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Symbolism and Allusion

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 (b...

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