Add Symbolism to Your Poetry

by Ellen Gwin

   Using symbolism in poetry remains vital because poetry contains a sort of nuance compared to other forms of writing; there is much to express in words left unsaid.

In this way poetry is like a painting, the viewer (or reader) can project their own experiences of life, thought, and emotion onto the work. The poet’s job is not to shamelessly project their own experiences onto another but to try and find a way to connect their experience to something larger than themselves.

In short, show instead of telling when writing poetry.

Dr. Murray of City University New York defines a symbol as, “ a person, object, place, event, or action that suggests more than its literal meaning.” For example, both spring and water symbolize rebirth, doves symbolize peace, and Martin Luther King symbolizes hope.

It’s easy to feel intimidated by symbolism because symbols seem all too tangible or concrete compared to the abstract ideas of your poem but I’m going to try and make them seem a little less scary.

Let’s add some symbolism!

Step 1: Write down your poem without symbolism in mind

Write down your thoughts all at once without censoring yourself; you may naturally write down some symbols in the first write-up or you may not. 

If you concentrate on symbols too much here then you’ll distract yourself from the main focus of your poem.

A lot of people get intimidated here because this feels like cheating or they feel their words are so flat originally nothing good could come out of it but I promise this technique is what most writers do and it’s worth the result.

Step 2: What symbolism pre-exists within the ideas of your poem?

These symbols will already be threaded into your words— whether by theme or image. Think to yourself: “What is my poem trying to say or convey?”

For example I wrote: 

Red lips and crimson hearts tempt the sleeves of the vulnerable to rip them bare.

When I realized I was trying to use red to symbolize that lust corrupts innocence, I wrote:

Nothing is Permanent by Elle Vue

Spilled Merlot on my white, lace Easter dress.

Red lips stained on grandmothers antique  tea set.

Green tomatoes turned ripened too quickly to fry.

Drops of blood landed on my copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Rose petals fell off their bushes too early in the spring.

More examples:

If your poem discusses death perhaps use the symbol of night or sleep.

If your poem discusses peace use the symbol of doves and olive branches.

If your poem discusses sadness perhaps use the symbol of rain.

If your poem discusses life perhaps use the sun or trees as a symbol.

Step 3: What symbolism can you create within your own ideas of the poem?

Sometimes when writing you start to use similar images and themes subconsciously. Your brain is probably working to saying something unique and it’s best to just let the images flow and worry about how they connect once you reach this step.

Once here, re-read the poem and look at the images and themes you chose to write on. These recurring images and themes give you the framework to throw in a symbol of your own.

Ponder: Symbolism for emotions

Above pomegranate I used to represent the idea of someone who can see from many perspectives but one can also use symbolism to show an emotion.

For example:

A deer hiding from the hunter to symbolize someone who feels scared and unreachable.

The praying-mantis to symbolize all-consuming love.

The moon to represent loneliness.

For Example: A poem I wrote directly about fear and anxiety transformed into a poem full of symbolism:

Original poem:

It’s these feelings of content I find most difficult to bear but most satisfying yet. I’m afraid that I cannot trust these feelings, that I cannot go into the world and remain unshaken, brave. I don’t want to live in fear of the horror to come, but in harmony of the good fortune that is now.

Finished poem:

It’s these feelings of content I find most difficult to bear but most satisfying yet. A stranger I have not yet gotten to know with mischief lurking behind their tilted smile. A crocodile sticking its snout out of the pond, aware of the temporary cover the dim sunlight and low hanging, morning fog bring from the huntsman. These feelings are fleeting and terror is inevitable, but these moments of solace are what’s present and real. 

Ponder: Symbolism for concepts

Symbolism is great for conveying emotions in addition to well-known concepts, universal truths, ideas in religion, etc.

For example:

Water: Standing in the rain, swimming in the ocean, showering symbolize rebirth

Roses and other flowers symbolize beauty

Clocks and baths symbolize mortality

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