Associating with allusions

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.

Mortise & tenon

In a post late last year, I examined a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem for the way the lines and images might be considered as hinges. Another metaphor for how poems work–one I have been churning in my mind for a couple of years now–is joinery of another kind: mortise and tenon. What joinery does in woodworking is allow the cabinetmaker to connect separate pieces of wood together in such a way as to allow a little movement as the wood responds to temperature and moisture changes. Good wood joinery requires experience and thoughtful attention, as there are often additional challenges such as connecting end grain to long grain. Amateurs resort to screws, nails, and glue to cobble projects together because joinery takes time to learn and requires technique and practice that the average DIY “carpenter” does not possess.

True craftspeople learn, practice, and employ conventional joinery techniques and often develop their own signature styles. The craft of woodworking parallels the craft of poetry: there are tools and techniques, strategies and conventions, patterns to follow, and inventions and innovations to create. Both crafts join together materials that seem alike (wood to wood, words to words), and yet it can be damned hard to get those connections to hang together solidly and make a coherent and stable whole.



Odate’s “Pride of New England” [1982] photo: Laure Olender


My friend Toshio Odate was trained as a shoji maker and has worked as an educator, artist (sculpture), and craftsman-in-wood for most of his 82 years. Possibly his best-known book is the practical but also spiritual Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use. This text will teach you how to choose, care for, sharpen and use traditional Japanese hand tools, meanwhile illuminating the history and spirit of the woodworking craft in Japan. Toshio reveres the work of humans, the human touch, the effort of making that goes into a handmade object; and his sculptural pieces reflect his passion. The large sculpture above, Pride of New England, stands on his property under the hardwood trees and above the nearby creek. Nothing holds these huge slabs and trunks of wood together but hand-cut joints: mortise and tenon, mostly.


I’m going to try to explain a connection between poetry and joinery through a brief examination of the poem “Whereof the Gift Is Small” by Maxine Kumin. This poem appears here, and I think you ought to check out the link to a Q & A on this poem, as it is enlightening and amusing (as Kumin so often is).

Whereof the Gift Is Small

       Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

And short the season, first rubythroat
in the fading lilacs, alyssum in bloom,
a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart
on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm
him underground. Wet feet, wet cuffs,
little flecks of buttercup on my sneaker toes,
bluets, violets crowding out the tufts
of rich new grass the horses nose
and nibble like sleepwalkers held fast—
brittle beauty—might this be the last?


This lovely small poem is framed by phrases from Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey’s sonnet “The Frailty and Hurtfulness of Beauty,” so right away we have an old poem joined to a new one; and as Kumin admits in her commentary on the piece, “Picking lines from others’ poems is hazardous and I don’t recommend it.” Woodworkers will recommend that old, seasoned wood not be joined to green wood for practical reasons. Good reasons, too. But that does not mean one should never attempt it or that it cannot be successfully done. A master like Maxine Kumin can succeed–but with caution.

How might one approach the joinery of words as apparently distant from one another in tone or image as “sneaker” and “rubythroat”? The grave of the gelding (a gap, into which something solid may be placed) gives the reader one opening. There is also the stepping-down aspect of the images, each connecting to the next. The bird appears higher in the poem, quite literally, up there with the lilacs fading on their tall stems; but the alyssum blooms much lower to the earth, as do the bleeding hearts where the bee is busy. The grave and beetles take us deeper. Then, up ever so slightly, to the low-growing buttercups and the damp cuffs of the speaker’s trousers and the noses of still-living, grazing horses…with a “brittle” reminder that this season is short (“the gift is small”). If you are familiar with Surrey’s poem, there’s a marvelous resonance here, though I feel Kumin’s tenor is a bit less cynical than Surrey’s.

dovetail joint

dovetail joint

Kumin’s poem is not a full sonnet, and some of her end-rhymes are slant. A modernity pervades her piece, yet the older poem’s language and sensibility are evoked nonetheless. How elegantly she achieves this balance. I think the first joint in the poem appears at line 4, at which point the nature imagery of the first three lines, which could incline to the romantic, solidly connects with the real fact of death. This line also introduces us to our speaker: the gelding is “my” gelding. Line 6 provides another clear connection: the speaker here exists very much in the present moment, wearing sneakers, noticing the buttercups. This line fits into the poem like a well-cut dovetail, linking the pastoral descriptions with the reflective mode the speaker turns to after observing the horses. And there, between the em dashes, we find Surrey’s “brittle beauty,” a tenon that fits the space and holds the entire brief poem together.

Good joinery is often invisible except to those who appreciate the work and take the time to look for it. Toshio solved the engineering challenge of constructing his sculpture through a process of reflection, experiment, experience, and revision. How like a poet’s work that seems to me! When I told him I feel his work is analogous to poetry, he was initially flabbergasted. Maybe the surprise stemmed from a difference in the approach to poetry across cultures, or maybe from a difference in the way a plastic artist perceives a largely abstract art like poetry. Maybe I could not explain my idea adequately to a person for whom English is not a first language. Actually, I’m not certain he believed there is as much human touch and hand-work involved in poem-making as there is in woodworking or the sort of made-by-hand sculpture Toshio does. We agreed not to fully understand one another.

About a year later, I attended a special event at his home, a celebration of the Object as Being, for which I composed a poem. That summer, he called and said, “I think maybe I understand now what you mean.”


endnote: If you’re interested in learning more about Toshio Odate, here is a 1996 article from The New York Times and a 2009 blog post (including a short video) from Tom’s Workbench, as well as a short on making shoji screens–from Martha Stewart’s network.

What do poems do?

This semester, I’m teaching an introduction to poetry survey course. This course helps me more than my students, probably, because while drafting the curriculum and teaching the classes, I find myself forced (in a good way) to confront my own aims and purposes regarding the art. In addition, I discuss poetry more frequently with colleagues and friends when I’m teaching a class like this one.

A question I’ve been asking is: what can a poem do for a person? In particular, what do great poems do for people? The phrase “transform us” has been suggested, but I think that word in itself is too unspecific. Transform us in what ways? How?

Here are some of the answers I’ve received, and I think they are all worth considering. I’m always looking for more feedback on this question, so feel free to add comments…

• Poems help us to imagine or understand perspectives we do not ordinarily assume: “I never thought about it that way before.”

• Poems help us to feel understood and less isolated: “I thought I was the only one who felt like that!”

• Poems help us define our experiences: “I would never have described it that way, but it seems exactly right!”

• Poems help us to see what we take for granted: “I never realized how valuable that was before.”

• Poems help us to feel compassion: “I feel as though I went through this experience because I read this poem.”

• Poems help us to reflect and to think about what is beautiful and terrible; they offer solace and extend our grasp of the human situation.

These things–and others–may, in fact, transform our lives. Not every transformation is a bolt from the blue; most transformations occur gradually, through a series of small movements and almost imperceptible changes the way a zygote grows into an adult being.

What else do poems do for people?

Difficult criticism

I have a list of books to read, yet I am often reading something else. Something I have stumbled on in the library or on a friend’s site or bookshelf…

The most recent of these is Rosanna Warren’s Fables of the Self, a book of essays on lyricism in poetry that has a distinctly classicist bent. It’s an odd book, though, because there are tightly-controlled, scholarly critical essays in here and also memoir; the book closes with a journal witnessing her father’s dying. I’ve found the personal pieces thought-provoking and often lovely. I’ve found her criticism scholarly and difficult.

The fault is mostly mine: I have very limited background in classicism. No Latin, no ancient Greek, few readings of the classic writers even in translation. By the classic writers I mean such early Western poets as Horace, Virgil, Catullus, Theocritus, Ovid, Sappho, Euripides (but also Dante, Milton, etc.). These are foundational works, but they did not act as my foundation for poetry or poetics; I studied them later in my readings of poetry–and not in a scholarly way. Warren kindly offers translations for all of the original dead language passages she quotes, so she understands that her audience may be less familiar with the texts than she is. Nevertheless, I find this book quite difficult to read, since I am always stopping to look things up or re-read a paragraph and make certain I am following her exposition or argument.

It is challenging to me to read a discussion of, say, Mark Strand’s poetry that uses Horace’s odes or the poems of Alcaeus to demonstrate the thread of the pastoral that appears in Strand’s work. Yet by reading these essays, I learn about the alcaic lyric stanza and can pursue more on that topic if it interests me. I can go to Horace knowing a little more what to expect (as I only know his most famous/familiar georgics). I’m reminded of being in my 20s and reading Proust (yes, all the way through); I kept taking notes on what else to read…Racine, for example…as those allusions appeared in the novel. As a result, I got quite an education–if a rather eccentric, autodidactic one–in classic French literature and art and music. Then I read Hugo and Flaubert and Baudelaire. My life would be less rich if I hadn’t been moved to pursue those references beyond the text.

Similarly, I am likely to be reading more of the classical literature, and perhaps to understand it a bit better (as to how it relates to contemporary life and art) thanks to Rosanna Warren.

When the going gets tough, the tough get reading!

New look!

I am rolling out a new professional website! At some point, this blog will probably “move” to the new site; for the time being, though, I’m continuing to occupy two zones of the internet’s vast web. However, please consider clicking on the link below to take a look at the redesign.

One reason I am so excited about this new site is that I worked closely with the young digital-graphics designer to try to compose a site that reflects a little better my public-professional-poet persona. I wanted easy navigation, an uncluttered look, informational text, and links to my books’ publishers. I also wanted the page to convey my interest in the environment and to focus a bit more on my books’ themes and styles. The site is still a bit under construction, but it is “live.”

Did I mention that the designer is my son? He graduates January 19th with a degree in computer science/digital graphics. He is initiating his way into the professional world, following his sister, who has been on her own and working since May of last year. I graduated from college during an economic recession in the 1970s, and I can empathize with the frustration my college students and my grown children are experiencing as they start to make their adult ways into the world of work. But I know they will find their paths at some point (heavens, my own path took long enough!)

Here it is. Please take a look:

Still more on ambition

My experience with college students and their wildly varying achievements, coupled with my long-time interests in temperament and neurology, led me to rejoice in the extensive sources listed in Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed. Angela Lee Duckworth’s studies on grit, persistence, interest, diligence, and ambition are particularly relevant to my job–she’s at University of Pennsylvania, and the site for her research is here.

Ambition implies a goal; as used in the studies Tough cites, that goal is the desire or drive to be the best. Persistence is what gets us to the goal–sometimes–or at least keeps us plodding in the general direction. Diligence is what we feel we owe to the work or to whomever assigned the work; i.e., careful attention to the job and the completion of each task. Interest means we can focus without becoming distracted by other ideas, novelties, events, or tasks. And grit is composed of all of these traits but includes a crucial element: the ability to carry on after failure or loss–the determination to surmount obstacles, evade them, or compromise; or even to fail to do so, then dust off and carry on anyway.

I administered the long version of Duckworth’s questionnaire to myself and the sense I get is that the results seem fairly accurate. I’ve asked family members and colleagues to take the survey; the results jive with our intuitive “measures” of these traits among ourselves. It came as no surprise to me that I scored below the median in ambition; but when I mentioned that outcome to a colleague, she expressed surprise. She said I am “ambitious” about my poetry, noting the time I devote to reflection, revision, trying to get the poem “right.” But is that ambition or something else?

So the spectre of ambition in poetry appears again (see my previous posts here & here). Having just breezed through David Orr’s delightful if somewhat flawed book Beautiful and Pointless–a Guide to Modern Poetry, ambition in relation to poetry screams out “Do not ignore!” And the coincidence of having the “grit” research to mull over and connect with the idea of ambition and the arts. Language being flexible within context as it is, I will stay with the Duckworth definition of ambition (and my low-ish score) and state I am not an ambitious person. Nor am I an ambitious poet, but I am ambitious about my poems. I want the poems I write to be as beautifully stated as they can be; I want them to communicate as well as possible on as many levels as I can achieve; and I want them to be relevant or revelatory to as many potential readers as possible. I want the poems to exert upon their readers the desire, even the need, to pause and reflect upon necessary things. Those are ambitious aims, and I cannot claim I ever achieve them in my work. But I try.

The poets whose work is great do achieve these things–and more–in their ambitious poems.

An ambitious poet is something else again. Walt Whitman claimed himself a “loafer,” and he may not have been ambitious as a person–but he was certainly an ambitious poet. Orr positions Robert Lowell among the ambitious poets; I’d say Edna St. Vincent Millay qualifies. These writers, who composed ambitious poems, were also ambitious poets. My personality does not support this from of ambition; hence my lower score on the ambition scale reflects my personal trait, not my attitude toward my work. Duckworth’s scale isn’t meant to measure the latter.

It’s been an intriguing exercise to explore interpretations and to revisit poetry and ambition. Now,  I wonder where Emily Dickinson, or Federico Lorca or Muriel Rukeyser would score in terms of ambition. Meanwhile, I am ready to go back to my own work. Plodding away. (Yes, I score above the median in persistence…)

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Freedom above utility

S. Polgar is mentioned in Tough's book. Her website is here:

Susan Polgar is mentioned in Tough’s book. Her website is here:

One of the gifts I received this year is the book How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. It’s a quick read that dovetails many of my interests: education, psychology, character, motivation, philosophy, & childraising, among others. There are several aspects of the book I could write about here; but today my frame of mind has wrapped around one particular passage having to do–well, in the book, with chess–but metaphorically and personally, with why I bother to write poetry.

In the chapter titled “How to Think,” Tough offers the stories of several chess-for-children programs and connects these endeavors with education, as well as with traits of persistence, grit, and critical thinking skills. He cites examples of chess masters the world over, of child prodigies, and of chess teaching methods; then, he connects these strands with the notion of learning “character.” That’s one of the book’s arguments: that character is learned, made up of other habitual traits, that it is not the same as temperament. One skill that good chess players learn is how to fail, how to overcome confirmation bias in decision-making, and how to immerse themselves through the habit of study (persistence). This does not mean that chess players naturally extend these abilities to other areas of their lives, but they could do so since they do possess these abilities. Tough finds it fascinating that many chess players still manage to screw up other areas of their lives…they do not choose to extend, or apply, their chess traits to things like academics, career, or personal relationships.

So choice (“volition” as he terms it, though he defines volition as closer to willpower) interferes with our application of learned ‘good’ habits. Ah, the old ‘free will’ trap…


But I digress.

The part of this chapter that grabbed me is a quote from chess master Jonathan Rowson. He says: “the question of chess being an essentially futile activity has a nagging persistence for me…I occasionally think that the thousands of hours I’ve spent on chess, however much they have developed me personally, could have been better spent…[yet] chess is a creative and beautiful pursuit, which allows us to experience a wide range of uniquely human characteristics.”

Sounds familiar to me. People say the same sort of thing about writing poetry. Then Rowson says chess is “a celebration of existential freedom, in the sense that we are blessed with the opportunity to create ourselves through our actions. In choosing to play chess, we are celebrating freedom above utility.”

Oh, that says it so well. Freedom above utility–choosing to create myself through my actions, which allows me, as poet and as sentient being, to experience all of those messy and sorrowful and complex and delightful human characteristics.


I have spent my 10,000 hours writing and am “expert” at it, yet it has brought me not money nor favor nor fame. So why pursue the path? Because it is beautiful and freeing. Because it is my form of gift–I have a small talent that I have labored at, but I am not “gifted” as a writer…yet I can see my way to thinking of my poetry as part of the gift economy Lewis Hyde elaborates upon in his book The Gift (which I’ve mentioned in a previous post). Ambition is not the same as willpower, and I do not have single-minded willpower in the task of promoting my work or my persona as a poet–no “poetry diva” am I. But I do have persistence in this one area: the writing practice and all it entails; and I do have experience with it, and I possess deep and abiding curiosity about poetry and gratitude that it exists and that I can continue to try my hand at it.

Even if it seems futile or pointless or non-productive to some people.


As an aside, I note that David Orr’s recent book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry has been both enthusiastically and scathingly reviewed, so I must get to it soon. Perhaps Orr’s work will clarify my thinking on the non-remunerative, generally unacknowledged occupation that chose me long ago.

Or perhaps it does not need clarifying. Perhaps celebration is enough.