Symbolism and Allusion
What major symbols are used?
How appropriate is each symbol in its respective poem?
How do the poets use the symbols to focus on the problems they present in their poems?
Allusions and symbols are critical components of an interesting and understandable poem. Poets rely heavily on them because of the need to economize their words. Poems don't waste words on detailed explanations in order to be understood. They rely instead on the reader to use his own process for interpreting and connecting to the meaning, whether or not he understands the allusions or symbolism.
The Penfield Study Guide poses this question: "When does a word mean more than a word? …When it's an allusion. (p.213)" A more defined meaning is that allusions are unacknowledged references or quotations which the author assumes the reader will recognize, and relate to the context of his poem. Conversely, a symbol is defined as anything -- an object, person, place, idea or situation that stands for itself and also gathers to it a larger meaning. For example, a flag could be a symbol representing freedom or surrender, depending on the color and occasion. However, by using two simple words, "Old Glory," the reader can instantly relate the allusion to the American flag and mentally recall all of the historical images associated with it. What power for two words!
This paper will use three poems, "80-Proof" (A. R. Ammons, 1975), "A Final Thing" (Li-Young Lee, 1990) and "Resume" (Dorothy Parker, 1936), to illustrate the creativeness and variety of allusions and symbols, and their usefulness in drawing the reader into the poem. Without them, these poems would not be nearly as interesting or effective, and definitely less meaningful and relevant. It is noteworthy that both Parker (born 1893) and Ammons (born 1926) are from eras that are culturally different from that of Lee's (born 1957). Yet the universal allusions used in each poem span both the cultural differences as well as their time period, and share a common thread in their view of life.
Starting with the title, "80-Proof"(Ammons, p. 1021), the use of numerical symbols and reference to alcohol is obvious. The poet's use of "fifth" for bookends beginning with "A fifth of me's me" (1) and ending with "fifth by fifth" (18), coupled with the reference to "chaser" (2) gives the reader a direct link to the title and completes the framework. The lines in between describe the physical body made of bones, nerves, veins and membranes, which sidetracks the reader into thinking that the poet is just describing the body in terms of pieces. However, the meaning is perhaps revealed toward the end with "achieve a whole" (19), which takes these pieces and makes the transformation from alcohol to a "highly transcendental" (20) individual. The overall effect is getting down to the true self and deciding whether to go "100% spiritual" (17) or "retain the shallow stain" (16). Lines 10 and...