Poetry, Semiotics and Brand Building

Though the custom of memorizing poetry in public school is largely long gone, I was part of perhaps a last generation to have to go through the process.  And I will no doubt remember the following lines until my last breath:

‘TWAS a death-bed summons, and forth I went

By the way of the Western Wall, so drear

On that winter night, and sought a gate–

The home, by Fate,

Of one I had long held dear.

At the time, I failed to realize the significance of poetry, but with age comes some degree of wisdom and I have come to the conclusion that what we do today, be it as a researcher, a copy writer or a designer, can indeed learn a great deal from poetry. It is, sadly, a forgotten but powerful medium. A poem does not convey a message is the same way as prose, it does not signify in the same manner. When poetry is consumed, so to speak, words are judged in relation to things, and the text is judged in comparison to reality. A poem establishes a system of significance, generated by processes such as accumulation and the use of descriptive systems.

Prose is generally interpreted along a vertical axis, known as the paradigmatic axis or the axis of selection. On this axis, we look for the meaning of the text based on selected referents and terms, following the metaphors and metonymies, or by trying to attribute a coherent meaning to the passages. The message is typically fairly straight forward and the associations with other words clear. But unlike prose, in the semantics of the poem the axis of significations is horizontal. The poem doesn’t attempt to refer to reality, but to establish a coherent system of significance. As such, a poetic text must be interpreted and analyzed in terms of the relationships that develop amongst the words along the horizontal axis (the syntagmatic axis or the axis of combination).

There are four structures that make up the horizontal axis of significations:

  • Linguistic
  • Stylistic
  • Thematic
  • Lexical.

This structure  involves similarities in form and position among certain words in the text, similarities that are rationalized and interpreted in terms of meaning. Each word is made up of one or more semes (minimal units of meaning, or semantic features). For example, the word “monster” contains the semes: living being, big, ugly, frightening, inhuman, etc. These are the semes in the poem that are used in the process of accumulation.

This process occurs when the reader encounters a series of words that are related through an element of meaning that links them together, that is, a shared seme. As the reader progresses, accumulation filters through the semantic features of its words, thereby overdetermining the occurrence of the most widely represented seme and cancelling out the semes that appear less frequently.  For example, if we encounter the words “rose”, “tulip” and “sunflower”, then we might think that the shared seme is /flower/; if to this list we add the words “grandiose”, “woman” and “art”, then the overdetermined seme will be /beauty/. In this way, the semes take the place of the words, and by substituting in this manner, the reader will come within reach of the poem’s significance.

In other words, a descriptive system that emerges in poetry is a group of words, expressions and ideas that are used in the text to designate the parts of the whole that the author wants to represent.

The system is usually a set of stereotypes and conventional ideas about the word with which it is associated; this is how the reader realizes, when we make mention of nothing more than dancing, for example, that we are talking about an youth.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because at the heart of any brand or design lies the poetic expression of what we want the brand to mean. Whether we are crafting a series of words in an add campaign or developing a stylistic “language” for a group of objects to be associated with the brand, we are attempting to develop a system of meaning that overdetermines and allows the customer to interpret a range of finite meanings at a glance. The Nike swoosh, the phrase “Ram Tough”, the “story” conveyed in a billboard for Schlitz, they are all extensions of poetic discourse. And like the poem from Thomas Hardy that I learned so long ago, a poem lasts, tying meaning to the things the things we value in our lives, including brands.

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