Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Poetry Moves I Love: Allusion

I've already confessed to loving poems I don't fully understand. So now it's time for me to admit that I also love poems that make me feel smart. Don't get me wrong, I'm no genius and I was pretty useless as an English/Literature student. But I really like reading a poem that is a bit on the complicated side that I actually "get." I like the feeling provided by noticing things in poems that others might not.

Take for example the poem "Acquainted with the Night" by Robert Frost. I took part in a close reading of the poem during a study of poetic forms (it's written in terza rima). I chimed in with a less than eloquent but moderately insightful comment that I thought the poem was about death. My colleagues nodded in agreement and I think I even heard an "I hadn't thought of that." Inwardly, I beamed. I'm smart. They like me, they really like me! Definitely a good feeling.

Getting back to my original point, I also like the feeling provided by reading a poem that contains an allusion that I understand. Trust me, there are millions of allusions that go completely over my head, especially Biblical ones. But when there's one that I read and I know what the poet is talking about, it's a nice warm feeling. Me smart. Me know poetry.

Such a simple thing really, allusion. But it can completely change the reading of a poem. It's like opening a door you didn't know was there. Maybe it was hiding behind that giant armoire that's too big for the room. But when you push that baby out of the way, turn the knob, and open that door, the poem can change right before your eyes.

So even if it's a silly poem like "We Old Dudes" by Joan Murray, a riff on Gwendolyn Brooks's iconic "We Real Cool," or a reference to G.I. Joe's infamous Cobra Commander in a more adult poem like "[Sonnet] You jerk you didn't call me up" by Bernadette Mayer, understanding an allusion makes a good poem better and a great poem all the more pleasurable.

Of course, there are much more serious allusions out there--Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is chock-full of them (most of which are over my head); David Gascoyne's "Orpheus in the Underworld" is a nice read but I think it becomes downright moving if you know the story of Orpheus. Even a tiny allusion, such as Bruce Smith's reference to Miles Davis in "Obbligato" can provide a richer context and add to the enjoyment of a reading.

So while there's millions of references that will fly by me unnoticed and not understood, the few that I do catch make me happy. And you can't beat that.

I'll leave you with two poems that just might make me happiest of all, two poems that reference the same poet, William Carlos Williams. "An Apology," by F.J. Bergmann is wonderful and hilarious. It is not the most subtle poem, but my poetry ego gets a boost when I notice the not-so-obvious "This Is Just To Say" allusion in the fact that the SUV is "plum-colored."

And then there's this gem by Naomi Shihab Nye called "Honeybee:"

Dipping into the flower zone
Honey stomach plump with nectar

Soaking up directions
Finding our ways in the dark

Fat little pollen baskets
Plumping our legs

You had no idea, did you?
You kept talking about 

That wheelbarrow 
And chicken

Visit this page to read the rest (it's the third page in their little viewer thingy) and keep an eye out for allusions--you wouldn't want to miss an opportunity to feel smarter, would you?


  1. I totally agree with you about allusions. I especially love it when a children's poet or author is considerate and makes the allusions kid-sized (fairy tales, folk tales, etc) and those light bulbs go off over a fourth grader's head!

    How about Sharon Creech front-loading the allusions by putting all the famous poems in the back of LOVE THAT DOG?!?!

  2. How about Sharon Creech's Love That Dog is the best book ever?!?! It's a brilliant piece of work, don't you think?

    I like your phrase "kid-sized allusions," too! Thanks for the comment.

  3. Yes, there are just some poems I love for the sound of the words, the flow, the way they make me FEEL something, even though I don't quite understand them. I am especially attached to my own poems that I don't quite understand... I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing in terms of being a writer, but as a person, I DO like to be challenged. It's all about discovery, you know? Which is why in the honeybee poem I kind of brace against the insertion of those facts about number of species of bees... seems out of place to me in a poem full of allusions. (And make me feel stupid, not smart!) I generally love Nye's work (her poem "Hidden" has long been a fave)... but that tidbit of info would be better on a fact sheet or somesuch in the book rather than as a line in the poem. Just my opinion! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Irene, thanks for such thought provoking comment. In my opinion, I think it would be a good thing to have parts of your poems that you don't understand. It means they're coming from places deep inside of you, places yet to be discovered or understood. How can that not be a good thing? I wish more of my poems had that quality. Too few of them do. Maybe I should work on that.

    As for the insertion of facts, I've been trying to find a way that they fit, but I'm struggling. I get why they're there...I get the point. But the juxtaposition of raw facts with the bee's own declaration of its importance...I see what you mean. Don't you just wish sometimes that you knew some of these brilliant poets and could call them up and ask?

    Oh, and "Hidden" is gorgeous. My new favorite poem, for sure. (If you read today's post that will make more sense!)


  5. I love the poem "Honeybee" and the book. This would be a great way to explore 'allusion' with students - reading William Carlos Williams first as prepartion for "Honeybee." Thanks for sharing these ideas.

  6. Sheri, I read "The Red Wheelbarrow" with my students earlier this year and recently revisited it when reading them a biography of William Carlos Williams. I plan on reading them "Honeybee" soon and seeing if they catch the allusion on their own or not! Thanks for your comment.

  7. How clever - please share your students reactions with us in a future post!

    Oh, and I just wanted to add that for me the inclusion of those facts really drove home the final two lines - "And everything depends / On us" in a way that only 'numbers' would be able to. I can't think of any other way she could have done it.

  8. Interesting. Kind of the bees giving a little hard evidence to drive home their point. A kind of "in your face" moment from the bees to us, if you will.

  9. Me too! Me too! And I love that if most of the poem is "gettable" by me, I learn something new if there's a little zing that tells me some element of it *should* mean something more than it seems. Then I take the time to look it up.

    "An Apology" is my new favorite poem. I love it! Thanks for sharing it.