This is true of symbols in poetry (and in other kinds of writing). There are natural symbols and contrived symbols. Natural symbols are those we take on universally, such as the heart for love, the apple or rose for beauty, the dove or olive branch for peace. A danger in poetry writing is to make these natural symbols clichés. In using them as direct symbols, we risk this: I hand him the olive branch is one of these. What if the line were written instead showing a single olive on a plate, lying on its leaf next to a handwritten note? What if the line never was a direct reference to the olive branch at all? Can the reader get there, make the leap to a peace offering? The astute reader, one well-versed in symbolism, will do so with ease, or at least after reading IN CONTEXT. However, there is risk in writing and in reading when symbols are over-thought, over-used, or just plain exploited for meaning. Sometimes an olive is only that, a green fruit on a plate. It may be mere window dressing to the poem, lending texture to a line, setting a scene richly. Or it may be a symbol of loneliness or a symbol of peace-offering.
Finding symbols where there are none can lead to great distortion of reality in the poem. A symbol that needs explaining is a sick symbol, an apology for itself. We don't want to fill our poems with those. What makes symbols so wonderful is the surprise of connections. Making one thing stand for another can accentuate or actuate meaning. Poets who work in symbols are careful of the images they employ, prefer oblique connections of images to any abstraction. It is also true that being too overt, lacking in symbol, can flatten out a poem or make it "too much what it is," that is totally without subtlety or layers. A wise poetry professor told me that for every abstraction in a written piece, there need to be at least two concrete images. In other words, don't write the word love, write about the things that show love is present. He scoffed at a "Christmas poem" I'd written, saying it risked sappiness by being so overt and "Christmassy." He suggested I write the same poem, using an image that would lead the reader TO Christmas, rather than being so obvious. I needed a symbol, something subtle in the poem that would do this. I chose to use the word amaryllis to describe the color of the skater's cheeks. It is common knowledge when the amaryllis blooms. I had my symbol, my image, my half a potsherd. My readers could make the connection for themselves and place the poem at Christmastime.
Images are real, are the "things of the world." As poets and readers of poetry, we take a risk in that images can be taken at face value and not be seen as symbols when they might indeed be symbols. Sometimes they are just what they are: strong images on their own, not symbolic of something deeper. The poet ought to make the difference clear in her/his own mind before sending the poem out into the world. Images that are indeed symbols carry on their backs far more than their physical references. If a poem is seemingly a description of an object or objects, and yet transcends its physical self, we call it a Dinggedichte, a thing-poem. The details of such poems may be vivid, realistic, grounded, but HINT at something more, stand for something more. Consider the following: A poem describes a room devoid of people, but rich with details of images such as an empty chair, a table with a glass or cup turned down, a broken pencil, a lone feather, a curtain blowing at an open window, peeling wallpaper. Is this mere description of place and quietude or a dinggedichte of loss? A bitten yellow pear (lipstick visible on the skin around the bite) on a highly polished table, next to a wedding ring... still life or dinggedichte? It's intriguing to peel back the layers of poems to see what might be lurking there.
The extension of symbolism is metaphor, a forest of symbols (Beaudelaire) that serve together to make a larger portrait, or perhaps in some cases oblique meaning. And where does symbolism give way to allegory? We all know that allegory is a narrative in which characters and events stand for ideas and/or actions on another level. One thing happening may be standing for another deeper truth or event. Animal Farm is a good example of an allegory, where out of control, yet controlling, behavior of animals stands for the same kind of societal behavior of humans, in this case totalitarian society. Poets are not excluded from narrative or allegory. Indeed, narrative poetry is making a comeback in a big way. I for one am happy about this. People are interested in connecting themselves with the stories and experiences of others. We all love a well-told story. Poets tell these too, perhaps more succinctly, in fewer words.
I leave you today with a poem, written a few years ago when I was thinking about how our words either support others, or are perhaps insensitive to others. Have a look. Get back to me.
See if you can determine the symbolic from the overt in the following poem (HINT: there may be both working here). Is this an allegory?