Reflections of Human Handwriting

Michael Madsen’s “Letters Demand Things” is a work of digital poetry that includes two related visual poems. The poems are examples of concrete poetry and also incorporate audio and animation. The first poem, “Vowel Submission,” reacts to the user’s mouse and the second poem, “Typespeak,” requires the user to type on the keyboard, creating a unique experience with each interaction. While both pieces of the work are fairly short in length, the overall purpose of the poem and the argument Madsen creates is intriguing. He explains that he is attempting to show the relationships among letters—specifically consonants and vowels—as well as the relationships between written and spoken letters. The work was created in 2004 and I had difficulty finding other examples of Madsen’s work. Nevertheless, the poems were interesting in visual pleasure and accomplished targeting a complicated theme with a simplistic interface.

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While interacting with “Vowel Submission,” the user moves the mouse across the window as consonants remain stagnant and vowels rotate around themselves on the page. At strategic moments, vowels will break with a shattering sound and the loose bits of themselves. Through this shattering, the vowels become consonants. In his introduction, Madsen explains his fascination with the way letters are written and how he noticed one day that vowels can often be transformed in other letters. As the user navigates around the page, the vowels will break apart as their consonant counterpart is swept by the mouse—for example, E will break to become F.

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A similar relationship is demonstrated in the second work, “Typespeak.” In this work, Madsen allows the user to take control of the work by requiring the use of the keyboard. As the user types on the keyboard, letters appear on the screen as Madsen’s voice makes that letter’s sound. Some of the letters are pronounced briefly, while others are drawn out for various effects. Much like in “Vowel Submission,” Madsen is making a commentary on the relationships of letters. The visual of the lowercase letter determines how it will appear on the screen. Completed letters (o, a, d) will remain continuously on screen, open letters will vanish because of their uncompleted nature, letters with crosses will stretch horizontally and others stretch vertically. Not only do the letters have unique appearances, but Madsen further explains that “each time a letter is chosen and voiced, it leaves behind a shadow trace of what has been, obscuring more and more the current selections, until the visual can no longer be trusted to communicate if the desired choice has been realized, augmenting the importance of the sound.” This statement helps make clear Madsen’s overall argument of the relationships among letters that he attempts to argue in his work.

Madsen’s overall purpose in “Letters Demand Things” is to demonstrate the arbitrary significance and meaning placed on letters. His poems are meant to act as a visual and auditory experience that show how complicated letters are and how meaning is not always concrete. He sums it up in his introduction by stating that “having obtained identities long ago, [letters] now demand to be typed, spoken, traced, heard, and related to in specific ways. And yet, for all their demands, they only exist as reflections of human handwriting.” The relationship between the letter b and the sound it makes is a construction that is accepted in our English language, but it differs elsewhere and could be changed. I thought of Friedrich Nietzsche’s arguments while I was reading Madsen’s work. While I did enjoy interacting with Madsen’s poetry, I would argue that Madsen is only hitting the cusp of this very deep and lengthy argument and that his poems are a great place to start a dialogue on this topic.

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