Allusive difficulties

Poets use allusion as a shorthand way of saying something complex. On some occasions the allusion is fairly straightforward and readily understood, on other occasions the allusion is open to a variety of competing interpretations.

Allusive examples.

Paul Celan.

The first challenge to the reader is to identify an allusion and this isn't always easy.Paul Celan's poem 'Todnauberg' only becomes clear if the reader knows that this is the name of the village where Martin Heidegger had his hut and that Celan visited him there.

From the same poem the lines "a hope, today / of a thinking man's / coming word / in the heart" is an allusion to Heidegger's notorious refusal to speak about his membership of the Nazi party in the early thirties. Celan's relationship with Heidegger is complex and has been subject to a great deal of critical debate and critics remain divided as to whether this poem is only mildly critical of Heidegger or is an outright condemnation. In this way 'coming word' is an allusion which points to a very complex range of issues but the reader needs to know from the title that the poem is about Heidegger and also that he refused to speak about his enthusiastic support for the Nazi regime.

John Matthias.

In 'Trigons' John Matthias writes of the pianist Myra Hess giving concernt in the basement of the National Gallery in World War II. The lines "you know those hands must be like steel / do you understand how much the forearms ache how much" is an allusion to the fact that Hess was later afflicted by arthritis in the hands which prevented her from playing. This is an example of a fairly straightforward allusion although it isn't initially clear whether Matthias is referring to Myra or Rudolph Hess.

J H Prynne.

As you may expect, J H Prynne's use of allusion is the most dense and complex of all contemporary poets. The long sequence "Streak, Willing, Entourage, Artesian" contains the phrase "yours grow up to main" and it is very possible to read this as a reflection of the Protestant community's anxiety that the birth rate of Ulster Catholics would lead to Catholics being in the majority within a generation and that it was this fear that brought Protestant politicians to the negotiating table. This may or may not be a correct interpretation but in order to arrive at such a hypothesis the reader has to look at possible meanings for 'main' and then to extrapolate some kind of sense from the rest of the poem. This reading may be completely incorrect- Prynne has recently said that this kind of "uncertainty may be intrinsic to the text and its internal connections to its method of thought."

Keston Sutherland.

Sutherland's 'Stress Position' contains the following:

"Fuck the old linguistically enervative stripgrammotology
and its catcalls at authenticity and at inauthenicity: either you put
up or shut up shop or you drop the musical talking shit."

"stripgrammotology" is a not very subtle allusion to 'Grammatology' by Jacqes Derrida and is considered to be the founding text for deconstruction. The 'catcalls at authenicity and at inauthenticity' is a jibe at deconstruction's supposedly relativist position with regard to language and texts. As can be seen from the word choice, Sutherland's argument isn't particularly subtle but he does use allusion to refer to quite complex ideas. Whether he's right in his attack is entirely another matter.

Allusive problems.

The main problem with allusions is that they can be read in a variety of different ways, the other problem is that of overreading whereby the reader assumes that something is an allusion rather than accepting the phrase at face value. Readers also need to be aware of the tendency that we all have of bringing our own personal background into our reading of a poem. I have recent experience of severe depression and have undergone ECT as a form of treatment. Celan had the same experience and underwent the same treatment so there is a tendency on my part to identify more allusions to mental health issues than the poet actually intended.

It's also important to recognise that allusion has a very long history in poetry and that contemporary poets aren't doing anything new although some may be using allusive words and phrases in a much more concentrated way. Some alllusions will never be resolved, scholars continue to debate phrases put together over three hundred years ago. 'The Waste Land', published in 1922, contains many allusions that have never been fully resolved despite being subjected to the closest academic scrutiny. It could be argued that Eliot's poem gave permission for all subsequent modernists to rely on allusion as the central device and not to be too concerned whether or not the reader could follow the reference as intended. This is also where the charge of elitism comes from. This is not a strictly accurate charge because readers are not expected to be fully au fait with all the allusions that a poem contains. In order to gain this level of awareness we would need to be familiar with all the material that the poet has read prior to writing the poem.

Allusion often gives difficult poetry a bad name and this is unfortunate because, when used well, it brings a richer a deeper complexity to the poem.