Many poets are prone to dabbling in symbolism—perhaps because we tend to be right-brained, intuitive. Often, when I’m revising my writing (whether prose or poetry) I discover symbols that I didn’t consciously evoke. There have been periods in my life when dreams have offered me insight, if I take a few moments to try to understand them.
You already know that a symbol is something that stands in for something else—often a material object that represents something immaterial. Here’s an excerpt from my second novel (now in revision). The scene takes place immediately after the death of the protagonist’s mother’s death. Just before dying she confides a secret to him: that he was conceived in an act of rape.
Across the lawn, large crows helped themselves to bread crumbs. Matt knew that it had been Edward Riley, a resident of the facility, who’d scattered them. One of the birds interrupted breakfast to stare at Matt—Matt would have sworn it was so—and his skin tingled at the thought of stories his mother used to tell him of dead people coming back as black birds. Beside the predator, strewn feathers told of a smaller bird that had lost its struggle to keep on living. Matt’s grief came pouring out. That it was because of a fragile creature stunned him at first before he recognized the similitude. Like the wren, his mother fought her whole life for food and survival. She’d known a dark monster, too. Not one that would destroy her suddenly, mercifully, but one that must have haunted every moment of her adult life. One that tore her down from the inside-out and in the end defeated her.
Symbols can emerge from the writing process itself, or they can be conceived before pen is put to paper (or fingers to keyboard). In either case the theme often emerges of its own accord, often surprising the writer in the process. Perhaps you’ve had someone comment on a powerful message you’ve communicated through symbolism that hadn’t been apparent to you upfront. To me, this speaks to the power of the creative process, or muse or whatever you choose to call It.
Symbolic poetry can be overt, in which the poet explains the meaning of the symbols he has chosen. The above excerpt from my novel demonstrates that. Or it may be such that all interpretation is left to the reader who may either read it literally or figuratively.
Here is an example of a short poem by William Butler Yeats that includes layers of symbolism based on the season of autumn:
The Falling of the Leaves
Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,
And over the mice in the barley sheaves;
Yellow the leaves of the rowan above us,
And yellow the wet wild-strawberry leaves.
The hour of the waning of love has beset us,
And weary and worn are our sad souls now;
Let us patt, ere the season of passion forget us,
With a kiss and a tear on thy drooping brow.
by William Butler Yeats
For this week’s Meeting the Bar prompt, let’s go symbolic. Here are some ideas to help you get going, but don’t limit yourself to my suggestions:
• Consult a dream dictionary to find a symbol and take it from there. You can find one online if you don’t have one.
• Start with the seasons of the year and use them to express a season in life.
• Choose a photo or painting that has symbolic potential and use it to jump-start the process.
• Find an object that can stand in for something else and write about it.
• Write a symbolic poem that requires the reader to figure out its deeper meaning. See if reader comments capture your intent.
• Write your poem and post it on your blog or website.
• Copy the direct link to the URL and paste it, along with your name, in the Mr. Linky at the bottom of this post.
• Stop by the pub to read and comment on the work of other poets who are participating, especially those who cared enough to comment on yours.
• Have fun and spread the word to other poet friends.
For dVerse Poet’s Pub, this is Victoria Slotto, happy to be tending the bar this week. I hope to visit everyone, but if my comments are brief, it’s a tendonitis thing! Thanks for understanding.
Photo of Yeats: Public Domain