Symbolism in Poetry: It Is What It Is…Or Is It?

By  | March 10, 2015 | 0 Comments | Filed under: Poetry

Sometimes a tree is just a tree. And sometimes “that red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water…”1 is much more than that.

Symbolism in poetry can and often does one of two things for the reader. Not only can it provide information about the views of the writer, and the meaning of the poem but it can also add more depth to the language. At the same time, however, overuse of symbolism or the use of more obscure references in the poem can leave the reader scratching his/her head and thinking, “I don’t get it.”

“The Red Wheelbarrow”, the poem by William Carlos Williams that I have quoted above, is rife with imagery and symbolism. Williams took great pains, it seems, to put into words the same abstract imagery that contemporary visual artists of his time so liberally used. It is a poem that, on the surface, reads fairly simplistically; a red wheelbarrow, in the rain, presumably in a barnyard, “beside the white chickens.” Read between the lines, behind the lines, and in those spaces in between and you’ll find more layers of interpretation. Peel away at those layers of the poem like an onion and with any luck and understanding you will soon get to the essence of the piece. Hopefully, though, it won’t bring you to tears.

Take Don McLean’s 1971 classic song “American Pie,” for instance. The song is generally considered to be his commentary on how rock and roll music changed after the tragic death of Buddy Holly in 1959. McLean himself has been coy over the years as to the meaning of the lyrics, leaving to many critics, scholars, music fans and bloggers to interpret the symbolism and meaning behind the lyrics. Who is Miss American Pie? Who is the jester? And why was the halftime air filled with “sweet perfume”?

In preparing for this article, a quick internet search, using the phrase “American Pie analysis” and turned up 147,000 results. . Impressive results, considering I also searched “Taylor Swift’s wardrobe” and turned up over 10,000,000 hits. So you can see that a veritable cottage industry has emerged just to understand what McLean was singing about.

Why use symbolism? As a writer, I try to avoid it. As a journalism student, back in the day when dinosaurs and typewriter roamed the earth, I learned to write the facts. Give the readers what they need to know and cut out the superfluous verbiage. As I began to explore the more creative aspects of writing this “streamlined’ approach to writing stayed with me.

But that’s just me. Symbolism helps elicit feelings in the reader that the writer may not have considered. Individual interpretation becomes a unique experience for each reader.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic, so to speak. When you next write your story or poem, think about what you want to say, think about how you want to say it, and think about how you want your reader(s) to interpret your piece.

Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.

Edgar Allan Poe

1 The Red Wheelbarrow, by William Carlos Williams



The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.

by William Carlos Williams


Bill Ashwell has been a member of the Cambridge Writers Collective and a volunteer tutor with the Literacy Group of Waterloo Region since 1995. He was a contributor for FM 98.5 CKWR’s Monday Night with the Arts radio program and has served as Literary Coordinator for the Cambridge Arts Festival. His work has been published in the Writers Undercover Anthologies, The Cambridge Wartime Scrapbook, and in Ascent Aspiration Magazine’s Aguaterra Anthology of poetry and fiction. In 2007 Bill was awarded the City of Cambridge’s Bernice Adams Memorial Award for Literary Arts.

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