The Mechanics of Semiotics in Francis Ponge's Poetry

Christian Bancroft

Francis Ponge's principal pursuit is language. In 1947, affirming his distrust of abstract ideas, Ponge wrote that "Ideas are not my forte. I don't manipulate them easily. Instead they manipulate me. Give me a sort of queasiness or nausea. I don't really like to be thrown among them" (qtd. in Ponge, Selected ix). Fundamentally, his poetics are grounded to the plurivalent intricacies of language that manifest the materiality of the world; in other words, he uses language and its devices (e.g. assonance, consonance, paronomasia, etc.) in order to apprehend more absolutely the object of which he writes. This type of linguistic performance brings into focus the semiosphere in which Ponge's language interacts, the semiotic sphere in which the processes of the sign (the poem) confer meaning through their relationship with both signifier (the literary devices Ponge executes in the poems) and signified (the object to which Ponge refers in the poem). By observing this semiosphere in Ponge's work, we can better comprehend the linguistic impetus that the poet maintains throughout his œuvre. Using a selection of poems, I will describe the relationships within the semiosphere of the sign, signifier, signified, and referent, as well as how each of these facets operate in his poetry.

Adopting semiotics as a way through Ponge's poetry, I have refused the conventional phenomenological treatment of his poetry, as critics have too commonly ascribed abstractions that are concerned more with ideas than with language—an approach that I believe detracts from the linguistic investment that Ponge makes in his poems. Nevertheless, before analyzing the relations between the sign, signifier, and signified in Ponge's poetry, I think it pertinent to define each of these concepts as well as a description of semiotics in detail. Semiotics "is not concerned with the study of a particular kind of object, but with ordinary objects insofar as they participate in semiosis" (Eco 15). When considering Ponge's œuvre, this explanation is ideal in that much of his poetry concerns itself with ordinary objects ("L'huître," "La cigarette," or "Le pain"). The definition of the sign has long been debated in philosophy, and many varying interpretations exist today in semiotic studies, ranging from an inclination towards the linguistic (Ferdinand de Saussure), to the philosophical (Charles Sanders Peirce), to the literary (Umberto Eco). In addition, semiotics may take a macro- or microcosmic disposition towards language, and may be divided between general and specific semiotics. For the sake of my argument and its relation to Ponge's poetry, I will assume the general semiotics system of signification—specifically, the system described by Umberto Eco, whose concepts of general semiotics I will use to introduce the differences between sign, signifier, and signified. According to Eco, general semiotics is "simply a philosophy of language which stresses the comparative and systematic approach to languages (and not only to verbal language) by exploiting the result of different, more local inquiries" (Eco 8). The fact that general semiotics applies to fields other than verbal language is salient when discussing Ponge, as his semiosphere functions within a textual realm.

For this argument, I have studied several theories of semiotics in order to construct my own system of semiosis that pertains to Ponge's approach to language. In my usage, the sign will be the poem itself; Eco states that "signs...reproduce something, in a stylized form, so that recognizing the object represented is less important than recognizing a 'content' other for which the represented object stands" (Eco 17). Eco's definition is ideal when referring to Ponge's poetry, because, as he claims, the sign is reproduced in a "stylized form"; not only that, but the fact that Eco says that the sign is more important than recognizing the object represented closely resembles Ponge's poetics. Ponge's consciousness is incorporated into the universe of language, and through language, he evokes the object; language is never secondary to the object. In this essay, the signifier will be the literary devices that Ponge utilizes to represent the object in the poem. According to Eco, "the sign can be known only through the signifier"; that is, the instruments that the signifier employs gives meaning to the sign: the poet's literary tools furnish the poem with semantic value (Eco 24). The signified is "a concept rather than a particular thing," the idea of the object embodied within the poem. It is not the object itself; instead, it is the conceptual understanding and representation of the object generated within the poem, and formed by the reader during the process of reading (Short 17). The referent, on the other hand, is the object itself. Whereas the reader has access to the signified (the conceptual object evoked by the poem), he does not have access to the referent; only the poet is permitted that access. A way of clarifying this difference may be to say that the reader is given conceptual access to the signified, but that access to the referent would of necessity be physical and therefore not within the scope of a poem to give; the signified may be accessed in thought but the referent would need to be seen or held. Together, sign, signifier, signified, and referent operate in a quaternary relationship, constituting a linguistic force that charges the universe of Ponge's poetry.


The semiosphere that is the sign, signifier, and signified functions as a system that both produces and is produced simultaneously, that refuses a singular plane of interpretation. Ponge's semiosphere creates an infinite number of readings; in this sense, these relationships create a field of meaning, in opposition to Saussure's theory that they create a linear string of meaning (Saussure 70). In Ponge's poem "Les mûres," the signifier refuses Saussure's notion of a linear string of meaning; note the last sentence: "Sans beaucoup d'autres qualités,—mûres, parfaitement elles sont mûres—comme aussi ce poème est fait" (Ponge, Selected 14). The use of "mûres" acts as a pun for blackberries and for ripe, drawing attention to the de-linearization of the text by operating with two different meanings in the same sentence. Ponge's second use of the word in the sentence charters the first in the mutual provocation of a link between the two words that compels the reader to engage conceptually with both uses at once. This pun on "mûres" enacts a dialogic process between the meaning "blackberries" and the meaning "ripe," permitting a mutual exchange between two heterogeneities ("blackberries" and "ripe") from the same homogeneous source ("mûres").

The sign's field of meaning created by the pun constructs a correlation between the signified and the signifier. Textually, in the poem, the signifier acts on an expression-plane; it incites various readings of the signified. In this sense, the signified acts on a content-plane that may be altered through the use of the signifier. Through the pun on "mûres," the signifier can change how the signified (blackberries as represented in the poem) can be viewed by the reader. The bifurcated signifier (the expression-plane, "mûres" as a linguistic, lexical artifact) reconstructs how the signified (the content-plane, "mûres" as noun "blackberries" and adjective "ripe") is perceived. In this sense, the various roles that signifier and signified assume do not simply rely on one another to provoke a specific meaning: their interchangeable relationship allows them to recalibrate multiple textual layers into the sign.

The expressive nature of the signified can also be utilized to obtain a more complex objective. For instance, in "L'huître," Ponge uses the circumflex in the word l'huître to graphically demonstrate the shelter that an oyster has with its shell. For example, note the use of the word-endings, "âtre," throughout the poem with: blanchâtre, opiniâtrement, verdâtre, noirâtre, as well as other words such as aussitôt, and of course, l'huître (Ponge, Selected 26). The orthographical substance of the language in this poem permits a linguistic metamorphosis of the referent (i.e. the object in and of itself of which Ponge writes), which in turn fuses the signifier and the signified together; in other words, the expressive nature of the signifier as a lexical construct (e.g. the use of the circumflex to denote the shell of an oyster) allows the content of the signified to be affected to such an extent that the oyster is re-presented in a linguistic form, designated by the circumflex. By trying to objectify the oyster orthographically, Ponge draws attention not only to the fusion of content and expression, but to the more immediate relationship that the reader has with Ponge through the poem. The reader becomes incorporated within the poem through the poet's linguistic devices, relating to the signified on a more immediate level; by objectifying the referent, Ponge makes the distance between reader and referent that much smaller.

Ponge is not only concerned with achieving immediacy through literary devices, but also with the subject matter of the poem; note the last stanza: "Parfois très rare une formule perle à leur gosier de nacre, d'où l'on trouve aussitôt à s'orner" (Ponge, Selected 26). As the quote intimates, the poet is concerned with the immediate and the personal; by making something both immediate and personal, the signified will manifest the referent on some level. Reality, understood as the actuality of the referent discreet from the process of signification, is a preoccupation for the poet, and the text must retain reality first in its own world, i.e. the process of signification (Ponge, Power 8). Ponge is not only cognizant of what he says, but how he says it. When he links the oyster, as referent, through several semiotic levels within the text (as sign—the poem itself and what it is "about"; as signifier—expressed through the use of the circumflex; and as signified—the actual object to which the signified refers), he sets up a triadic relationship within a semiosphere that operates through its interconnectedness. This relationship provides the linguistic foundation that lies at the textual epicenter of both communication and signification. Because Ponge is conscious of how he says things, the triadic relationship forms in such a way that the semiotic elements stop functioning separately and start functioning together, in unison; this allows him to both communicate what it is that he is writing about (in this case, it's an oyster) and signify that to which he refers, simultaneously—that is, immediately.

In creating an interconnected triadic relationship within the text, Ponge has designed a language that is aware of itself; another of his poems, "Le gymnaste," demonstrates this. Like "L'huître," "Le gymnaste" is a poem in which the referent is objectified in the sign by way of the signifier, but unlike "L'huître," "Le gymnaste" permits Ponge to alter how the signified is represented by way of the signifier. Ponge transforms how the referent is perceived (i.e. how the reader envisions the gymnast) by having the signifier objectify the referent. The referent intrudes on the signified: Ponge's discreet perception of the referent impinges on the reader's perception of the signified (since the latter does not have access to the referent). Unlike "L'huître," in which the referent's actuality as a discreet object is subordinate to its representation as the signified and immaterial to the accomplishment of the poem's semiotic process (i.e. it is unimportant which actual oyster is referenced, and the reader's a priori conception of "oyster" is sufficient), in "Le gymnaste" the reader does not know how the gymnast looks, and Ponge intrudes on the reading the poem by objectifying his features through the signifier, conflating as far as possible the dual statuses of the gymnast as referent and as signified (i.e. the reader's a priori conception of "gymnast" is not sufficient, and it is important which actual gymnast is referenced). For example, note the first sentence: "Comme son G l'indique le gymnaste porte le bouc et la moustache que rejoint presque une grosse mèche en accroche-cœur sur un front bas"; in this passage Ponge gives a definitive feature of the gymnast, as referent, through the signifier (Ponge, Selected 60). Of course, the sign is an account of the referent, but as Ponge objectifies the features of the referent by way of the signifier, the reading of the signified is skewed. As a result, in "Le gymnaste" the signified and the signifier are perpetuated by one another—they are established in a system of exchange. The signifier assumes the role of a commodity exchanged between the signified as well as the referent, because the signifier acts as an objectification of the referent. In this sense, the signifier maintains dynamic affect over how the referent, signified, and, ultimately, the sign are represented textually; by acting as a commodity exchanged between each semiotic element, it has the capability to alter how that element is represented—thus ultimately affecting the reader's reading of the sign.

This process demonstrates the way in which the poet's consciousness of the universe integrates itself in the universe of language; consider the following statement regarding the poet's wish to remake the world linguistically: "In every sense of the word, remake, due to the character simultaneously concrete and abstract, interior and exterior of the VERB! due to its semantic thickness" (qtd. in Ponge, Power 18). We can interchange Ponge's "character" for the signifier; in "Le gymnaste," the signifier operates as both a concrete and abstract entity, concrete in that it is literally a character on the page and abstract in that it symbolizes something beyond the page, for example the goatee of the gymnast. With this concept in mind, we discover that Ponge's sign production takes into consideration the execution of the signifier in order to draw attention to things or states of the world, and in the second stanza, Ponge writes that "Moulé dans un maillot qui fait deux plis sur l'aine il porte aussi, comme son Y, la queue à gauche" (Ponge, Selected 60). Once again, the signifier acts within an exchange system with the signified, impregnating the latter with its objectified representation of the referent. Ponge's presence as the creator of this semantic system becomes very intrusive, and he indicates the idea that although the reader doesn't have access to the referent, the poet can still impress the referent upon the signified through the agency of the signifier. This also results in the poet's refusal of a periphrastic permeation of the text since the "G" and "Y" are objectifications of the referent, a way of invoking the appearance of the gymnast without meticulous elaboration.

Another poem, "Les hirondelles," functions in a somewhat antithetical manner, in that it altogether refuses the signified; Ponge affirms that he will not leave the sign (the poem) to express itself, and alters the terminology by which we call the signified/referent so that it entirely changes the ways in which the reader perceives the signified. For example, note the sixth stanza: "Ah! je le sais par cœur, ce poème bizarre! mais ne lui laisserai pas, plus longtemps, le soin de s'exprimer" (Ponge, Selected 176). In "Le gymnaste," the poet impresses his perception of the referrent in an objective fashion by way of the signifier; in "Les hirondelles," Ponge influences the signified in a more direct manner. In addition, Ponge tries to re-modify the rhetorical devices of the signified, permitting the rhetoric of the sign (the text) to be transformed by its own discourse; consider the poem's subsequent stanzas:

Voici les mots, il faut que je les dise.
(Vite, avalant ses mots à mesure.)
L'Hirondelle: mot excellent; bien mieux qu'aronde, instinctivement répudié.
L'Hirondelle, l'Horizondelle: l'hirondelle, sur l'horizon, se retourne, en nage-dos libre.
L'Ahurie-donzelle: poursuivie—poursuivante, s'enfuit en chasse avec des cris aigus.
(Ponge, Selected 176)

The rhetorical devices of the signifier on which Ponge relies don't merely allow him to influence the reader's reading of the signified in a more direct fashion, but also to manifest the idea that rhetoric is codeterminant with the text, that the signifier is codeterminant with the text. The signifier codifies the sign (the rhetoric formalizes the text), and as a result, it assumes itself as a reference point—a discovery of discovery itself (Ponge, Power 23). Because the signifier takes itself as a reference point, it creates a sort of meta-semiotics (the poem as a metalanguage); the signifier refers to itself when words like "l'Horizondelle" or "L'Ahurie-donzelle" are employed by the poet not only because is the poet playing with language (i.e. the pun of both words), but also because the rhetorical devices of the signifier alter the meaning of the signified through the play-on-language. The signifier draws attention to its own reference through this play on the title.

This is further developed within the second stanza: "Plume acérée, trempée dans l'encre bleue-noire, tu t'ecris vite!" (Ponge, Selected 176). Ponge writes the signifier "plume" as writing itself; writing about the pen writing is an example of the rhetorical device of metalanguage, and the fact that the signifier is the component within the semiosphere that utilizes rhetorical devices (e.g. metalanguage) allows the signifier to indicate itself by way of its own semiotic features. This effect layers the sign in two different ways: 1) the signifier operates within the poem to create rhetorical devices that refer to the referent in order to create the signified; and 2) the signifier operates outside of this first layer because it has employed rhetorical devices that refer to itself. This engenders two further semiotic features of the poem: 1) the sign is layered because the signifier refers to itself and thus can alter the sign on two levels, expanding the content; and 2) two referents are established: the first is the object of which Ponge writes; the second is the signifier. Because the signifier refers to itself, the signifier on the second level (i.e. the level of metalanguage/metasemiotics) refers not to the initial referent but to itself as signifier, establishing two referents on two different textual levels. This multilayeredness introduces an interesting textual and semiotic dichotomy since, although they operate on discreet levels, each layer penetrates the other to exchange information and references. In "Les hirondelles," when the signifier "plume" refers to itself in the phrase "tu t'ecris," it is acting as signifier on the fundamental level in which the referent is the swallow (i.e. the initial semiosphere), while it is acting as its own referent in the second semiosphere. The signifier in the second semiosphere penetrates the initial semiosphere in order to exchange information between the initial semiosphere and the second semiosphere—information of the signifier qua signifier that is required to sustain this second semiosphere. In this manner, the second semiosphere is dependent upon the first: its existence is contingent upon how the signifier operates in the first semiosphere since, if the signifier did not refer to itself in the first semiosphere, then the second semiosphere could not exist.


The relationships between the sign, signifier, signified, and referent in Ponge's texts operate in multiple ways: at times they are interdependent, codependent, working as commodities, agents that exchange information, etc. The link of one to another is constantly being revised and re-fashioned in response to Ponge's treatment of the sign, which is itself dependent upon Ponge's perception of the referent and its mode of re-production as signifier. This explains the nature of the semiosphere's textual manifestation: the labyrinthine structure of the semiosphere is governed by codes that originate from the re-production of Ponge's perception of the referent. If the sign is to be interpreted as a text and produced as such, then it requires a system of codes or symbols that are textually manifested in the signifier; however, these codes are always meant to be decoded into the signified. In the poems discussed, we discover that Ponge codifies the sign with multifarious literary and rhetorical devices; one of the reasons for this is to make the sign decipherable, but these codes also operate on a much more personal level.

Essentially, Ponge codifies the sign in order to make it more accessible for the reader, hence more personal, but this personable quality exists on two levels: the audience level, on which the decoding of the sign permits the reader to better understand or conceive the referent; and the author level, on which the code functions as a way to make the poem more personable for Ponge. The literary and rhetorical devices that he employs through the signifier are ways for Ponge to reproduce his (personal) perception of the referent. For example, "Le gymnaste" is a poem in which Ponge uses specific letters to try and objectify the referent, and if he did not codify the sign in this manner, not only would the signified be altered, but the presentation of the referent would less precisely be Ponge's perception of it, ergo less personal. Ponge doesn't merely describe the referent, he transforms it linguistically, and, much in the way that he impresses himself upon the reader, he impresses himself upon the referent, transferring his perception of it textually and sylleptically onto the page.

This transference of Ponge's perception of the referent to a linguistic sign operates as a textual impregnation: the poet impregnates the text with linguistic codes and symbols that transform not only the sign but the signifier and the signified as well, permitting him to reify his abstract perceptions of the referent onto the page. When he objectifies the referent in language (as he does in "L'huître" and "Le gymnaste"), the transfer from object perceived to textual referent is liminal. The sign is meant to operate as a systematic indexical referentiality; it systematically refers to the referent and catalogues its qualities in sentences. The sentence, then, is the code that decodes—it acts as a code in that it codifies the referent linguistically, and it decodes itself as the reader reads the sentence. As a result, both the signifier and the sign can operate as decoding features of the poem. This quality of Ponge's semiosphere suggests that the sign refers to itself as well as to the referent, in the sense that it refers to the mechanisms that it enacts by way of the signifier; this is what I have described as the meta-semiotic nature of Ponge's poetry, as displayed in "Les hirondelles," when the poet both writes about and refers to the pen with which he is writing.

The codification and impregnation discussed thus far draw attention to three different problems concerning three mutually irreducible phenomena that Ponge's semiosphere fuses: 1) intended meaning; 2) inference from evidence; and 3) verbal representation (Eco 8). Intended meaning is troubled in Ponge's semiosphere because there are several levels through which meaning travels. Since the referent may itself mean many things, Ponge tries to encapsulate these meanings within the sign, i.e. the intended meaning, so initially the referent is inferred from the perceptual evident that Ponge draws upon (inference from evidence). However, his intended meaning must travel through the text (i.e. the verbal representation), and meaning at this stage is contingent upon how the referent is depicted textually by way of the signifier. On this semiotic level, meaning depends upon how the reader perceives the object through its verbal representation (resulting in the signified), and with this in mind, there are two levels of inference from evidence: Ponge's inference from the evidence manifested by the referent, and the reader's inference from the evidence of the verbal representation. The codification and impregnation of the semiosphere indicates the ways in which these three irreducible phenomena fuse in that the system of signification that the sign and the coding of the sign manifest is vital for the process of communication.

Bearing in mind the primacy of language in Ponge's œuvre, the transmission of the sign's code to the reader is his poetry's most imperative element. To achieve this, a channel is required, and in Ponge's semiosphere, there are many channels within which he operates (as described above). This is fundamental because the poet is concerned not simply with the representation of the referent (as this implies textual layers that divide reader from author) but with the presentation of the referent—he wants to transmit his message to the reader as immediately as possible in order to provide the most intuitive and rational demonstration of the referent to the reader through the sign, the poem.

Nonetheless, there is neither one channel nor one process of communication through which the text travels because the sign is mutable—the sign is both edified by the objects of the text (the signifiers) and invented by them. Ponge may be concerned with translating the referent into verbal discourse and communicating it to the reader, but he acknowledges that the sign does not have a singular definitive reading. Consider the poem "Les Mûres": the fact that "mûres" can denote either a noun translated as "blackberries" or an adjective translated as "ripe" suggests that through the shifting semantics of the signifier, the sign can be altered—and hence is mutable. In this manner, the text of signifier and signified interfere with the sign; there is a force of codes carried by the signifier that operate as a series of interferences modifying the sign and its meanings. For example, if we consider the ninth, tenth, and eleventh stanzas in the poem "Les hirondelles," excerpted above, we see that Ponge creates several puns on the word "hirondelle," that he interchanges this word in order to create these puns, and that each time he reconstructs "hirondelle," he reinvents the sign and its meaning. In addition, because of the alterations of the signifier, the reader's perception of the signified shifts as well: as the swallow changes to the swallowtail, to the swallow, swimmer, to the swallow-follower, the reader's conception of the initial referent: swallow, is continually changing, and with it the meaning of the sign. As the rhetorical devices used to describe the swallow metamorphose the words from one to another (when the signifier metamorphoses), the various ways in which Ponge describes the swallow converge, generating an explosion that not only modifies the sign but re-makes it. The process of communication designated by the myriad channels through which the sign travels to the reader, then, is constantly metamorphosing, which engenders new poetic thresholds, ergo new meanings, so that the sign is initially made and then re-made many times over.

All of these impregnations, codifications, interferences, intersections, mutabilities, metamorphoses, etc. propagate a semiotic and textual polyphony that doesn't merely open the text, but re-opens the text time and time again (e.g. in "Les hirondelles") into a vast field of interacting semiotic networks. By creating semiotic polyphony, Ponge refuses tautologies, and in this sense, the sign (the poem) is opaque: the textual plurivalences place the reader in an extensive system of textual indicators, the abundance of which (e.g. as in "Le Pré," with the words: pré, près, and prêt) both energizes the sign and opens its interpretability, allowing the text to act as a locus where meaning is produced and productive.


As manifested in the poems that were observed, semiotic devices in Ponge's poetry have not one function, but several. The signifier, the term used to designate the many rhetorical devices that Ponge executes, is continuously recalibrating how the sign (the poem itself) is read; the poet takes the referent and, using the signifier, makes a rhetorical package out of it to transmit to the reader—which often shortens the distance between poet and reader, generating a liminal space between the two. By linking different elements within the semiosphere, Ponge is able to utilize them in ascribing signification to the referent and to focus on the ways in which he can communicate it to the reader. The textual universe that the semiosphere assumes permits Ponge to integrate the actual objects to which he refers into this textual universe so that he can remake the world linguistically—giving a sort of actuality to the sign. The metasemiotic nature of poems such as "Les hirondelles" indicates that through the interrelationships within the semiosphere, each component (whether it is the sign, signifier, or signified) relies on the others, and that without one, the entire system would collapse. With the codification and impregnation of the semiosphere, Ponge demonstrates the complex process of communication in order not to represent but to present the referent to the reader. The multitudinous channels through which the sign can be communicated form the textual intersections at which different semiotic elements relate and interfere with one another, creating and re-creating meanings with their convergences, opening the text, and manifesting the polyphonic quality of the Pongean sign.

Ponge has said that "devenant notre régime [in the grammatical sense], un objet nous concerne, notre regard aussi l'a cerné, le discerne," and in this sense, the object affects us directly as we visually regard it by way of the text, because, as the reader, "C'est moins l'objet qu'il faut peindre qu'une idée de cet objet" (Ponge, Mute 47, 57). If a system of semiotics offers a way for the referent to be transferred to the reader textually, then the idea of the object—whether blackberries, an oyster, etc.—exists, its nature and beauty exists, in us; being cognizant of this, Ponge has as his goal ultimately to create a reciprocality between the object and—not the poet, not the artist, but the reader.

Works Cited

Eco, Umberto. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1986.
Ponge, Francis. The Mute Objects of Expression. Trans. Lee Fahnestock. New York: Archipelago Books, 2006.
Ponge, Francis. The Power of Language. Trans. Serge Gavronsky. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.
Ponge, Francis. Selected Poems. Trans. Margaret Guiton, John Montague, and C.K. Williams. Winston-Salem: Wake Forest U P, 1997.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.
Short, T.L. Peirce's Theory of Signs. New York, Cambridge U P, 2007.

Christian Bancroft is from Houston and currently lives in Austin, where he is a Michener fellow at the University of Texas. He is also the Marketing Editor for Bat City Review.