Related to figurative language (metaphor and imagery) but imbued with differing distinctive features; the most important characteristic of the symbol is that it is a concrete image or reality that means much more than itself and stands in the place of some idea, belief or abstraction that is usually recognisable. Its central significance and power in poetry lies in this hidden meaning. The cross, for examples, that stands for Christianity; the dove for peace, the red rose for love; scales for justice; a bird for freedom. The poet writes about one thing but points to or suggests another.
Symbolism in poetry magnifies, intensifies and surprises but unlike tis relatives, imagery and metaphor, it has more to do with intellectualising an image than with heightening emotion.
No symbols can claim exclusively. They can and do have different meanings. For example different cultural groups may use the same symbols but they may stand for different things. In some societies the colour red symbolises war and violence. In China, however, red represents good luck and marriage. That road out of town stood for freedom. She’d watch local cars, like flies on a sticky strip of tar trying to escape.
EXERCISE ONE: Think of your wardrobe past and present – choose an item of clothing that is redolent with symbolism: and old leather jacket, a bridesmaid’s outfit, a work shirt, a pair of boots. Write a short poem with the item as the title.
EXERCISE TWO: Write a poem about how a tool, instrument or workplace item is a symbol of a person or of the trade. (Guitar/rock star/phallic/sex …Needle/precise/mending/hiding)
EXERCISE THREE: Use a landmark as a symbol. For example a mountain, river, lighthouse, dry paddock, cliff face, lake, the sea, waterfall, etc. Invent a person and write a poem about how this place is a symbol to them – or how it symbolised them.
What was in an old aunt’s handbag, your father’s briefcase, top drawer, old trunk, wooden box, etc.? Describe the contents in a thoughtful, poetic way. Think about what emotion you could bring into the poem.
Handbag by Ruth Fainlight
My mother's old leather handbag,
crowded with letters she carried
all through the war. The smell
of my mother's handbag: mints
and liptsick and Coty powder.
The look of those letters, softened
and worn at the edges, opened,
read, and refolded so often.
Letters from my father. Odour
of leather and powder, which ever
since then has meant womanliness,
and love, and anguish, and war.