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SYMBOLISM & IMAGERY IN POETRY: An ANALYSIS of ‘COUNTABLE STARS’ by Ebuka Wiz Godwin

Poetry, broken down to its simplest meaning, is the arrangement of words to share an idea, experience, or message with others. It is however different from news, articles, prose – which also use words to pass meanings across, mainly by its form and language. Form as implied her refers to the verse structure that contrasts the stanza format of other writings. Language here does not refer to spoken language, say Yoruba, English or Spanish, but the choice of words – diction, the manipulation of words and condensation, and or simplification of meanings.

A poet’s use of language and choice of form determines his or her style, often recognizable over a body of works. It is the word selection he or she favors that determines the identity the poems carry and, to a large extent, the messages they are able to hold within.

In the process of welding words together – basically the stringing of ideas, experiences, assumptions and accumulated knowledge, like the beading of a necklace, the poet creates images in the mind of the reader. Where the poet has shared experiences with the audience the meanings embedded in his poems come to life.

These images are aided by the use of poetic devices, which, interestingly, could appear in a poem without the poet’s knowledge. Sometimes, the words have a way of falling in place in a poem to create meaning alien to the poet. But the conscious poet pens deliberately.

In the poem ‘COUNTABLE STARS’, Ebuka Wiz Godwin shows how a poet can master a single word, or group of words, and mutilate, then remold it (them), so masterfully that it takes on multiple meanings. Each meaning is uniquely independent of the others and yet unarguably connected to the others.

Ebuka planted a single word ‘star’ and let his readers to harvest multiple meaning. The poem is a classic example of the use of SYMBOLISM and IMAGERY (as well as several other literary devices. We will only concern ourselves with these three in this article.

Definition of these key terms is necessary so that we can proceed on the same page:

  • Imagery means to use figurative language to represent objects, actions, and ideas in such a way that it appeals to our physical senses. They create visual representation – mental pictures, of the ideas being communicated in our minds. It could be achieved with a single word of group of words. It should be noted that imagery is often built on other literary devices, especially simile or metaphor, because the poet, in trying to appeal to the senses, uses comparisons.

For example, a poet may write, ‘her voice filtered in/through the whistling of the swaying trees/soothing his ears’ or something like, ‘stars formed on her eyeballs/turning it into a Christmas sky’. These create images as you read them.

  • Symbolism in literature is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense. Simply put, symbolism is using an object (idea) representing another to give it an entirely different meaning. The new meaning it often of greater importance than the original (‘ordinary’) meaning.

For example, a ring is just a band worn around the finger, but a poem could say ‘their rusted ring is cold and lonely’ implying that their marriage represented by the word ‘ring’ has gone sour over the years. Consider also: ‘the green white green/now stained black-red and tattered/no longer flutters with pride’. Here ‘green-and-white’ is the Nigerian flag and by extension, Nigeria. It is imagery, but also littered with symbols.

Consider the poem ‘COUNTABLE STARS’

I tried counting the stars, several nights I stayed up
One, two, three, four
I lost count, didn’t know which I had counted or not
May be they disappear, may be they split, may be they run
It’s as futile as having fire flies light a cord

But there are countable stars;

Like the one strapped on the green bottle Papa returns home with, in a stagger
He repeatedly sips from it and belches a stench of the lager brand – star
Like the star he promises Mama shortly before he slaps her
Her vision goes black-out like a night without a star

There was a star on the black uniform of Mama’s brother
His men whisked Papa away in police van, they didn’t wear any star
I bet Papa saw many stars in their hands
Still Papa didn’t learn to tame his assaulting hands

Like the star that led the wise men to baby Jesus
Our Sunday school mistress illustrated it with an open scissors
She is the woman that stole Mama’s star
She snatched it from the hollow of Papa’s heart

There are countable stars in Mama’s eyes
Tiny sparkles on the tears that wets her eyes
There was a star that moon-less night Mama escaped with us
Through-out the sky it was the only source
It led us out of Papa’s wrath

This poem is one big canvas with very clearly painted images that any reader can readily see, identify with, and appreciate. Every stanza created images as seen by the eyes of a young child living with an abusive father and a long-suffering mother.

In stanza 1 we see a child counting stars in the sky, maybe through the window, maybe through the leaking roof, or outside; ‘I tried counting the stars, several nights I stayed up’ the poet says before sharing the futile experience of counting stars – something most of us have failed at. Stanza 2 opens us to the abuse the poet witnesses, his father’s irresponsibility, his mother’s suffering and the picture we see is a family in chaos, ruled by a drunken brute who  ‘returns home with, in a stagger’ to threaten and abuse his mother – and ‘her vision goes black-out like a night without a star’. Stanza 3 described and attempts by policemen, led by his uncle, to tame his father who ‘saw many stars in’ policemen’s hands, but obviously not enough stars ‘to tame his assaulting hands’. We see clearly in stanza 4 that a hypocritical Sunday school teacher ‘stole Mama’s star’ from the ‘hollow of Papa’s heart’, adding adultery to the list of sins been perpetuated by the drunken brute. It all comes to a head in Stanza 5 where the poet tells us that there are ‘countable stars in Mama’s eyes’ on the ‘moon-less night’ she escaped the abusive marriage. We can see her sneaking with her children that dark night.

Ebuka masterfully recreated a common story in verses, such than we are able to see a lonely, abandoned child turning to the sky for friendship, an adulterous drunkard perpetually abusing his wife, a hypocritical church woman and a strong woman who suffered before taking the decision to find safety. It is clear enough – if not too clear.

More impressive however is the poet’s symbolic use of the word ‘star’ throughout the stars in the poem. In stanza 1 the stars represent the one seen in the sky at night. But in stanza 2, the star is first the one on the popular beer brand bottle ‘Star’ and also the imaginary star seen when a person is hit on the head. In Stanza 3, the star symbolized policemen and in 4 we see the star alluding to the Star of David. By the time we get to stanza 4, ‘star’ meant the ‘love/admiration/respect/worth’ of the mother which was stolen/substituted by the mistress. In stanza 5 there is a mix of meanings for the word – it as stars as seen by teary eyes, star in the sky and allusion to the Star of David which led the wise men to Jesus, only that it led them ‘out of Papa’s wrath’.

This is a deliberately worded poem. It is excellent.

Author: Kukogho Iruesiri Samson

KIS, author of two poetry collections, ‘WHAT CAN WORDS DO?’ and ‘I SAID THESE WORDS’, is an award-winning Nigerian writer, photographer, and media professional with experience in journalism, PR, publishing and media management. In 2016, he was listed in Nigerian Writers Awards’ list of 100 MOST INFLUENTIAL NIGERIAN WRITERS UNDER 40. The same year 2016, he won the Nigerian Writer’s Award for ‘Best Poet In Nigeria 2015.’ he had also won the Orange Crush 1st Prize for Poetry in 2012.
He is the CEO of Words Rhymes & Rhythm LTD.

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