The Linguistic Playground of Poetics: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry and Systemic Functional Linguistics

By | 3 February 2024

Jared Field’s poem ‘Mother’s Tongue’, published in Issue 44 of Runway Journal, incorporates the extra modes and functionalities offered by the digital sphere. 1 The poem is constructed with white text on a black background, and is set out as numbered stanzas. The poem’s first two stanzas read as follows:


This will be hard to express in the language of my coloniser. I will fail. 

1. I will try.2

As the reader scrolls through the poem, the stanza numbers keep ascending but the poem has only twelve stanzas. After the first twelve, the stanzas repeat on a continuous loop as the reader keeps scrolling for infinity. The use of white text reinforces the line ‘the language of my coloniser’ and the black background represents Indigenous land. These multimodal features directly mirror and physically enact the poem’s themes of time, place, rhythm and the differing patterns and understandings of these between the coloniser’s and Field’s cultures. Constructing a poem with such movement is not possible on a static page. Our digital tools create opportunities for poets to explore more modalities and for readers to interact more actively with poetry.

As I boarded the bus back into Canberra’s CBD at the end of the conference’s first day, the rain hadn’t let up. It was falling heavier than that morning, and I reluctantly zipped up my raincoat for the walk back to my hotel. I checked Google maps and memorised my route before tucking my phone into my jeans pocket, safe from the raindrops. It wasn’t far to walk and a fairly straightforward path: I shouldn’t have missed the street I needed. But I did, and as I tried to correct it myself, without Google’s help, spotting landmarks I remembered from that morning and telling myself I just needed to turn back here, I somehow ended up walking in a rectangle, crossing the different crosswalks at the same intersection. As I sought cover from the rain to consult Google, my mind wandered to Professor Isayev’s keynote and that morning’s writing exercise, tracing my path. I laughed at the thought of tracing my walk from the bus stop back to the hotel: a few straight lines, followed by a rectangle retraced over and over.

When I finally got back to my hotel room, I opened my notebook. Is this a poem? I imagined a reader looking at my deliberate squiggle and trying to make meaning of it. I put my hand over the title I’d added to the page. Without the title, my walk was just a squiggle. A deliberate squiggle, sure, but a squiggle. With the addition of the title, suddenly, it gave the squiggle meaning. It added context; much like adding the word ‘stop’ to a red, hexagonal sign added context. Or the way Whittaker left negative space in ‘COTTON ON’ to convey the vastness of the ocean and allow readers to physically embody her poem. Or the way On’s use of the word ‘murmuration’ added context to the contours in her poem. Or the way Field’s use of white text and black background added meaning to the textual language. My title ensured my semiotic poem could be read.

The linguistic playground of poetics, and the poets who choose to play, teaches us so much about language and how language can be shaped and bent and broken to make meaning. Poets are linguists, yet Halliday’s assertion that ‘Literature is language for its own sake; the only use of language perhaps, where the aim is to use language’, is not entirely accurate. In the case of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and the poetry analysed here, using Halliday’s very own linguistic frames, we see that the inverse is true: the more poets play with language, in all its multimodal forms, and the more we fully engage with their linguistic play, the more we learn and experience of our world. Literature is not merely the use of language where the aim is to use language; it is doing so for the purpose of startling us to see ourselves and our environments from perspectives not our own.

And so, I’ll conclude this essay by sharing the poem I wrote, ‘An Evening Walk From Parap to Mindil Beach’, on that cold and rainy Canberran morning, visualising a hot and humid walk so familiar to me; so foreign to so many; so inadequately captured by my poetic rendition, but captured all the same; for those who choose to walk with me.

  1. Jared Field. ‘Mother’s Tongue.’ Runway Journal.44. n.d.
  2. Ibid.
This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.