of our water, the swarm of signs.

As ‘sign users’ in culture we are conditioned to reading images in a certain way but to be semioticians, we need to be like artists. The Russian Formalist Viktor Shlovsky demanded that artists and poets needed to cultivate a stance of ‘ostronie’ or estrangement to guard against rote, or automatised processing, with our ‘eyes wide shut’.

“(For Shlovsky) the essential function of poetic art is to counteract a process of habituation encouraged by routine everyday modes of perception. We very readily cease to ‘see’ the world we live in, and become anaesthetized to its distinctive features. The aim of poetry is to reverse that process, to defamiliarize that with which we are overly familiar, to ‘creatively deform’ the usual, the normal, and so to inculcate a new, childlike, non-jaded vision in us.” [2] Of course poetry is so subjectively received but this Khalil Gibran poem made me think about love in a different way.

“Love one another,but make not a bond of love:Let it rather be a moving sea betweenThe shores ofyour souls”

The reality has always been there but this poem brings it in in ways that create an insight.

One thing I heard recently from an academic that I really liked was this quote, about semiotics being… “The unveiling of the familiar unknown” . This could also apply readily to poetry too.

Juri LotmanThe successive movements in poetry, parallel to the ferments in visual art at the beginning of the 20th century, Imagism and Symbolism etc were spurred by the frustration of a new cohort with the junk of the past, in poetry, the romantic and mawkish adjectival accretions of the 19 century. Then you have the succession of genres during the 20th century, including free verse, the Beat Generation, protest poetry, the Black Arts movement, and of course hip-hop and slam poetry and spoken word. All of these had their own genre, markers, techniques, tropes, and their priorities, which change the content and form of work produced in these traditions.

Roland Barthes

It is inherently Codebreaking, and experimental at its best. It is no coincidence, therefore that many semioticians cut their teeth, composing or deconstructing poetry. Roland Barthes, Umbero Eco, but especially the two Russians; Roman Jakobson and Juri Lotman cut their teeth on language and the play of codes (it was a whetstone that helped them develop a sensibility).

Umberto Eco


Of course poetry is also about impactful communication. And in this poetry is also part of the branch of rhetoric, the art of persuasion. In my Toastmasters Club I have twice delivered a speech which is about selling the benefits of using poetry in speeches. I start with these lines:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…It was the age of wisdom, It was the age of foolishness…It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulityIt was the season of light, it was the season of darknessIt was the Spring of Hope, it was the Winter of despair”

These famous words are the opening lines from the classic novel A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens published in 1859 – a novel set during the violence and ideological turmoil of the French Revolution… But why did Dickens begin this story with such a poetic flourish? Why didn’t he just preface it by telling us that:

“this historical period is characterised by extreme polarities and dichotomies of thought, whereby the forces of revolution and reaction co-exist and vie for supremacy with each other during a time of radicalism and repression which some heralded as the beginning of an auspicious new era; but others a threat to their privilege.”

Well, because he was a popular novelist and knew how to grab his reader’s attention. The use of antonyms, the rhythm, the portentous tempo, all these redounded to his credit because they are more likely to make his book popular, to make it read and then re-read. Poetry as we know, or at least the rhetorical devices that are poetic because they involve a contortion of language, are used to punch up speeches. Think of famous speeches. Winston Churchill, using anaphora We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds John F Kennedy using chiasmus, Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country… Think of Martin Luther King and his psalm like ‘I have a dream’ speech. Poetry can be found in trace elements way beyond the bounds of texts actually called poems: in advertising copy, hands in street art graffiti or on Twitter. Also, in a subculture that has dominated youth culture since the 2000s, hip-hop, RAP rhythm and poetry. Here is Raekwon.

Say peace to cats who rock mack knowledgeKnowledgists, street astrologistsLight up the mic God, knowledge thisFly joints that carried your pointsCorolla Motorola holderPlay it God, he pack over the shoulder

What does it mean? I 100% don’t know. If I’d lived in 1990s Staten Island I might have more of a clue. But spat over a beat, it sounds incredible: swagger, cool, jazz like virtuosity, it’s Coltrane without a sax. So just as advertising is about persuasion, poetry is about persuasion, even if it only persuading one person that it would be a good idea to take a chance on them in love… Aristotle broke rhetoric down into logos (persuasion), ethos (morals), pathos (emotion). You can break up any design into its constituent parts. In a Keynote at Mexico Semiofest  Roman Esqueda shows how one aspect (usually pathos) always trumps another. Rhetoric as has been said by many gets a bad name because it is bound up in many people’s minds with sophistry, dissimilation, twisted words and mendacity but as Robert Cialdini persuasion is everything – it is not just about branding and consumerism but how we live our lives we are constantly negotiating and trying to assert ourselves, forward our agenda. But this is where poetry however refuses to conform. Poetry can be about rhetoric and convincing with argument but minus ‘communication objectives’ it can just be about lulling us into joy.


Structuralism studies the relationship between things and this has the key to everything. Structuralists broke down everything into systems of relations, Levi-Strauss and his kinship systems, the raw and the cooked, the binary oppositions, paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes. Semioticians are alive to look for cultural patterns in stimulus looking for repetition.

Liz Moor talks about brands being defined by how they pattern information in certain ways.

Mere exposure time, how they wordlessly secrete themselves in our minds for mindshare.

Pattern and structure is of course part of poems too. One of the most obvious ways this works is called rhyme. John Milton in the intro to his magnum opus Paradise Lost, disparagingly called rhyme ‘the jingling of like endings’. When you first start with poetry perhaps in childhood, this is what stands out as rhyme is memorable, but poems, actually work more fundamentally through underlying, tempo, rhythm, and metre. Indeed, the music of words is often what first comes to poets in their inner monologue. Vladimir Mayakovsky in his tract How to Make Verse writes that most of his poems come from a rumbling rhythm in his head and that he mutters the rhythm until the words come then he jots then down. Many rappers start with the rhythm and rhyme scheme and then fit the words in later. It’s certainly a thing!

Roman Jacobson

Roman Jakobson in his essay Linguistics and Poetics is the master of this subject. He gave a great definition of poetry and its difference from prose when he talked about, shifting from

“the priinciple of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination. In particular, what is the indispensable feature inherent in any piece of poetry? The selection is produced on the basis of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymy and antonymy, while the combination, the build-up of the sequence, is based on contiguity».

This means that whereas in prose we have syntactic string of words hurrying off to their destination trying to convey the information as efficiently as possible, with a word in each slot, subject, predicate, verb, object, poetry plays more with combinations of words that may not make sense and where types of words combine in strange, and confusing ways. Anthony Anaxogorou in his poem Meeting the End of the World As Yourself writes that:

hardly anyone gets to die
the way they want

rain only ever looks good
from the inside –

             Sit up
You sound like a defamed fact

This is how poetry is distinguished from prose. Lotman said that poetic metre introduces what he called a ‘supplementary code’ which disturbs and creates new meanings. It is a juxtaposition and sometimes jumbling of words that means we shuttle between the semantic and phonetic level of linguistic signifiers while listening to poetry. The sound world is more important than information in poetry. It is the music of words that charms and beguiles us.

This is also why poetry has much to teach semioticians since the poetic function is about things that are not utilitarian but are about imaginative associations in the explosions of art. In branding, the perfume bottle that resembles an objet d’art or the surreal ad are both of the poetic function. Not everything that has impact has to make explicable sense and this is what poetry teaches us. The poetic function goes beyond poetry. Roman Jakobson wrote in this important text for poetics that the poetic function is about raising the ‘palpability of signs’.

The metalinguistic aspect of poetry – poetry becoming aware of and foregrounding its own rules, is a facet of many poetry genres but none more so that OULIPO an extreme version of experimental poetry whereby you apply mathematical principles to poetry, palindromic and specular poems, concrete poems. My first ever poem performed in public, a crossed Union bar in Toronto was a lipogram – a poem whose only vowel was the letter ‘e’. OULIPO is fun.


Poetry isn’t just about a new perspective, it is often political. Poetry conveys all sorts of values. We think of the Lake Poets, Wordsworth and Keats and William Blake, we think of Tennyson and Shelley and their different political leanings. We think of Anna Ahmakhtova and Maria Tsvetaeva and Vladimir Mayakovsky in Russia defying the regime. We think of Amira Baraka and of Gil Scott Heron. We think of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou. Before then we think of The Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes and the Black is Beautiful movement. We think of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves the WW1 poets.

Poetry is often about speaking truth to power. Poets are often national icons too. What would Spain be without Federico Garcia Lorca Cuba be without Jose Marti, Mexico without Octavio Paz, or US literature without Walt Whitman? Poets are often political in their leanings and concerns. It is about strong emotion and about rhetorical force. Shining the light on issues…

Thinking of the contemporary United Kingdom reference points for me are that of Joelle Taylor, who foregrounds queer identities and Warsan Shire the immigrant experience. Poets are often those outside the standard deviation. They are the dissents and the malcontents.

Neo Marxist techno determinists such a Bifo Berardi and Paul Virno see contemporary form of poetic protest is as resistance to semio-capitalism. AI is creeping into writing, text recognition and are pruning the idiosyncracy and quirks of language.  

“I propose the term {«}Glitch Poetic{«} to term a deployment of linguistic error that both signifies an intertwinement — and endebtedness — of language with the digital sphere, while constituting a refusal or resistance of the dissolution of literature into information flows.”

For me this is about using poetry to keep our language honest and the diversity lexical sets alive. Saussure said that language could not be dictated by fiat but evolved through a sort unconscious of social magma. With the cybernetic and self-reflexive nature of copy as click bait and algorithmic semantic tagging, we enter the advent of metaverses of semio-capitalism. George Orwell inveighed against the perversion of the English language by totalitarianism in the 1930s. Back then poets sought to scandalise the bourgeoisie. In the future the aim may be simply to keep linguistic commodification at bay with idiolects that confound the ontologies.

To keep the quirks of language. I use words like shall and ought to more than I probably should.


Applied semiotics is both a SIXTH SENSE and a way of seeing that ‘makes the invisible visible’. It’s also a practice, like meditation that involves set of aptitudes and techniques for noticing and for arranging cultural material (such that creates order out of chaos). Writing poetry is a craft that involves imaginatively combining words with a sensibility to match. Oscar Wilde said every good artist needs to be a good critic, but it is also true that every critic should strive to a certain extent to be a decent artist too… As semioticians we need to mix more with the arts. As British semiotician Rachel Lawes writes: 

“Artists are some of society’s best thinkers. It is the responsibility of the well-rounded semiologist to engage with art. Knowing how semiotic theory is…expressed in contemporary art is as important as reading about semiotics.”

What I’d like to end by saying about poetry is that communication is not just one to many.

Poet Laureate of the US Billy Collins once said that a poem is a diary with the lock removed. Poetry is communication with oneself as well as with others = it is the most personal of arts.

Juri Lotman in his book The Universe of the Mind a Semiotic Theory of Culture goes into a section where he talks about ‘auto-communication’ i.e. not I to he/she but I to – me/myself

“The case of a subject transmitting a message to him / herself, i.e. to a person who knows it already, appears paradoxical. Yet it occurs quite frequently and has an important part to play in the general system of culture. These include cases when a person addresses him/herself, for instance, in diary jottings, which are made not in order to remember certain things, but to elucidate the writers inner state, something which would not be possible without the jottings… while communicating with him/herself, the addresser inwardly reconstructs his/her essence”.

This is certainly the case with my writing of poetry. It is often about communing with myself to work out what I really think. Sometimes I am surprised by what I come up with. This is why I genuinely consider poetry to be a technology for transformation – it is a means to become a new person. Anyway, I digress. Just as Adelina did, it’s time to end this. I have managed to smuggle in some of my favourite poetry in here too.  I bet you didn’t even notice!

Chris Arning. Founder-Director. Creative Semiotics Ltd. www.creativesemiotics.co.uk