Quak-Quak Goes the Frog

Sunday, March 16th, 2014 by angelarovak



Written language, even when incomprehensible on the basis of semiotic understanding, still represents the possible noises achievable through the human instrument. The vocal cords and distortion of the face can produce a remarkable array of sounds, but this mode of expression remains limited. Much of the analysis of Futurist and Dadaist poetry seems predicated on the sounds a human can make, and I was most interested in Niebisch’s analysis of onomatopoeias per Marinetti in Media Parasites in the Early Avant-Garde. Niebisch argues that the “reason for the extensive use of onomatopoetic expressions is that they are not conventionally determined. They refer directly to material pre-verbal sounds” (53). While this appears sound in theory, I pause at the assumption that onomatopoeias are not culturally determined, invested in a common linguistic system even if they are “not established as lexical items” (53) as Niebisch argues Marinett’s use of onomatopoeias is not. The symbolic representation of written noise still connotes particular representations within a language system. This becomes glaringly obvious when considering the onomatopoeias from across languages and cultures, all which presumably represent the same thing but only come into interpretive meaning when applied in the proper language system.

The phonetic reading of “quak-quak” and “quack-quack,” to the English speaker, is undeniable the same. But the first, in Greek, would conjure images of a frog, while the second, in English, draws to mind a duck.

With this consideration I find the argument that, for Marinetti and other such poets, the onomatopoeias “constitute linguistic expressions of non-lexically coded sensations and compress these sensations in just one term” (53) to be unconvincing. In order to understand the intention of Zang Tumb Tumb the reader must have an understanding that “tumbtumb” represents the auditory experience of bombings. Any semantic communication is lost otherwise.

This interrogation of the more authentic experiential representation of written sounds and syllables applies to much of the Futurist and Dadaist poetry and even the sound poetry assigned for this week. While there is a strong argument that this artistic expression is meant to aestheticize pure noise disconnected from semantic linguistic reasoning, there still remains an imbedded ideological reliance on language systems. In this manner, I agree with Niebisch’s critique of the “optophonetic” quality of Dada visual poster poetry, a concept applicable to most visual poetry. While the size, typeface, and other visual features represent a particular acoustic impression, that “the aesthetic quality of the letters corresponds to a certain mode of acoustic utterance” (76), it is a limited system. Non-phonetic written representation cannot be read in such a way. Just as the kazoo-like sounds, ringing bells, and other non-human vocalized features of the sound poems would be linguistically impossible to represent in written form. The visual and acoustic manipulation of the poem’s parts seems to get us as close to the intention of pure communication, but still falls short as long as the poet and reader remain embedded in a conventional linguistic system.


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