Seeing Symbolically

I have not historically liked poetry. I could never inhabit poems to feel the experience of them. This has shifted somewhat in recent years. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve now been exposed to poems whose words and style actually speak to me or because I have changed in ways that allow me to feel the poems. Probably both, I think.

A second century CE Sappho papyrus showing the...

A second century CE Sappho papyrus showing the end of the first book of her collected poems (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several of my teachers in graduate school periodically read poems to our class, and after a lifetime of not “getting” poems, I was surprised to find myself touched by their poignancy. The poems they read captured emotions and experiences so exquisitely with so few words, always leaving a stillness in the air after the last word had been said.

I have not suddenly become a poetry connoisseur – I know poems I like when I encounter them, but I don’t regularly seek out poetry. In fact, the staple of my poetry diet at this point is one poet: Mary Oliver. I was given some of her books as a gift a few years ago, and I found them incredibly soothing at a time when I was going through lots of changes in my life. As I described in my post on the power of naming, there is something about her precise and eloquent naming of experiences, most of which are in nature, that always settles me down inside.

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A great beauty of poetry is that it helps us see symbolically. A symbol, as Carl Jung defined in Man and His Symbols, “implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained.” In that spirit, poems help us see the hidden vitality and layers of meaning within things. They show us how all things are more than they seem. They amplify symbolism that is always present but often unnoticed.

Rather than trying to explain this with more words, I want to share with you a short poem I wrote for a class during my undergraduate degree study, many years ago. I was not enthusiastic about the assignment and procrastinated until the day it was due, so I was amazed that, when I finally sat down to write, this poem just flowed out. It felt like a small moment of creative grace, a brief moment of being allowed to receive and channel something greater. I was not making an intentional effort to see symbolically – the image that the poem describes just spontaneously rose up in my mind, and it still touches me today just like it did in that first moment.

Seeing through surface appearances to the underlying richness is central to learning to listen to soul. As this poem shows, it’s possible all the time, everywhere… and you don’t have to like poetry to do it.

Roses

Looking at his shuffling feet
Shoelaces trailing, forgotten in the dirt.
Red canvas with three white stripes on the side,
Dusty from G.I. Joe’s foxhole.
Tongue crooked, an almost white sock peeking out,
Small hole staring through the bars of laces.
Toe prodding a small snail’s shell
Into piles of monkeybar dirt.
Handing me a worm, still contorting
Through the grimy hand covered by warm earth.

 

© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2012.

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