Tuesday, January 26, 2010


"A representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another. A symbolical narrative."

An allegory is not quite a metaphor. A metaphor compares or associates one idea or thing with another, in order to give a new understanding: "Hope is the thing with feathers," "My heart was like a singing bird" and so forth. An allegory is more extended. It uses one thing (a physical thing) as a stand-in, to represent a non-physical idea. Still, it can be hard to draw the line between "extended metaphor" and "allegory."

Allegory is a powerful tool because it can take an idea that is nebulous and hammer it into your brain, give it a shape and a bright colour.

The Handbook points to the Pilgrim's Progress as the most traditional allegory in English -- where you have actual characters and physical places representing attributes or abstract concepts -- the Slough of Despond, Mr. Greatheart, Faithful, etc. My beloved Faery Queene is another long allegory.

A good way to begin to write an allegory might be to write a "dream poem." What the dreamer encounters in the dream represents something different.

Here is an allegorical poem I really like. It was written by George Herbert in the 17th century, so I'm pretty sure it's in the public domain by now!

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
    Guilty of dust and sin,
But quickeyed Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
    If I lacked any thing.

"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here--"
    Love said, "You shall be he."
"I the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my Dear,
    I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply
    "Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord--but I have marred them. Let my shame
    Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
    "My Dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
    So I did sit and eat.

Another one might be "The Sick Rose" by William Blake (18th cent, I believe):

O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible Worm
That crawls in the Night
In the howling Storm

Hath found out thy bed
Of Crimson joy
And his dark Secret Love
Doth thy Life destroy.

Another amazing one is "The Question" by May Swenson. READ IT.

Do you have any allegory to share? Either a favourite poem, or something you're working on? I will post a few of mine as comments -- you are welcome to do so as well :)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Acrostic Poem

Like abstract poetry, I think this is more useful as an exercise (although some of the acrostic Psalms are really Good Poetry). Set yourself a limit -- a word which determines the first letter (or the middle, or last, or some combination) of each line. It may have something to do with the content of the poem, or not as you please. Then see what you can come up with. Rhyme or not as you please. I had fun with this exercise. A few silly examples:

Let me hesitate, only
a moment -- draw in my breath
to fortify myself -- then I
endeavor ... endeavor ... A moment --
Reluctant, weak, I watch
Now flicker into Now again,
Each new Now weaker, its
violet wings crumpling.
Embarrassed, time slips past in days and hours,
Runs fluidlike from Later into Never. 

Grace comes sometimes surprising --
ripping the zigzag seems I laid with such
arachnid dexterity. Even -- often -- with
violence -- If
I could only follow that straight-stitched line
to faith. Only love
you, spider God, imperial spinner.

Don't be afraid. I only ever wanted to
embrace you, as
a good friend might.
Thin arms wrapped around your shoulder bones, warm, shaking with your

Abstract Poetry

According to the Handbook, "in this type of work, the meaning of the words becomes secondary to their sound."

The first example that comes to mind is Lewis Carrol's "Jabberwocky:" 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe ...", which is just fun and bouncy to say. There are (if one can call them that) more serious abstract poems, written not to be ridiculous fun but to emphasise or try to get to know the sounds of words apart from their meaning.

Writing abstract poetry is a bit embarrassing. I certainly can't see it producing any Great True Poems, but having dutifully gone through the exercise I think there is value in simply playing around with the way words sound. It helps your ear. It works best when you do it aloud, quickly, without thinking.

Here's what I came up with (I did say it was embarrassing). It's harder than it sounds not to naturally try and make a kind of meaning and order to it:

Oh, anchorite! the slender insolence
of bells sings clinging silver.
Oracles complain from raining pillars
shivering wells echo. Oh! Oh
compline, carol, insular,
consoling. This coracle's inverse
design, the sneering amber
incline, to fragile incorrupt and
un-incarnate, tender.

Monday, January 11, 2010

I felt infested

When am I a poet?

Not at thirteen, with notebooks scribbled full of terrible free verse (line after line of I, I, I). Not at university, learning at last to look out into the world. Not now, with scraps of linked words pecking at my brain like hungry birds. Perhaps never. 

It is time to stop dreaming of what I may be, and learn to write.

Jobless, and still waiting for genius to seize my brain, I may as well improve my time.

The goal: to improve my writing, both in quantity and in variety of form. I've been in love with words -- I want to learn to wrestle them, sweat with them, bend them, push them, trick them, be surprised by them again.

The tool: this textbook from my college days.

The method: in one year, work through all the forms described in the book. Play with them. Write something -- anything.

The muses: the ones who really are poets, the old ones and the new ones.

And if I am after all no poet, at least I will have written out those pecking, pecking words.

(The title of this post comes from this poem by Dana Levin.)