The Heliosparrow Semagrams

Semagrams — what are they?

Semagrams are a novel form of short poetry. The term usually refers to an ideographic or more broadly, lexical symbol having no spoken referent: certain hieroglyphics and road‑signs fit into this category. With techniques sourced from haiku and haibun, combined with “semaisographic” concepts, semagrams are a poetry idea that involves the layering or weaving of multiple strands of time, creating temporal constellations (this idea is inspired by the novella Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang, source of the 2016 film Arrival). A key aspect of a semagram is metacognition, a current of knowing overarching time and space, cohering in the reader’s mind in unwritten ways. If there is a goal beyond aesthetic savor, it is to shift or transform subliminal forms of reality-fixation (habitual, linear, or overly-literalized) into freer forms, allowing for an expansive breadth of space and time, a freer‑range possibility.

Within semagrams, techniques of disjunction and juxtaposition, similar to haiku, are extended into prose. As we are creatures in time who write in logograms—words representing speech, presented in a linear form (serial order, serial time), a complete realization of semagrams is impossible; so we invite the perfection of the miss! The semagram idea may be akin to deep meditation or contemplation, where being is experienced as both a nowness and everywheness.

A visual symbol that isn’t overtly expressed in words—it’s a conundrum for semagrams presented in written form. Nonetheless, a metatextual meaning arising in the poem occurs in a similar way to how images in a haiku create meaning, as in excellent haiku, the poem coheres in the reader’s mind. That is, the reader completes the poem, rather than the author presentin an overt or meaning or “solution” to the poem. This non‑dual experience between poet and reader, termed here metacognition, is the heart of semagrams.

How do you write semagrams?

Before examples are presented, here are a few excerpts from Ted Chiang’s story that offer a general picture:

“’It’s a semasiographic writing system” … I went to the chalkboard and drew a circle with a diagonal line bisecting it. “What does this mean?’”

“Not allowed?”

“Right.” Next I printed the words not allowed on the chalkboard. “And so does this. But only one is a representation of speech.” … “This symbol”— I indicated the circle and diagonal line— “is ‘semasiographic’ writing, because it conveys meaning without reference to speech. There’s no correspondence between its components and any particular sounds.”… In fact the graphs didn’t correspond to our notion of spoken words at all. I didn’t want to use the term “ideogram” either because of how it had been used in the past; I suggested the term “semagram” instead.

It appeared that a semagram corresponded roughly to a written word in human languages: it was meaningful on its own, and in combination with other semagrams could form endless statements. We couldn’t define it precisely, but then no one had ever satisfactorily defined “word” for human languages either.

Example semagrams

Four mice eat at a plate of cheese under the moon in the park where your neighbor fed them when we sit at the bench to be on time. The moon too encircled us, inscribed by our love which blended into shadows of our shadows where other hungry mice will silently await their turn.

supermarket tilsit by the canal

         completing a Nottingham


There are six separate freight lines running through town joining in the freight yard down the small hill where the diesel engine of the yard goat ran all night at idle, only occasionally revving up for switching cars. Unseen yet the thrum of deepest bass vibrates bones, looking up from the sound the endless journey of light from the most distant star from travel to knowledge, having arrived to move with brightness the organs of sight.

         fundamental harmonic instantly alters

hits on

        one one one one the one

Across the street and across the tracks catty-corner from the yard, public in an ordinary blue-collar way the diner is a beacon of sanctuary, silvered steel untarnished almost stainless, with tabletop mini‑jukeboxes of 50s chrome bending reflections into inviting pools, three songs for a quarter. The relief of thirty-five cent coffee when poor, the nutrient-rich liver and onions with gravy and mashed potatoes for three dollars, flipping through metallic song‑leaves like bookends, a luxury as though traveling in a first-class dining car back to that star.

o    small change         ( —

n        everywhen            then  as    if

l             i were safe/sane         as    


Commentary on the examples

The examples here are not meant as rubrics. In the first example, “mice,” some temporal deformation (temporal oxymoron) is presented with the use of mixed tense forms: “eat at,” “fed them,” “when we sit,” “to be on time,” “encircled us,” “will silently await.” In examples two and three, “freight yard” and “diner, shifts in time are weaker. For freight yard: “there are six,” “the yard goat ran,” “vibrates bones,” “looking up,” “light from … instantly alters … having arrived.” In “diner,” the last example, spatial overlays are presented to create pan-temporality, through a compression of eras: the diner itself (1920s-on), the 50s chrome, the present moment of “across the street,” and as well, linkage to the prior two examples, via “back to that star.” The metacognitive element, as central strand though the three examples, is autobiography.

Semagrams need not be occasioned by realism. The time-center of an event can be spread or deformed by considering precursors occurring simultaneously with effects; an equality of image or action across all events in time. This may occasion a “new realism,” where finite material-physical reality and immanent‑immaterial realities are mixing freely or loosely, spontaneously; a gathering and expansion through incorporating a wider skein of being than grammar and style usually allow.

Further exposition

Temporality is spread or blended, so that the result, or ending, may appear almost simultaneously with a cause/beginning—and the three times of past, present and future can merge, or abruptly shift. The poem-story becomes like a nexus that rays out, a cross-temporal star, and expositions generally deform grammar to accomplish this.

A haiku (or short poem) can be optionally included with the prose, as in the examples above. Temporal shift, stretch, or ambiguity may range from strong to weak.

Semagrams are flexible in exposition, they may be prose only, or similar to haibun (prose with haiku), or a variety of short-form poetry. The poem may be as short as a paragraph; paragraphs can be presented serially (as above), and linked. Authors are also free to lineate semagrams as they see fit.

Story of Your Life, additional excerpts

My thoughts were becoming graphically coded. There were trance-like moments during the day when my thoughts weren’t expressed with my internal voice; instead, I saw semagrams with my mind’s eye, sprouting like frost on a windowpane.

As I grew more fluent, semagraphic designs would appear fully formed, articulating even complex ideas all at once. My thought processes weren’t moving any faster as a result, though. Instead of racing forward, my mind hung balanced on the symmetry underlying the semagrams. The semagrams seemed to be something more than language; they were almost like mandalas. I found myself in a meditative state, contemplating the way in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable. There was no direction inherent in the way propositions were connected, no “train of thought” moving along a particular route; all the components in an act of reasoning were equally powerful, all having identical precedence.

The physical universe was a language with a perfectly ambiguous grammar. Every physical event was an utterance that could be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological, both valid, neither one disqualifiable no matter how much context was available.

They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. A minimizing, maximizing purpose…. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.

In his story, Chiang has designed a structural form that emulates a conception of ‘inter‑penetrative time.’ A simple way to create interpenetration is via temporal oxymoron, grammatically; playing with tense‑forms within sentences, paragraphs and phrases can be a lot of fun.

With continued interest, we will present a new contest in 2023

Note: Text by Heliosparrow editor Richard Gilbert, with help from the Heliosparrow team; we are an all‑volunteer crew.


Semagrams — There is not a great deal of definitional background. “Semagrams” is a term used in historical lexicography. The existing etymology is sparse: From semantic and -gram. Noun: semagram (plural semagrams). “A semantic symbol (picture or glyph) associated with a concept. Synonym of determinative (‘sign used to mark semantic categories in logographic script’).”

As a note, the majority of ideograms in Chinese, Japanese, etc.: “Semantic-phonetic compounds or pictophonetic compounds are by far the most numerous characters.”

For ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs — These seem rather different than Chiang’s conception: “Determinatives or semagrams (semantic symbols specifying meaning) are placed at the end of a word. These mute characters serve to clarify what the word is about, as homophonic glyphs are common. If a similar procedure existed in English, words with the same spelling would be followed by an indicator that would not be read, but which would fine-tune the meaning: “retort [chemistry]” and “retort [rhetoric]” would thus be distinguished.”Under “determinative” “A determinative, also known as a taxogram or semagram, is an ideogram used to mark semantic categories of words in logographic scripts which helps to disambiguate interpretation. They have no direct counterpart in spoken language, though they may derive historically from glyphs for real words, and functionally they resemble classifiers in East Asian and sign languages.[1][2] For example, Egyptian hieroglyphic determinatives include symbols for divinities, people, parts of the body, animals, plants, and books/abstract ideas, which helped in reading, but none of which were pronounced.”

Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang Won the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella, as well as the 1999 Theodore Sturgeon Award. It was nominated for the 1999 Hugo Award for Best Novella. The novella has been translated into Italian, Japanese, French and German. A film adaptation of the story by Eric Heisserer titled Arrival and directed by Denis Villeneuve, was released in 2016” (Wiki). The story now appears in over a dozen anthologies, the most recent being The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection, Ann VanderMeer, Jeff VanderMeer (2016). Cf. Arrival (film, 2016):

About Ted Chiang Cf., “Chiang has commented on ‘metacognition, or thinking about one’s own thinking’ being something most humans, but neither animals nor current AI, are capable of, and that capitalism erodes the capacity for this insight, especially for tech company executives” (2017).

On New Realism — See particularly the work of Markus Gabriel,; he is interviewed on Entitled Opinions (April 1, 2022) “Thought and Perception with Markus Gabriel,”