Kinetic Poetry and the meaning of words

This installation by Australian group 313RGB is a curious example of kinetic poetry, or “poetry in motion”, or “interactive poetry”, or whatever you want to call it. You stand in front of a screen and “move” the words around with your hands. Without actually touching anything, of course.


It does make you re-think what is a word is. Is it a manipulable thing? Or is it an intrinsic meaning? I’ve always believed it was both. In which case, is the word a tool, that exists for the meaning to get out? Or is it a thing in its own right, that can be played with, handled, moved around? If the word changes shape, position or context, does the meaning change too?

And if a word is meaning, then how can it also have meaning? I believe that it depends on how the word is being used.

This train of thought reminds me of a passage in “Stop What You’re Doing and Read This”, by Tim Parks:

“Maybe we can start by reminding ourselves what a strange art form writing is.

For there is no artefact as such: unlike painting or sculpture, there is no image to contemplate, there is no object you can walk around and admire. No one is going to say you must not touch. No alarm will go off if you get too close.

You don’t have to travel to enjoy a piece of writing.

And there is no performance, either. Strictly speaking. Unlike concerts or plays, you don’t have to queue for tickets or worry whether you’re near the front.

You can’t take a photo.

Then a book has no fixed duration. Unlike music, you don’t have to respect its timing., accepting, along with others, an experience of the same length.

You can’t dance to it You can’t sing along.

Instead, there are signs on paper. Or on a screen.

… Only the sequence of signs matters… The experience is the sequence. “

“The experience is the sequence.” (my italics). Without sequence, without context, the words are just things, objects, that have an intrinsic meaning. With context, the words are meanings represented by a thing.

After reading this passage for the first time, I had to put the book down and stare into space for a while as it dawned on me that I had just caught a glimpse of the power and the potential of words.

Kinetic poetry takes that power and puts it in our hands. We control the sequence. And it is the sequence that gives words a contextual meaning. But in controlling the sequence, we manipulate the words, which become more “things” than meanings. A word becomes a plastic object to be played with. But it is also laden with meaning, which changes according to the context.

Think about why we have words. To communicate. So, a word is a thing that was “invented” to convey meaning. Now, it is taking a life of its own. Its “thingness” is becoming important. And yet, it is still impossible to completely divorce a word from its meaning (or its many meanings). But could we divorce a meaning from its word?

Deep thoughts for a Sunday morning. But worthwhile ones, that enhance the wonder of reading. Enjoy your Sunday! Read something beautiful!

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