28 April 2005

what a symbol can do

Gregory Orr from his book Poetry As Survival:

Story aspires to act through to resolution, and its details, gestures, and actions are revealing and also symbolic. But often the action of story arrives at a dead end and cannot deliver on its promise to resolve conflicts. It is then that symbol appears spontaneously to incarnate those contradictions or conflicts in a single object. A symbol allows an object to mean more than itself, to take on additional meanings, as a magnet might bristle with paperclips. The symbol’s unitary nature as an object acts as an embodiment of contraries and a reconciliation of thematic conflicts. Let me give an example from a poem by the African American poet Robert Hayden:

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

The poem’s two characters, father and son, exist in a state of tension. Each character’s actions develop a separate thematic thread: the father’s ceaseless labor, the son’s fearful and guilty avoidence of his father. These separate stories are brought together and embodied in the “good shoes,” which become the single point of contact between the two characters who move about the dark house avoiding each other. What sort of discordant or conflicting meanings are concentrated in these shoes? They are the “good shoes,” as opposed to the everyday shoes. They are intended to be worn to church. The father has polished them and left them, like an offering at a church altar, for the son to wear. In order to go to church, the son must put on the shoes and thus acknowledge the father and the father’s labor on his behalf—the shoes contain both the father’s thankless and dutiful labor and the son’s guilty anguish. The son, who cannot (he fears “the chronic angers of that house”) or will not confront the father, is forced to confront him indirectly in the shoes. Hayden’s poem starts as lyric story, narrows its focus to the intense tension of the symbol, and then breaks into an agonized and incantatory lament (“What did I know, what did I know?”) as a way of resolving the unresolvable misery of the poem.

This is an excellent book for anyone, not just poets. I wish I had read this back when I was desperately and fruitlessly trying to figure out how to find endings for short stories.


  1. magnet might bristle with paperclips. <-I LOVE this, but did not find the example of "good shoes" quite up to the expectation...(but you know me, ALL expectations.) Does sound like a really good book however.

  2. I woke up thinking what a good title this is for this book. I can relate.