I stood in the mires of Usher
and looked for the light on Sinai.
Allusion is the reference to something in history or previous literature. It is "pre-fab
imagery", borrowing an idea or emotion already embodied elsewhere to lend weight to your
own writing. It can make your poem resemble a mansion lovingly decorated with classic
antiques or a junk store cluttered with unidentifiable things.
Allusion depends on author and reader sharing a cultural background. I wrote the lines
at the head of this page to symbolize the extremes of despair and hope in minimum words.
I then found, to my surprise, that a great many people had read neither The Fall of the
House of Usher nor the Psalms. Without that background, the lines are meaningless.
There are poets who weave heavily with allusions without regard to their
accessibility. "If it's hard to write, it should be hard to read." There
are others who avoid allusion entirely, not wanting to give the impression of speaking a
foreign language in front of any reader who doesn't know the references.
There are those who map a middle road, building a poem that holds meaning in itself,
then accenting and elaborating that meaning with allusions.
Allusions can be fun in themselves. The book Silverlock, by John Myers Myers, is
considered a classic of fantasy; one of its strongest appeals is the game of "track the
allusion". A companion volume contains four pages of bibliography simply listing the
works referred to in Silverlock.
However you choose to use allusion, becoming more familiar with it will help you use
it more wisely.
Following is a walk-through of a poem from Silverlock that makes heavy
use of allusion, and some exercises to let you play with allusion yourself.
East of Agamemnon
- Find a favorite poem that uses allusion.
- What effect is created by the allusion?
- How might the poet have achieved the same effect without the allusion?
From One End
- Pick a favorite, powerful story, character, or image from myth, history, or literature.
- What is the idea or emotion conveyed by that image?
- Write a poem about that idea or emotion, incorporating the image you recall.
From the Other End
- Pick one of your own poems that you are still working on.
- What is one strong idea or emotion in the poem?
- What mythic, historic or literary figure does that idea or emotion remind you of?
- Weave the reference into your poem.
- Does the allusion make the poem stronger?
Guidelines for Critique
What is the effect of the allusion?