Tag Archives: poetry

Allusions and delusions

Poems, songs, and sermons often allude to things the writer believes to be already known by the audience.

Allusions are simply indirect references. In its oldest sense, an allusion was an indirect reference to classical or biblical literature.

So, at the beginning of Hamlet, the prince compares his dead father to Hyperion and his uncle to a satyr. These are allusions to Greek mythology.

And, toward the end of Hamlet, the prince says, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” There, Hamlet is alluding to Jesus’s words in The Gospel of Matthew 10:29-30.

Shakespeare wrote in a time when, as he assumed, most of his audience would have some familiarity with both ancient pagan mythology and the Bible.

But, a writer can’t always control the makeup of the audience.

A quick example: While I’m a fan of T.S. Eliot for particular reasons, he wrote some poems that cannot be understood without a classical education and a broad reading experience. Sometimes, Eliot is just “over my head.”

His Anglo-Catholic point of view might have made some of his Christian poems just as opaque as some of his other works.

Eliot’s work was full of literary allusions, and I’m sure those references have made for some wild interpretations that would amuse Eliot and horrify him.

Those allusions could lead to nearly delusional interpretations in the minds of those who are not prepared to read them.

While a writer might have a specific audience in mind, she is probably not worried about keeping people out of the audience.

So when someone “sneaks in,” so to speak, the reader might find himself confused, insulted, exasperated, baffled, or mortified by what has been written, sung, or spoken, because the allusions don’t make sense.

The difficulty for the individual reader is to know when she has really misunderstood something.

For example, the first time I read them, I did not understand William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” or, in a different stream, Russell Edson’s prose poems.

But now that I’ve learned a bit more and spent a bit more time with those literary works, I at least can say I’ve started to understand what these writers were trying to accomplish.

I would not ask you to like those poems, and I would only discuss them with you if you had already expressed an interest in the writers, the works, or related matters. They’re quite different within the body of available poems. “The Red Wheelbarrow” and Edson’s prose poems aren’t for everyone — and few writers should even try to be for everyone.

If someone else “sneaks in” and noisily announces his confusion, insulted-ness, exasperation, bafflement, or mortification, well, that’s the risk the writer takes. The writer just hopes he can reach his intended audience.


e.e. cummings for the offeratory


On the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death, a consideration of his poetry

Like eyes of one long dead the empty windows stare
And I fear to cross the garden, I fear to linger there…

from the poem “Alexandrines” by C.S. Lewis


C.S. Lewis fan trivia includes the factoid that he died on the same day as President John F. Kennedy and author Aldous Huxley.

But 50th anniversaries tend to be big deals, and on this anniversary, while new documentaries honor JFK, Lewis is receiving a quieter yet substantial honor.

Lewis’s “devotion to [poetry] will be honored this month with the unveiling of a monument at the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, 50 years after his death,” writes Laura C. Mallonee in “The Imaginative Man,” written for PoetryFoundation.org.

Despite being best-known for The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity — as well as maybe The Screwtape Letters — Lewis really, really wanted to be a poet.

In recent years, that biographical factoid received serious scholarly study from Don W. King, who wrote C.S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse — a project that spurred a study of Lewis’s more-successful poet friend, Ruth Pitter.

In this brief post, I’ll say Lewis’s poetry is interesting for two principle reasons — although for a thorough examination of his poetry, see King’s C.S. Lewis, Poet.

First, Lewis wrote his poetry with an ear tuned to meter. For example, his poem “Alexandrines” is a collection of 13 of the lines for which the poem is named. An alexandrine is a 12-syllable iambic line.

Second, Lewis’s immersion in ancient mythology influenced many of his poems. See, for example, “Vitrea Circe,” which is about the Circe of Homeric legend.

Also see “The Satyr,” which follows a satyr “Through the meadows, through the valleys” where “all the faerie kin he rallies.”

Certainly questions of why Lewis has no intellectual and aesthetic heirs today — especially among the Christians who desperately want someone to pick up the Narnian mantle — can be answered with attention to his history and development as a person.

Lewis was saturated in English poetry and ancient verse, in languages living and dead, in stories historical and mythological.

I suspect many Christian writers who have tried to imitate Lewis jumped the gun and hopped directly into allegories of the Gospels, but Lewis never would have written a book entitled Mere Allegory.

Related articles

Metaphor explained

“According to him [Mac Cormac], the cognitive process of creating new metaphors produces new expressions of experience. The process is almost inexplicable, but at least the following things are obvious in this process: one has to have a motivation to create a new insight by means of a metaphor; one has to explore both the features of similarity and dissimilarity present in a metaphor; and one has to transgress the normal semantic rules of association. What is considered normal is, however, flexible, and new metaphors may change the limits of normal, that is, rules. Emotional tension plays the most important role in providing the motivataion for metaphor creation. When creating a new metaphor, a person juxtaposes ‘conceptual referents’ in a new way producing semantic anomaly and a new conceptual insight. In this process similar attributes are identified, and an analogy thereby formed, and, on the other hand, dissimilar attributes identified, and thereby an anomaly produced. The new insight illuminates a problem or experience.”   — from “Minds as Connoting Systems: Logic and the Language of Thought” by Veikko Rantala and Tere Vadén in the May 1997 edition of Erkenntnis

Flash fiction Friday: ‘Why Molly Gagged’

Below is my submission for this past week’s 53-Word Contest #16 by Press53, a Winston-Salem, N.C., based book publisher. Read the winning submission here.

Why Molly Gagged

Molly bragged: “I know where mobsters hide.” Her friends chastised: “Stop watching ‘The Sopranos.’” So Molly walked to an abandoned brewery. At windows, Molly filmed mobsters severing a police detective’s finger, which fell to the floor. A fly inspected the finger. Gagging, Molly stole the mobsters’ car to flee, regretting she had bragged.

(Please see our recent poetry series by Adam Penna at LiturgicalCredo.)

New poems by Adam Penna

Oh, I guess I would need more proof than that.
I’d want to touch his wounds and prod around a little, too.

Read “How to Be a Disciple” and three other poems by Adam Penna at LiturgicalCredo.com, an online member of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.

Penna’s first full-length collection, Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji, was published by S4N Books in 2010. A chapbook called Love of a Sleeper was published in 2009 by Finishing Line Press. Individual and pairs of poems have appeared in magazines like Albatross, Basilica Review, Cimarron Review and others. Penna’s poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (2010) for a sonnet appearing in the Cider Press Review and has appeared on the site Verse Daily. He teaches at Suffolk County Community College, where he is an Associate Professor of English, and he is the former editor of Best Poem.

Poets Bukowski and Baudelaire on desire

Two quotations pointing in the same basic direction.

“Find what you love and let it kill you.” — Bukowski

“One must be drunk…. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time that breaks your shoulders and bows you to the earth, you must intoxicate yourself unceasingly. But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, your choice. But intoxicate yourself.” — Baudelaire