A brief overview of color, color symbolism, and how it can be used in poetry and creative writing
A word of introduction
Colors are the dream-wake state of poetry and creative writing. They link the subconscious intentions of a poem, its heartbeat or breathing, as I like to call it, to the surface of the poem for the reader to experience. Perhaps this is why so many poets prefer to call their poetic writing process a trance-like state. That creative space is somewhere between your waking mind, with thoughts, analyses, and interrupting cognitive functions, and the almost spiritual flow of poetry through one’s heart and onto paper. The colors of a poem, whether they be precisely named or implied, will filter through you, just like the actual poem does, as if you, yourself, are a prism.
Light cannot pass through a prism without creating color. A poem cannot pass from your mind into the world without picking up on the colors of you, the colors you envision, and also, a lot of other “baggage” that colors carry with them. Each hue has its own story to tell and you, dear writer, must choose wisely which colors will function well, support, and uphold your poem or send the reader racing off in the wrong direction wielding a butterfly net.
Colors, or the lack of them, can make or break your poem.
If you aren’t intentional, you may find you are using color boldly, wildly, with abandon, and not knowing all the while what else you are incorporating into your work. The colors of your work may unleash a creativity in you and your reader, much like that dream-state releases a creative world one can only experience while sleeping.
Today, we’ll review the use of color in your poetry and creative writing, discuss the symbolism of color in writing, and three of the most common uses of color in creative writing.
Using color in your creative writing
Chances are, you are already incorporating color into your creative pieces and your poetry. And if you are, you are halfway there. Let me explain.
As poets and creative writers you paint pictures using words as your medium. But liken yourself to an actual painter. Imagine you paint a glorious scene, using all of the most masterful techniques, perfect blending, shading, lines, shapes, and dimension. Now imagine, you use all the wrong colors. Mixed them improperly. Muddy hues and greens where purples should be, silvery shine where a nice subdued glow should be. No doubt, your work would be a mess. Imagine, also, that you paint the same picture and only use one color.
Clearly, neither of these methods would work in art or in creative writing. Would your masterfully crafted work of art work as a finished piece?
No matter your gift as a writer, using the wrong colors in your work, using them improperly, or not using any at all, can dislodge the impact of your piece. Using color properly helps you to capture the essence of a poem; embellished in the right way using color helps build and develop the mood, scenery, and ambiance.
Furthermore, color can carry a deep symbolic meaning that adds layers to your work causing readers to return to it time and again.
What color are your poems & creative writing pieces?
Take a moment to think about your own work. Perhaps, read over a few of your own pieces, both creative writing and poetry. If you widen the lens and simply allow your own work to move through your mind, read them over and then close your eyes. What colors do you see? Is there a general hue to your own work?
Most writers develop a style of writing that carries the reader along into an aura of experience, and yes, colors. This baseline is where to begin the relationship between your work and the abundance of colors available to you as a creative writer. It’s time to go to the shelf and pick out brushes and colors you normally overlook when you merely write from your own perspective and experience. It’s time to allow the light to flow through your prism mind and enhance all of your work with intention, well-placed color that expands the readers’ experience with your work.
Color is for more than description
Most of your work likely uses color in a two-dimensional way, meaning, color is used to form the lines, shapes, and form of your pictures. It is the descriptive language used to tell the reader what something looks like.
Color is not simply a decorative element in a poem. Color creates an expanse; a field, a shared formal field, with which to plant more shared components of the material imagination, a poem. Color makes this space bigger, this imaginative space more specific and bigger, gives it weight, makes it solid.
— PROSE FROM POETRY MAGAZINE, What Is Color in Poetry, Or Is It the Wild Wind in the Space of the Word, BY DOROTHEA LASKY
As writers, we’ve been coached and nurtured into this descriptive behavior as a way of showing our readers what we want them to see rather than simply telling a flattened story and expecting them to create their own paintings with our work. To some degree, readers do this own their own, but when we burden them with building the entire picture for themselves, then what is the purpose of our art?
Color goes beyond the mere description of poetic view or the imaginative capabilities of the mind’s eye. Let’s talk about color from a literary point of view.
Color as symbolism in creative pieces
Ask anyone what the color red means. You will get varying answers based on cultural and religious background, personal experiences, media influences, and instinct. Without doubt, this color carries meaning. Literature often uses literary device to add depth and broaden the meaning of a passage, scene, or poem, and one such device is symbolism.
What is symbolism in literature, poetry, and creative writing?
Symbolism in literature extends to many forms such as objects, images, or shapes, and yes, to colors. Certain colors carry a symbolic weight to them that when used in a literary piece, intentionally evokes certain moods, thoughts, ideas, and concepts, merely by their presence.
Symbolism is a literary device that uses symbols, be they words, people, marks, locations, or abstract ideas to represent something beyond the literal meaning.
— Writing 101: What Is Symbolism? Symbolism Definition and Examples in Literature, Written by MasterClass
Examples of color symbolism in poetry (with analysis)
As early as the 12th century, French poets were using color symbolism but held their use to seven colors: white, red, yellow, blue, green, black and brown. (Source.)
The Gothic poets and writers such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne stuck largely to red and black color symbolism in their work, thereby shoring up their tales with darkness and mystery.
Fairy tales often used colorful imagery that carried symbolic meaning — like the red apple and other inclusions of red in the classic tale of Snow White.
The pastoral and modern nature poets employ a lot of greenery which both demonstrates scenery as it is, but also depicts a relaxing and calming effect on the reader. The 20th century poet and nature writer Robert Frost depicted white serenity in much of his work, symbolizing a memorable connection between nature and the peace of one’s soul, combining the purity of white with the encroaching death we all must face, giving his poetry a depth we still discuss to this day.
It is important to note that while the gothic and classic writers often intentionally used symbolism in their work, modern writers may write symbolism and interpretation into their work without meaning to do so; which is why learning about color symbolism is so important.
Imagine you wrote a beautiful poem with one meaning in mind and due to the symbolism of the colors you used, your poem could be interpreted in a way you did not intend, and a way you do not want your poem to be read.
For example, early in my college years and my experience with formal literary training, I wrote a poem-from-prompt exercise for a class I was taking using “color” as a kick-start for poetry. The result was a poem I am rather fond of. In The Moon and Daffodils, clearly the moon is unable to understand the concept of color and wants an explanation from the narrator. At surface level, this is a silly poem, listing out yellow things in a demonstrative way, but there is more, thanks to the symbolism of yellow in the poem. Read the poem once through and then we’ll discuss the layering through the symbolism of the color yellow.
The moon asked me, “What is yellow?”
Daffodils, I thought
too simple an answer
I remember yellow…
a ring with no promise
slinking down from glass box,
down the silver slide, spilling into
a sandy path between turtle and shrimp
such a vast expanse for tiny
who scrape and drag themselves home
a bucket without a handle,
too full to lift
a stuffed beagle with
saggy elephant ears
a braid falling to the floor
paint on the nose of the child
crying for something,
I remember yellow.
“Daffodils,” I answered,
and the moon crept away
to whisper to the stars.
— The Moon and Daffodils, Christina M Ward
According to the color symbolism chart, a language arts teaching tool, yellow is described as symbolic of: joy, happiness, optimism, idealism, imagination, hope, sunshine, summer, gold, philosophy, dishonesty, cowardice, betrayal, jealousy, covetousness, deceit, illness, and hazard.
As you can see, the meanings are variable and one might use the context of the poem to determine symbolic meaning.
Re-read the poem with the idea that yellow symbolizes: joy, happiness, idealism, imagination, and optimism. This is likely the most widely accepted interpretation of the poem.
A second symbolic interpretation: consider the darker meanings such as jealousy, deceit or dishonesty. What does this say about the relationship between the narrator than the moon? What are either of them really hiding from the other, and why? This interpretation brings a bit of mystery to the otherwise imaginative and fantastical experience of having a conversation with the moon in the lighter, more optimistic analysis.
Now, consider a third interpretation. Yellow in literature can also represent mental illness. This interpretation further deepens the narrative. What of this narrator, walking around having conversations with a celestial being in the sky — and hearing it talk back? Could this all be a delusion?
Let’s look at one more poem, using the same color, to get a deeper understanding of the multiple layers this one color brings to the work. This is a poem about the narrator gathering flowers for a dying loved one.
Marked in bold are areas where the color yellow are either mentioned or implied, and as you can see, those areas also have symbolic contributions to the overall meaning of the poem as well as the deeper layers dealing with life, death, and compassion.
I have gathered church steeples,
racemes of yellow Agrimonia,
as many as I can carry
It is not enough, I think
The butterflies and sun
follow me. We leave a
thankfulness, our meditation
I slide the ends under
cool waters, nip the ends
stems clogging the drain
You stir in your sleep,
a gasp, a wheeze
I am filled with hope, for you
for these — may their radiance
inspire your lungs to lift
searching the air for oxygen
as your eyes search for yellow
thankful, one more day
Agrimonia, Christina M Ward
The poem is not biographical, but does depict real people, one of whom is very ill, in a fictional scene that employs yellow intentionally as a literary device.
Clearly, the poem mentions hope directly, therefore one may interpret the lighter meanings of yellow here: hope, optimism, idealism. But what of other meanings? Is there some cowardice going on here? Perhaps the narrator was collecting flowers, rather than holding this dying woman’s hand? Or is there some jealousy, bitterness, or mental confusion going on for either the narrator or the dying woman, confined to her bed.
The reader is able to feel this one moment in multiple ways, building the relationship between the two subjects and defining it more fully by the inclusion of a color with a myriad of interpretations, visual and emotive influence, all which further deepen the poem’s meaning.
What do the colors symbolize?
Now, let’s delve into the symbolic meanings of specific colors with examples from literature and poetry, so you can incorporate this deeper level into your work.
Passion, aggression, intensity, love, anger, excitement, energy, desire, speed, strength, power, heat, danger, fire, blood, war, violence, (and in Japan: happiness and sincerity)
Example: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
Death, power, mystery, fear, depression, emptiness, mourning, evil, elegance and formality
Example: Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven
Nature, environment, refreshment, relaxation, calm, earthiness, healthy, good luck, renewal, youth, spring, peace, harmony, generosity, fertility, jealousy, service, inexperience, envy, misfortune, vigor, innocence, immaturity, guilt
Example: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by anonymous Gawain poet
Romance, love, friendship, caring, tenderness, acceptance, calm, femininity, mischievous, playful, be yourself, breast cancer awareness
Example: In the Pink by Siegfried Sassoon
Lust, fire, energy, balance, enthusiasm, warmth, vibrancy, expansive, flamboyant, demanding of attention
Example: Oranges by Gary Soto
Reverence, purity, birth, simplicity, humility, precision, innocence, cleanliness, virginity, peace, youth, winter, snow, good, sterility, marriage, coldness, frigidity, supernatural or ghastly (in Eastern cultures: death)
Example: Shakespeare’s Othello
Security, reliability, intelligence, staid, modesty, dignity, maturity, solid, conservative, practical, old age, sadness, boring (Silver symbolizes calm.)
Example: For this example, I’ll quote a favorite song:
Well, I’m gon’ paint my picture
Paint myself in blue and red and black and gray
All of the beautiful colors are very, very meaningful
Yeah, well, you know gray is my favorite color
I felt so symbolic yesterday
If I knew Picasso
I would buy myself a gray guitar and play
— Mr. Jones,
Song by Counting Crows,
lyricist Adam Duritz
(my favorite writing muse and bucket-list-to-meet celebrity)
Peace, unity, trust, truth, confidence, conservatism, security, tranquility, cold, calm, stability, harmony, cleanliness, order, water, technology, depression, loyalty, sky, appetite suppressant
Example: The Man with the Blue Guitar by WALLACE STEVENS
Royalty, nobility, ceremony, transformation, wisdom, enlightenment, mysterious, cruelty, honor, arrogance, spirituality, mourning, temperance
Example: One of my favorite books depicts one woman’s search for inner strength and yes, her own honor and nobility: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
Imagination, hope, sunshine, summer, gold, joy, happiness, optimism, idealism, philosophy, dishonesty, cowardice, betrayal, jealousy, covetousness, deceit, illness, hazard, energy, metal stimulation and intellectualism
Example: Yellow symbolism in F. Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby
Poverty, earth, burial, potential for growth, stability, reliability, dependability, approachability, history, coziness
Example: Here’s an entire book of poetry dedicated to the color brown.
Three common uses of color in poetry & creative writing
Symbolism isn’t the only way that color enhances your poetry. Aside from using symbolism, a literary device many may feel outdated or too complex for their own writing, color is commonly used in the following ways in modern poetry and creative writing.
Using color to set the scene
Color is, at its surface, a component of descriptive writing, giving the reader a visual experience of your work. The trees are green and brown, the sky is blue with some white, the sea is a pearlescent green. All of these things are visual images your reader can use during the reading to flesh out the scenery of what is happening in your poem.
Color allows you to creatively write out your imaginings in a way that your reader has a shared experience with you when they read your work. In this way, color helps you to communicate with your reader.
Using color to evoke an emotive response
Poems exude energy that can be compounded by the use of color. Human emotion and variance of energy, emotive vibration and experience within reading a poem, can all be greatly affected by the color with which one paints a poem.
For example, it might be quite difficult to convey a tone and feeling of anger if one is writing about the color blue. No matter how well crafted, the reader may shift into a more subtle energy, and a more saddened response.
For those poets and writers who often write from experience or shift into storytelling, you may want to consider shifting the actual colors in your work to better support the emotional response you seek from the reader.
Using color to build ambiance or mood
Color also sets the stage for your work by building an aura of perception that creates tone, intensity, and a sense of speed or time. These are all helpful devices to move the reader through your work with the appropriate sensory experiences and reactions.
You can pull the reader through an experience by way of a color-infused ambiance that supports the piece and functions as a glue for the shifts of narrative, providing a whole-poem experience rather than a hop-scotching through the narrative.
The use of color in your work adds greater depth to your writing. Deliberate use of color can enrich the readers’ experiences with your work.
Colors allow us to:
- develop visual images within our work
- communicate with our readers via shared experiences
- add layers of depth with color symbolism
- evoke a mood or emotive response from our reader
- bring an otherwise boring narrative to life
Thank you for reading and I hope this piece has been helpful to you.
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