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
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?