What major symbols are used? How appropriate is each symbol in its respective poem? How do the poets use the symbols to focus on the problems they present in their poems? Allusions and symbols are critical components of an interesting and understandable poem. Poets rely heavily on them because of the need to economize their words. Poems don’t waste words on detailed explanations in order to be understood. They rely instead on the reader to use his own process for interpreting and connecting to the meaning, whether or not he understands the allusions or symbolism.
The Penfield Study Guide poses this question: “When does a word mean more than a word? …When it’s an allusion. (p.213)” A more defined meaning is that allusions are unacknowledged references or quotations which the author assumes the reader will recognize, and relate to the context of his poem. Conversely, a symbol is defined as anything – an object, person, place, idea or situation that stands for itself and also gathers to it a larger meaning. For example, a flag could be a symbol representing freedom or surrender, depending on the color and occasion. However, by using two simple words, “Old Glory,” the reader can instantly relate the allusion to the American flag and mentally recall all of the historical images associated with it. What power for two words!
This paper will use three poems, “80-Proof” (A. R. Ammons, 1975), “A Final Thing” (Li-Young Lee, 1990) and “Resume” (Dorothy Parker, 1936), to illustrate the creativeness and variety of allusions and symbols, and their usefulness in drawing the reader into the poem. Without them, these poems would not be nearly as interesting or effective, and definitely less meaningful and relevant. It is noteworthy that both Parker (born 1893) and Ammons (born 1926) are from eras that are culturally different from that of Lee’s (born 1957). Yet the universal allusions used in each poem span both the cultural differences as well as their time period, and share a common thread in their view of life.
Starting with the title, “80-Proof”(Ammons, p. 1021), the use of numerical symbols and reference to alcohol is obvious. The poet’s use of “fifth” for bookends beginning with “A fifth of me’s me” (1) and ending with “fifth by fifth” (18), coupled with the reference to “chaser” (2) gives the reader a direct link to the title and completes the framework. The lines in between describe the physical body made of bones, nerves, veins and membranes, which sidetracks the reader into thinking that the poet is just describing the body in terms of pieces. However, the meaning is perhaps revealed toward the end with “achieve a whole” (19), which takes these pieces and makes the transformation from alcohol to a “highly transcendental” (20) individual. The overall effect is getting down to the true self and deciding whether to go “100% spiritual” (17) or “retain the shallow stain” (16). Lines 10 and 11, “strip out nerves & veins/ & permeable membranes,” give allusion to the destructiveness of alcohol on the body and spirit. Optimistically there is hope for recovery; pessimistically there remains so little of the real self on which to rebuild. It’s like trying to get to the point by peeling away, layer by layer, all the coverings on the “true self” (4), until all that remains is “a greasy spot” (13). When the poem arrives at the bottom; i.e., the alcoholic hits rock bottom, there is a decision to be made -- whether to stay there or rebuild the body back to the whole. The numerical symbols provide the dots for the reader to connect when forming his mental image and his interpretation of the poem’s meaning.
The similarities between “80-Proof” (Ammons, p. 1021) and “Resume” (Parker, p. 1083) are not based on numerical symbols, but rather their abstract symbols of life. The title, “Resume,” seems to sum up the history of a life; seven lines perhaps signifying seven different important times or stages, spanning a lifetime. Symbols such as “razors,” “drugs,” “guns,” “nooses,” and “gas smells,” (1-7) are easily recognized as methods of suicide. The whole poem is depressing and offers little hope except that the means of death are not pleasant enough to be appealing. Both Parker and Ammons share the years from 1926 to 1936, a time in which America was encased with the prohibition movement, illegal booze, and the Great Depression. These years seem to set the tone for these poems in that the nation was on a slide from top to bottom, resulting in the end of life for many. One can see the allusions to prosperity in “80-Proof” (p. 1021) with such words as “steak & chops/ & chicken fat,/ two-over-easy & cream-on-the-side” (7-9). In contrast, “Resume” (p. 1083) offers a grim listing of the physical feel to death described by “pain, damp, cramp, awful smell” (1, 2, 4, 7) which are usually associated with poverty. There is very little hope evident in either poem. Parker’s “Resume”
(p. 1083) ends with a resigned “You might as well live” (8), while Ammons ends “80-Proof” (p. 1021) with a decision “whether to retain/ the shallow stain/ or go 100% spiritual” (16-18).
What an uplifting contrast provided by Lee’s “A Final Thing” (p. 1070). His allusions are introduced in a much more subtle way, fooling the reader with a totally different first mental image than what is revealed toward the end. The wording and phrases used are elegant and emotional, especially when the reader realizes they are coming from the father. In the first three lines, Lee uses the symbol of “the body in a white sheet listening” (3) giving the image of a corpse, or perhaps a patient in a coma. The lines that follow give the allusion of memories or of something going on outside the conscious realm of this body as he interprets the noises and voices heard. What is revealed is that this is a father listening to his wife tell a story to their son, completely dispelling the first image. The use of allusion followed by reality completes the “bridge” to understanding the poem and its meaning. It ends on such a positive note with “and this is not/ my last morning on earth” (42-43) giving the reader evidence that he is slowly being awakened by these sounds. The poem finishes with a sobering allusion to the father’s future years when ”someday, I’ll close my eyes to recall” (51). The cultural background of Lee is felt in his subtle approach and diffused symbols and allusions. The serenity and quietness in the father’s thoughts as he listens, and the mother’s gentle, early morning words to her son provide a peaceful and calming effect on the reader.
What all poets have in common is a love of language – its words, its meanings, its rhythms, its sounds, even its shapes (Literary Visions, p. 141). It is this language, in the form of allusions and symbols that gives meaning and interest to poems, and gives the reader an insight into the poet’s unique view. “Poets use an intuitive process. They don’t cognitively think about allusions, nor do they have to know the allusions. The poetry that succeeds best is one that touches the instinctive something we all share. That something celebrates the communion with what we are and what we believe” (Dorn, Video Program #116).