How To Use Symbols



Many young writers, who after they’ve read poets such as T.S. Eliot, often think that they need to “put some symbolism” in their work. They think that if they add a dash of imagery and a few tablespoons of symbolism, the path to literary immortality will suddenly appear. For my young male poets, the ambition is even more grand: seventy-two virgins will sweep them up into literary nirvana.

As tempting as the vision may be, I’ve often had to tell them the sad truth: symbols can’t be “added” to a poem. Discovering symbols in one’s work is a process. Writing is a recursive activity and symbolism in a literary work is the result of the intellectual and emotional state of the writer before and during composition.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve begin to write a poem and as you are following the words across the page, you find this gem nestled between the thorns of two commas. At this point, you have at least two options.

You can stop writing and do some more research if you think you don’t know enough about the symbol, or you can finish the poem and go with the intensity of the emotion that was the spark for the poem.

Either way works.

I usually choose the second option because I never know what will survive with revision, and I’d prefer to have a workable draft of a poem than pages and pages of Wikipedia downloads with nowhere to go.

Now assuming the gem has survived the first cut and you feel that the poem has not fully explored most of the connotative possibilities of the symbol, ask yourself these questions:

What is the origin of the symbol?

Should I learn more?

How has the meaning of the symbol changed over time?

Which other writers have used this symbol? How have they used this symbol?

What are the religious, intellectual, and cultural connotations?

Is the symbol relevant to the poem? Why?

Does the symbol grow organically from the poem?

Why does the symbol appeal to me?

How is the symbol re-imagined in my poem?

The last question is important because that’s where the creativity of the poet will be demonstrated in the re-imagining of the symbol.

I’m thinking of symbol, of course, in the Jungian sense as standing “for something that is unknown and that cannot be made clear or precise.” Or in the spirit of Ferdinand de Saussure, the signifier may remain constant, but the signified may change depending on the context.

It is this arbitrariness of the signified that creates the opportunity for artists to reinterpret myth and symbols as T.S. Eliot and James Joyce did throughout their careers. In fact, T.S Eliot’s essay, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” confirmed Joyce’s “mythic method”--a method Eliot had used in diagnosing the spiritual ills of Europe in The Wasteland.

The use of myth as a contemplative method suddenly became clear. But I did not want to  re-heat Western mythology. The myths would have to speak to something that was happening right in front of me, so I began searching. My quest ended with The Arrivants by Kamau Brathwaite. After I read that collection, I knew what I had to do.

Brathwaite's seminal trilogy made me realize the many displacements of Yoruba mythology in the Caribbean. This became one the major themes in my work: the rediscovery of African heritage in the Caribbean, which as Brathwaite has asserted is essential to the psychic wholeness of Caribbean peoples.

For if we continue to denigrate this heritage; if we do not honor this inheritance, then the cycle of self-hatred, the wound of the Middle Passage will continue to fester. We will never be healed  and all the symptoms of this dis-ease with ourselves will continue to manifest as the various social ills, especially the high murder rates in Jamaica, we see all around us.

Looking around Jamaica and the Caribbean, I saw Xango at a stoplight geting angry with the car in front of him; Erzulie on a Friday night getting in a taxi to go to a nightclub; Papa Legba sitting on the street corner cracking jokes and telling the children riddles.

These archetypal symbols became the means by which I could interpret Caribbean life, even as many of my compatriots continued to act out the characteristics of these loas without knowing it. Indeed, it may be said that some of us are being “ridden” or possessed by Eleggua and we don’t even know it.

And sometimes we want to be ridden by the loa and begin with a meditation on the symbol—the process that Brathwaite used extensively in his collection, Words Need Love Too.

This was the approach I used in the composition of the poem, “oshun,” when I learned about the death of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper Texas on June 7, 1998. His death was so horrific and I was filled with a hate that needed to be exorcised. That is when I remembered Michelle Cliff’s poem to Oshun and I knew only the love of Oshun could save me from my own hate:


oshun
(to michelle cliff)


this morning i could have sworn i saw oshun
rise out of the water – “she who makes her people one.”

i needed to see her this morning after james byrd junior,
my brother, was dragged to death by a truck in jasper,

texas; for i need to believe this morning – i don’t want
to be a tongueless bell – i don’t want to be burnt

up like a useless limb by my own simmering hate.
oshun, guardian of our dreams and our spirit,

lover of our dark hands, dark bodies, dark skin--
healer of wounds made by our enemies and our weapons

aimed at ourselves--my sister, protect us in this dread
hour until anger passes – wash your coolness over my head.


“oshun” needed very few revisions. I already knew about her through Michelle Cliff’s work and my own research, so that when the poem came, I was ready.

But this perhaps leads me to the penultimate question about archetypal symbols: Do we choose them or do they choose us?

Words from flickr created by kastner (Erik Kastner)

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