Human beings use the power of association to create art; indeed, without association, it would be difficult to create or even to learn anything at all. Paolo Friere observed that all true learning is based on previous experiences and associations; Pavlov, in a different field, established the same thing while experimenting with instinctual responses. In literature, in the poem especially, the art of the work depends upon associations. The writer makes cultural, historical, linguistic and personal references and allusions, establishing imagery based upon place, time, art, experience, event. How would metaphor, or simile, operate without prior knowledge and associative power? Allusion’s a crucial tool for poets.
In his textbook/anthology To Read a Poem, Donald Hall notes that allusions can, however, be problematic in poems and may “act as a barrier to understanding.” Indeed, a common criticism in poetry workshops is that an image, word, or allusion is obscure. Such critiques often center around an indirect reference that readers “don’t get.” A poem no one can understand or appreciate is certainly a failed poem, but what if the failure is the fault of the reader’s lack of experience or education? Is the poet to blame for being elitist, or is the reader to blame for his or her innocence? What if the allusion is based on something integral to the author’s perception of life and is meant to further the understanding of the piece, not to build barriers? How is a writer to judge whether or not an allusion is working in the poem?
Let’s back up a bit and start with a definition: an allusion is simply an indirect, but meaningful, reference. It is not the same as writing a poem based on a quote or news article; not the same as direct referencing in a line, stanza or epigraph. It is not a symbol—it does not stand in for anything, merely points indirectly at an experience. Because of its indirectness, allusion operates on a more complex level than does other imagery; and because of that complexity, allusions deepen meaning. A good allusion works on several levels, dependently and independently.
But an allusion is also meant to be understood. Robert K. Miller, in his textbook The Informed Argument, defines allusion as “an unexplained reference that members of an audience are expected to understand because of their education or the culture in which they live.” That expectation—and the assumptions that go with it regarding culture and education—has the potential to make an allusion into a sandpit of obscurity. Yet great poems avoid getting mired. Great poems work even when history has intervened and allusions have been lost: one can read The Inferno with notes and explanations about politics in the city-states of medieval Italy and Biblical references; or one can read it naively uninitiated and still find it to be a fabulous, weird narrative, a guided anti-quest. The uninformed reader has lost some aspects of the poem (perhaps its irony, its parodies of important men, etc.). The uninformed reader has not lost everything in the text, however. He or she does not return impoverished from a reading of Dante by any means. The art is still in the poem, the narrative, the craft, the intention. In a good poem, the poet’s point of view and range of experience can transform the reader’s experience.
What if the contemporary writer’s experience includes a love of Ovid, a familiarity with Hindu cosmology, or twenty years as a coroner? Educated readers of a century ago would have caught allusions to Greek and Roman classics, but that’s less true today (a fact that has not stopped Billy Collins or Anthony Hecht from employing classical allusions or references, however). I’ve recently had students who were not able to recognize allusions that referenced Shakespeare, Wordsworth or the Bible. While this is dismaying to me as a teacher, it has not interfered with these students’ ability to enjoy—and understand—poems by such writers as Collins, Glück, Pastan and others: poems containing allusions to literature, history, art, and experiences beyond these readers’ ken. A good poem alluding to a coroner’s working knowledge of the body and its various means of demise (without directly referencing or explaining this knowledge) would certainly pique my curiosity, and that of my students. Maybe it is difficult to get the news from poems, but through poetry we can expand in other ways.
Besides, people read to learn, and each unfamiliar reference or allusion offers the chance to further that learning. Why bother to tell people what they already know? In my own experience, poems have led to the dictionary, the encyclopedia, to libraries, art museums, philosophers, scientific theories, and to other poems. Granted, I am the sort of reader willing to do that extra work; and this points out that deciding whether or not to use an allusion entails a couple of decisions. Who makes up the audience for a poet or poem? That’s the issue Miller addresses in his definition of allusion—who’s reading, and what experiences and education these people have access to. The recent interpretations of Wordsworth’s language of the “common man” have on the one hand encouraged accessibility in contemporary poetry but have also led to some ridiculous directives in poetry seminars. (Example: A student of mine was told by a conference instructor never to use the word “vermillion” in a poem because “people won’t know what it means.” While there are poems in which “red” is a better choice than “vermillion,” there are certain styles and subjects in poetry that benefit by the use of the “more obscure” word). The second question a writer must ask is: does the poem work even if the reader misses the allusion?
The first question is intellectual and is less important than the second one—but it can help the writer decide whether to keep the allusive image/phrase or to direct-reference, clarify, footnote, or delete it. In a culture as overwhelmed with media as our own, even contemporary allusions can be missed (what if your readers don’t watch commercial television? or keep up with CNN? or know what blogging is?), let alone well-considered indirect references to, say, American life in the 1950s, composers other than Beethoven and Mozart, or most writers once considered essential to the “classic canon.” So it does help to know who your audience is. This is as true for allusion as it is for vocabulary choice in the poem.
The second question is absolutely necessary for the poet to ask, for allusion often arises spontaneously if it is deeply grounded in a writer’s experience. Because the poet’s experience drives the poem, a writer who is dissuaded from, or afraid to harness and use her experience, risks losing her investment in the work. While obscurity is also a risk, too much concern over being democratically accessible may result in what one of my students called “the dumbing-down of the poem” (a phrase which is itself a contemporary, political allusion). The condensed complexity of poetry is possible thanks in large part to the associative powers of allusion. Strange and surprising associations and metaphors and multiple, list-built associations evoke fresh responses from the reader through transformative acts within the poem. If no one “gets” the allusion, but readers still “get” the poem—if they do not stumble over the language or the images, do not lose the narrative or miss the overall meaning of the piece—the poem has surely succeeded: some kind of transforming language, some synthesized meaning that leaps out of and past the accepted denotations of words, has occurred.
If a reader comes along who does catch the allusion, that reader will have an enriched perception of the poem, a deeper insight into the writer’s inspiration and purpose. That’s how a reader can tell the chosen allusion works. And that’s how the poet can tell, too.