I'm so happy to share with you a special guest blog written by Robin Rosen Chang, author of The Curator's Notes (Terrapin Books, 2021). Her poems appear in Michigan
Literary Review, Stillwater Review,
and other literary journals and anthologies. She was the recipient of
the Oregon Poetry Association's Fall 2018 Poets' Choice Award and an
honorable mention for Spoon
River Poetry Review's
2019 Editors' Prize. An earlier version of her book was a finalist
Warren Wilson's 2018 Levis Alumni Award for a manuscript in progress.
She has an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
She teaches college-level ESL and tutors. She can be found online at
Myth and Allegory in
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?
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.
his essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” T.S. Eliot stated that myth
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
a poem using a mythological or allegorical figure as a mask to help
you write about something you may have otherwise found too difficult
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.
Originally published in The
Dial, Nov. 1923.
Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary. Houghton Mifflin
W. W. Norton, 2017.
Nina. Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths.
Oxford University Press, 2001.
Ava. Bright Dead Things.
Milkweed Editions, 2015.
very grateful to Adele for inviting me to contribute to her blog, The
Music in It.
Thank you so much, Robin!
Dear Blog readers, I hope you'll order a copy of Robin's new book!
It's a superb collection of beautifully written poems from Terrapin Books, presented in Terrapin's elegant signature style.
You won't be disappointed!
Purchase Link for Book:
also available on Amazon.