Sight and Sound Semantics of Kurt Schwitter’s “Typographic Visual Poem” and Björk’s “Öll Birtan”
Because of our strong capability as humans to recognize and interpret symbols and systems, emphasis is oftentimes stressed more on the external meaning of discernible forms than the purely explicit quality of the shapes and sounds themselves. With biological aptness to produce many different sounds with our mouths, we eventually find patterns in order to communicate. Yet those inherent noises coming from our bodies are, in actuality, simply noises — just as letterforms are intrinsically just shapes on a surface. In the writing that follows, I intend to compare a purely visual piece, “Typographic Visual Poem,” by Kurt Schwitters and a purely aural piece, “Öll Birtan,” by Björk to analyze what can be seen and what can be heard in terms of their semantic potency.
Schwitter’s “Typographic Visual Poem” offers an inventive print of letters and shapes situated in ways that stress their graphic condition more than their linguistic meaning, yet there are innumerable ways to visually approach the shapes on the page. The poem, as printed in the 2002 edition of PPPPPP: Kurt Schwitters Poems, Performance, Pieces, Proses, Plays, Poetics, if viewed in the conventional method in which the book is turned “upright,” rests on the left of page 50 within the upper-half of the white, rectangular piece of paper. The number “1922″ is printed in italics on the left below the page number, and beside “1922″ is printed, in a bold, serif typeface, “Typographic Visual Poem.” Already, before even looking at the poem itself, we may find many visual situations to infer some logical reasoning behind their specific placements and aesthetics, thus contextualizing a very formal piece of print in a social, moral, political, or economic frame. Attempting to ignore these visual symbols can be a daunting task, but for the sake of analyzing the poem purely on its own terms in the limited page number of this paper, I will continue writing without much connotative context in mind (as we often do when experiencing and articulating most framed forms of human expression).
We are given a square outline to act as a framing device that spatially contains “Typographic Visual Poem.” As a result, the viewer may be quickly cued to the importance of visual space in the poem, contrary to many forms of writing where the visual border is the page itself. The line of this square, too, is slightly broken in the middle of the uppermost side, implying discontinuity, tension, or the opening of a vessel. Within this repository, a primarily five-by-five grid firmly structures the letters, squares, and spaces in a way that, again, emphasizes the spatial relationships of the interior components. The placement of each of these parts may consequently indicate conceptual patterns. For instance, parsing the symbols based on similarity renders larger shapes, such as mentally isolating all of the “O”s to form a backwards “L”, or drawing imaginary lines around the border of the “J”s, forming an isosceles triangle. One can look, too, at the negative space of the network to delineate semblance in a further abstracted perspective. On a more global scale, one can sense less visual pressure on the left side and bottom-right corner of the outermost square, creating a release comparative to the compression of grouped and boxed letters. More minutely persists the negative space within the smaller squares and their invitation to examine each letterform in terms of the local space that is sculpted more closely to the letters. Such a view edges us ever closer to the shape of each character itself, a potential delve into a vast realm of semantics indicated solely by the simple geometry of individual form. A spatial dissection of this poem may very well be an endless endeavor and calls attention to our ability to understand length and width on a conceptually two-dimensional surface, to separate forms...
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