Exercise One: Allusion and Irony

Allusion and Irony are kind of like the sugar in your poetry kitchen; nifty stuff to have around, just the right amount makes everything sweeter, too much and things become cloying.

An allusion is a casual reference to something we are assuming our reader will know. For example, the current Twilight craze is so entwined with our zeitgeist (yeah, I like to throw that word around) that I could say, "That guy looks like he might be your Edward" and anyone who hasn't lived in a cave for the last five or so years would know I mean, "That guy seems like he is your impossibly good looking and devoted soul mate" or "that guy looks like the dream apparition of your sexual starvation." When we re-appropriate a phrase, we are also making an allusion. If I say, "to fail or not to fail, that is the question" to my students, I am alluding to Hamlet's famous line. Allusion is best when we work from the natural moment you want to talk about towards the allusion, rather than forcing a moment to fit a pre-determined allusion; so let the poem about your ex-boyfriend lead you to an appropriate comparison rather than forcing your boyfriend to fit the attributes of Adonis.

Take a look at how James Wright alludes to a well-known story in the Gospels of the Bible to illustrate a sad irony:
Saint Judas by James Wright

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.
Let's begin with what Wright does not do here. He doesn't explain that Judas is the apostle who betrayed Jesus. Explaining your allusion kills the impact of the allusion. He also creates a scene that is not recorded in the Gospels. What the allusion does is it introduces the reader to a character loaded with baggage - the reader comes the name "Judas" with all sorts of assumptions and some understanding of his back story. Wright uses this to his advantage by only concentrating his narrative on the action.

Step One
Remember that allusions can be to anything, not just literature. Compose ten lines using allusions to all sorts of sources (see the examples below). Keep in mind that your allusion should be something many,even most readers should be familiar with. Certainly you can allude to a song lyric from a band only you and two of your friends listen to, but the allusion doesn't do its job with your reader. The allusion should work as a shorthand, allowing you to refocus your efforts on another part of your poem rather than explain the allusion:
Literary Allusion - Ex: "he's crazy - he's always talking about 'Big Brother' watching us"
Historical Allusion - Ex: at one point, I put my ear to the floor hoping to hear an underground railroad
Pop Culture Allusion - Ex: "Oh, it's nothing - just Bret Farve again. Oh, look there's an attachment..."
Geographical Allusion - Ex: take a left at the Bermuda Triangle
The list of allusions a poet can make are like the sands of sea and the hairs on our heads (yes, that is an allusion!). They are endless. Have fun coming up with your lines, but don't worry about them relating to one another.

Step Two
Wright's poem is also ironic. Judas is a character so deplorable that Dante assigned him to the ninth circle of hell, but Wright begins the poem by calling him "Saint" and follows up with Judas acting as any saint might, selflessly.

Irony is a form of contradiction, but it is the very specific contradiction of something/someone to do/say/mean/act in the exact opposite fashion of what might be expected or indicated. The best sort of irony is the kind that creeps in, comes naturally but unexpectedly. We lose the edge to irony when we hit the reader over the head with imagery that is unnatural or makes no sense in the situation we present. So let's try to make those earlier allusions ironic:
  • They organized, armed up, and staged the attack without interruption, as if Big Brother were blessing them
  • they formed an underground railroad for the Pasadena housewives so they wouldn't be seen by the rabble on their way from one Arts & Crafts safe house to the next
  • Bret Farve sent me a "happy birthday" message - no attachments!
  • MacGyver could navigate the Bermuda Triangle with a tricycle and a rubber band (that's a double allusion!)
Take a look at your allusions and rewrite each with an ironic twist. Some may be easier than others, but try to make every single one ironic. You will begin to see how hard it is to be ironic. By the way, this is something you should just know: there was a pretty popular song by Alanis Morrisette in the 1990s called "Ironic" but, as many, many people have pointed out over the years, almost every verse is an example of the unfortunate, not the ironic. Be sure not to make the same mistake.

Step  Three
Now that you are familiar with both terms, try to compose one poem that makes maybe two allusions. Then try to compose a poem that creates one or two ironic situations. Build off of the allusion or the ironic situation to make a poem that does center around the device (allusion, irony) but uses the device to enhance the poem. Notice how subtly Louise Bogan uses an allusion to the character Cassandra and some fine ironies in this poem:

Cassandra by Louise Bogan

To me, one silly task is like another.
I bare the shambling tricks of lust and pride.
This flesh will never give a child its mother,—
Song, like a wing, tears through my breast, my side,
And madness chooses out my voice again,
Again. I am the chosen no hand saves:
The shrieking heaven lifted over men,
Not the dumb earth, wherein they set their graves.
Remember to use irony and allusion frugally; each goes a long way. Too much allusion (particularly allusion to philosophy, theory, religion, and literature) may make your poem sound pompous. Too much irony can just make your poem lose meaning - irony is a reversal, so if you reverse too many times, the reader may not know which way you are ultimately going. Keep the reader with you.