Reverie Three: symbolic frolic

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.

19 thoughts on “Reverie Three: symbolic frolic

  1. viv blake says:

    Your reveries are extraordinarily challenging – just what I need, thank you. I’ll have a go, but not promising – I am truly rubbish at symbolism (or is thinking myself rubbish itself a symbol?)

    thanatophobic Great word, I’d not come across that one before.

    • margo roby says:

      ViV, like metaphor, I am also rubbish with symbols. I’m thinking that this might be painful but a great stretch. Whatever I get, I already told Pamela I would post, even if it’s just my list. But, Joseph lays out the steps in such a way, I have a glimmer of hope.


  2. Hi,
    I wrote something, I’m not sure if you’d like us to tell you what we were trying to achieve..probably not right away, here I go in hope that I’m at least moving in the right direction:

    Old champagne flutes from
    Before our time together
    Giggle nastily,

    Bubble with poison,
    I can break them to pieces,
    But I can’t stop them.

  3. Joseph, I have a question, please: are you planning to discuss, critique, etc. the responses to your reveries? Or the idea is just to get us thinking, without the followup? I’m curious..

  4. Joseph, this is an interesting exercise. I will have to give this a bit of time to digest.


  5. James says:

    Joseph, I’m really impressed with the quality, the richness, of these prompts and the work you’re putting in to them. I wish I had a bit more time to try them (perhaps this one) but I am filing these pages away for future reference.

  6. margo roby says:

    Like I said, a born teacher. Consider a book one day, not of poems, but of the type of thing you give us in your reveries. You are giving us extraordinarily helpful and, as James says, rich stuff.


  7. […] An early posting to respond to Joseph Harker’s ‘Reverie’ exercise/prompt #3: Symbolic Frolic, over on naming […]

  8. b_y says:

    I’ve concluded that mine is not symbolism. It’s obfuscation. eh, what the hey?

  9. julespaige says:

    Mon Jan 23, 2012 Reverie #3

    One warm weather orchard has an orange pearl
    How far would a mermaid have to climb
    Her weight dragging slowly
    Like a writer whose ink produces naught
    To delight in such a natural fruit?

    When ever will the Siren share her loot?
    The moon phases, tides her calendar sought
    By men pretending to be dragons holy
    Ever searching in tomes sublime
    For instructions to make smoke unfurl

    In the cottage by the sea the cat dreams of the might jungle by the fire
    Dust lines the sea glass collected on the mantel shelf
    Having no true anchor, in silence the dead skin flutters
    From the slightest of breezes created by fish tails
    Brought home for dinner in the lined basket on the table, there

    How can he claim the waters less than fair
    When he has enough to eat – justice fails
    When the feather pen sits idle; he mutters
    Listening to her sing from the distance, he hums loudly to himself
    Drowning out her chilling music – quenching his desire


    I was going to post my lists… but did I remember something about letting folks guess at something. I even managed though a bit oddly to rhyme.

  10. Well, I am not so sure this is symbolism, (not cryptic enough???), but it is a poem. Thanks for the prompts, Joseph.


    Comb and Wattle

  11. […] baseline landscape. This week we have been playing with symbols with one of Joseph’s ‘Reveries‘. Consider symbol as a way […]

  12. […] Harker’s Reveries takes us into the land of symbols where he encourages us to frolic. There is, in Joseph.’s […]

  13. Viv: I’m not sure that it’s a real word, but it works, aye? And “rubbish” could indeed be a symbol itself: but let’s go six or seven meanings down with it. :)
    Sasha: trying to get to them, I’m just really awful at it! I made the mistake of starting a daily short poem challenge and weekly prompts in addition to the usual stuff right as work kicked into the highest gear it has since I started the job. Ugh. In any case, if people leave links to their work here, I will stop by and comment if they wish it.
    Pamela: as much/many time(s) as needed!
    James: thanks very much! My goal is to have ones that do take time to think through… I dislike some of the prompts out there seem to encourage a post-as-fast-as-you-can mentality.
    Margo: I hadn’t considered such a volume. But now that you mention it…
    Barbara, and Viv, and Margo: I have left comments on your blogs now!
    Pamela: I am about to do so on yours!
    Jules: this is lovely, and I noticed the cool rhyme thing, paired with the title, going on. Love the idea of instructions to smoke unfurling as well.

  14. julespaige says:

    Joseph – Thanks for your comments. I’ve been reading a book about Mermaid Wisdom and well Scales… there is that duality of symbols, The fishy half, and the statue of blind Justice. I treated my list of words like the Sunday Whirl Wordies and then, well that’s when the challenge and creativity come out to play. I know what it’s like for work to be consuming, unexpected or expected. Some folks like to share their process… So I thought I’d share my list…

    Well that was fun. The hardest part was creating the ten ‘notions’ that didn’t fit the theme, which just happens to fit nicely as the title. My first list of ten: mermaid, tomes, dust, anchor, fish, weight, justice, music, climbing, and dragon…yes dust is a scale of dead skin and tomes pages remind me of scales – that one could be a stretch but all the others I think fit quite well. My second list; orange, jungle, fire, smoke, feather pen, ink, calendar, silence, basket and cat.

  15. Annette says:

    I found this prompt through Margo and enjoyed playing with non-traditional symbols for the theme of confidence. …hope it came through!

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