Myth and Allegory in Contemporary Poetry
A few years ago, I surprised myself by writing a poem about Eve. I was perplexed. What was I, a relatively non-religious person, doing with Eve in my poetry? Before I had an answer, I had penned poems about Adam, the snake, the apple, and the fig leaf. Why and how had these allegorical figures crept into my poetry?
Myth and allegory have appeared in poetry for thousands of years, and they continue to be prominent in contemporary poetry. But what is it, we might wonder, that makes them still resonate? Why do such old stories continue to be told? Examining some relatively recent poems that employ myth and allegory can shed some light on these questions.
In his essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” T.S. Eliot stated that myth reflects “the continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity.” In other words, myth helps unveil echoes of the distant past that are evident in the present. We can, in fact, see this in many contemporary poems. For example, Robert Haas’s “Heroic Simile,” from his book Praise, begins with a speaker thinking about the felling of one of Kurosawa’s Samurai swordsmen and Ajax before the speaker conjures two woodsmen cutting up an enormous tree. The woodsmen want to cart off the logs, but they are predestined to fail since the speaker acknowledges that he has “imagined no pack animal/or primitive wagon.” The woodsmen work tirelessly, but their efforts indeed are ineffective. Haas amplifies the notion of failure manifold by relating it to the heroic yet ultimately doomed Ajax and Samurai. By showing the downfall of these emblematic heroes, Haas is able to take the sting of futility and misfortune from the level of his woodsmen and speaker and make it an almost inevitable human condition. That is, through the lens of myth, the poem is about more than the shortcomings of the woodsmen and the speaker. Defeat is rendered as a universal and inevitable experience. Myth is also connecting the present with antiquity.
Since myths and allegories are so well known, they also provide an immediate literary framework for writers. This is evident in Lucille Clifton’s “lot’s wife 1988” from Blessing the Boats. In this poem, Clifton presents readers with a speaker who initially sees her childhood homes as a metaphor for being rooted in the world. Those houses, however, eventually turn into vacant lots. In the poem’s final stanza, Clifton turns to allegory, forging a connection with Lot’s wife. The speaker says, “I look back like lot’s wife/wedded to her weeds and turn to something/surer than salt and write this, yes,/I promise, yes we will.” By connecting the narrative to the story of Lot’s wife, Clifton adds additional weight and significance to the dramatic situation. The poem moves from being about the speaker as an individual, family member, or community member to the speaker as part of a long history of women who have looked squarely in the face of adversity and moved forward. Moreover, using allegory, Clifton can show that she is not only referring to a current problem but one that has endured through the ages. Again, we see that “continuous parallel’ between then and now that Eliot wrote about.
Myth is also employed as a literary substructure in Ada Limón’s “The Other Wish,” from Bright Dead Things, yet in this poem, it is used as a point of departure and resistance. Limón pushes back against the myth of Icarus. She uses a female speaker who ponders Icarus’ sanity. Contrasting herself with Icarus, the speaker says that if she had had his feather and wax wings, she’d have chosen “the moon, always the sister moon.//Cold, comely queen of the sky” instead of the sun. The glowing sister moon is deemed more desirable than the scorching male sun, and the speaker is more ambitious than Icarus. She would be ready “to fall from the terrifying height/of her, the dust of my years crazy and flashing//lit up by the victory of my disastrous flight.” She is not afraid to shoot for the moon and fall rather than foolishly flying too close to the sun, and she equates the attempted journey with success. By placing Icarus in a contemporary context, Limon wrestles the story from the masculine domain and, in the process, makes a feminist statement.
Myth and allegory are also means for tackling difficult subjects. Nina Kossman, author of Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths, says that myths and allegories are sometimes used as masks and personas. They offer an extra layer of separation to the speaker and the poet, and ideas that are expressed can be attributed to someone else. (Although we are taught that a poem’s speaker is not the same person as the poet, it is often erroneously assumed to be.) Additionally, a mask can also increase narrative distance to better enable the poet to address certain topics. Take Marie Howe’s most recent book, Magdalene, which is written entirely in the voice of a modern Magdalene. In her poem “Before the Beginning,” the persona asks if she were ever a virgin as well as other questions that suggest a profound violation. Sexual abuse is an extremely challenging topic. Using a mask to explore this issue not only affords a measure of distance and safety, but the persona of Magdalene also adds substantial emotional gravity to the poem. After all, if Magdalene could have been a victim, so could anyone. In A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch explains that “the hero of an allegory is also a cipher or a designated figure for the reader, since it’s understood that the action takes place in the mental landscape of the audience.” The protagonist can be viewed as an archetype. Magdalene can be any woman. In this way, the use of allegory also helps reflect those continuities between the past and the present.
I’ve presented only a handful of examples, but myth and allegory thrive in contemporary poetry. Their presence has many different effects, including extending poems’ reach, making them universal and immense. They also can also bring inherited beliefs and conditions forward to reveal how little some things have changed or be a vehicle for delving into difficult subject matters.
Having considered a few of the many ways in which myth and allegory can magnify a poem’s scope and implications, try your hand at using it in your own work. Below are two prompts. Write a poem to either, or both, of them. Good luck!
Write a poem using a mythological or allegorical figure to help you shed light on a contemporary issue or condition. Feel free to affirm or reject the myth. You may choose to draw from your own life or make it entirely fictional.
Write a poem using a mythological or allegorical figure as a mask to help you write about something you may have otherwise found too difficult to address.
Clifton, Lucille. Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000. BOA Editions. 2000.
Eliot, T. S. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” University of Virginia. 8 Aug. 2017, Originally published in The Dial, Nov. 1923.
Hass, Robert. Praise. Ecco, 1979.
Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
Howe, Marie. Magdalene. W. W. Norton, 2017.
Kossman, Nina. Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Limón, Ava. Bright Dead Things. Milkweed Editions, 2015.
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Thank you, Adele!
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