It is a frolicsome kind of day, from my end at least. The first real snow of winter (not counting the freak snowstorm around Halloween, which I don’t include) fell overnight/this morning, and I’m as giddy as a schoolboy about that. Even though, in the city, it turns all too quick to black slush, it’s still pretty and makes the cold a bit more bearable. So I’m incorporating the idea of the frolic into the title of this week’s exercise, because it rhymes and works and whatnot.
This week: “symbolic frolic”
Symbolism is kind of a no-brainer for doing poetry, and it’s usually one of the easiest things people grasp when starting to write. (Different strengths for different folks, though: some people get metaphor right away, some people get rhyme right away, etc.) The trap, though, is that the first thing you master in poetry can often be the one you become most complacent about; symbolism is especially tough for this because you want people to understand the allusions you’re making, and therefore one is prone to sticking with traditional, even trite connections. Some of them are even encoded into language, at this point: how many poems use the color blue to represent sadness?
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no problem with using the correspondences that people will understand easily and quickly, and I encourage their use. But I also encourage pushing the envelope a little bit, trying to invent your own connections. For me, I don’t get “blue”; if I had to describe the color of my sadness, it would be dark, dark green or some ugly shade of mustard. You can’t take this too far, or the reader will be completely lost in (to quote a comic Barbara shared not long ago, by Matt Groening) “a complex and private system of symbols that no one else can possibly understand.” The happy medium is what we want to aim for, where the significance of a thing, idea, or quality, related to some other thing, idea, or quality, is explicit enough that the reader gets it, but unique enough that it will be more memorable.
(The quick and dirty way to do this is just a metaphor, “X is Y”, but we don’t want to be that direct.)
So let’s do this in stages. First, make a list of ten notions you might want to touch on in your poem, significant or interesting things that you want to be the “theme” the reader teases out of your poem. Things like fear of death, unrequited love, a momentary loss of reason, impatience, or complete freedom. Ponder them for a while, before picking one (or two, if you’re really indecisive), and writing down some further aspects or traditional symbols that go with your notion. If I choose fear of death, I might say, what if there’s no afterlife?, fear of the loss of the body, and not enough time; I could get some mementos mori in there and list skull, disease, and graveyard.
Now the tricky part: find some more (try for ten) things and ideas that aren’t associated with your theme, at least not on the surface. (If you’re feeling particularly clever, you could pick things that have a secondary, tertiary, or further down meaning which matches your theme.) I could say noon, dandelions, orange trees, or a globe, none of which are very thanatophobic. At closer inspection though, flowering trees do seem to subtly suggest death: once they blossom and flourish with beauty, they quickly wither and shed their petals (a very Japanese interpretation of the cherry, for example). And high noon: when else does the sun glare down and seem as judgmental as the eye of God/gods/Anubis/whoever? Or dandelions that go to seed, ready to be puffed away into oblivion?
And the trickier part is to get your reader to reach these conclusions as well. You may need to be pretty straightforward about it:
The noonday sun, peering down with
terrible finality: I trembled, wondering which parts of me
would be burnt away at last.
And for an added challenge, now you can add metaphors in: take your symbol and change it into something else:
A hundred orange tree eyes were opening, closing,
calices weeping with perfume already spiked by
last night’s frost:
not even the beginnings of swelling
under those long petal lashes, and already
they were starting to go to rot.
And so forth. You may need to do a few attempts to find what seems like a good balance between the obvious and the cryptic (these opposite ends are easy to achieve, if you want), but you’ll end up with something complexly beautiful. A good test: ask someone what they associate with your chosen symbol; see if they name your theme anywhere in the list; then show them your poem, and if they come away from it saying, “I never thought orange blossoms could make me worry about my own mortality before”, you win. (That is just an example, of course. They won’t say that if your poem has greyhounds of diffidence or coffee grounds of growing panic.)
Make the symbol (or symbols, if you decide to develop more than one around your theme) stand out and be the central character of your poem; the subject is the symbol, and its purpose is the theme. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to know your subject; I highlighted “calices” in red above because my guess is that the average reader won’t know the word. They will either infer the meaning, look it up, or assume it’s a typo (“chalices?”) that works in this case; I’m fine with any of the above here. Don’t show off, but don’t be afraid to do some research for your own benefit and add a bit of color to make your symbols more lively.
This is something you can practice over and over, to different degrees, in multiple poems. In time, you might build up that private system of symbols, but don’t be afraid to let the readers in a bit. They will appreciate and enjoy it more in the long run; you might just need to put up a signpost or two along the way.