Using: The Allegorical Habit in Contemporary Poetry
Roman proverb: “He who does two things at once does neither well.” In the following discussion, my goal is to do only one thing: to examine, and not praise, a curious rhetorical strategy that casts a shadow over so many works of imaginative literature now being published. That shadow could be called “parabolic” or “allegorical,” whatever term fits as a description for an author’s use of “masks,” subtexts, indirect reference, and oblique communication in order to comment on the work or lives of other contemporaries. For reasons not yet determined we seem to be living in a period when innuendo, hinting, signals made behind metaphorical “veils” have reached epidemic proportions. No, strike that. “Infection” is the metaphor most in vogue right now to hint at the phenomenon, but, meanwhile, the term “addiction” fits even better and allows for the possibility that those affected might opt for rehabilitation.
Though it has over the past decade become suffocatingly widespread, the practice isn’t new; it has probably been current whenever and wherever imaginative writing was considered a public pursuit. Suppose we begin with an instance from the early twentieth century. In his biography of Edith Wharton, R.W.B. Lewis discusses a story of Henry James’s titled “‘The Velvet Glove’,” noting that it contains many oblique references to Wharton. It’s not that the character of the aspiring and ambitious woman poet in the story much resembles Wharton herself, who, unlike James’s character, never asked an older established male homme de lettres to write a preface for a collection of her poems. Lewis points out that the story uses several phrases and epithets James had often applied in private to Wharton, with the result that his circle of intimate friends at least would be able to see the fiction as an inside joke, the amusing satire of a fellow artist—one who, despite a few rough edges, had also been a good friend to the senior novelist. Although Wharton decided to send warm compliments to James and to tell his friends how much she liked “‘The Velvet Glove’,” that decision doesn’t mean she failed to understand the subtext. By praising the story she deflected surmises that it had something to do with her, and, meanwhile, there were other ways to get even without resorting to an open attack. In an article published in The New Yorker (April 2, 2001), the critic Claudia Roth Pierpont argues that Wharton’s story “The Eyes,” which appeared about a year after “‘The Velvet Glove’,” is an act of literary vengeance against James and his veiled satire. If we accept Lewis’s and Roth Pierpont’s views, we are at the same time acknowledging that literary texts can deal with issues never mentioned directly; and that these texts may conceal (and, to some eyes, reveal) negative intentions toward other writers.
Although concealed attacks between authors can be found in contemporary fiction, I want to focus instead on contemporary poetry, where veiled implications are usually constructed without the development of fictional characters. Instead, the author “encodes” the reference through choice of subject, style, and the inclusion of particular literary props and turns of phrase, these acting to establish hidden links to existing texts or even entire literary careers. When the references are negative or satirical, writing turns into a sort of game, but one played at such high stakes no author wants to be exposed as having played it. Proposing the existence of hidden references in literary texts falls under the heading of critical interpretation and therefore isn’t subject to legal sanctions against libel. I don’t doubt, though, that the fear and distress occasioned by critical exposure would generate angry denials; for that reason, I’ll discuss works only by authors no longer living (with one exception). Although it’s the contemporary abuse of this literary practice that most concerns me, I can, even without citing specific texts, at least discuss the problem in general terms. At one time only a few readers could discover the occasional instance of private references or inside jokes in what they read; now it has become so obvious that a large part of the audience is able to do so, and that almost every day.
I should pause long enough to state that there are instances of poetic allegory and double entendre that are not offensive. I read Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Bight” for many years with pleasure and interest before seeing published the letter she wrote to Robert Lowell about the bight (the little harbor and dock near her house) in Key West. She even drew a charming picture of it for him and then said that it looked “exactly like my writing desk.” With that letter in mind we can go back to the poem and see it as an allegory for the process of writing. (In fact, the history of Western literature is more than incidentally the history of allegory as a poetic mode, with Dante’s Commedia as the pre-eminent example. I hope it isn’t necessary to say that I’m not objecting to works like that.)
Reading Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” however, we might have reservations about its overall sincerity as soon as we recognize that it encodes some of Bishop’s positive and negative feelings about her poetic mentor, Marianne Moore. Moore herself had already published a poem titled “The Fish,” one of her best known; and the coincident title is the first of Bishop’s signals alerting readers (or at least the insiders among them) to the development of concealed commentary on the more famous elder poet. Apart from the substance and tone of homage offered throughout to this “battered and venerable and homely” aquatic hero, we can see some detraction as well. The eyes are described as “far larger than mine/but shallower, and yellowed,/the irises backed and packed/with tarnished tinfoil/seen through the lenses/of old scratched isinglass.” “Shallower and yellowed”: This is a self-interested way of characterizing differences between two poets often praised for the abundance and brilliance of visual detail included in their writing. The captured fish may be “venerable,” but the word also includes the suggestion of age and, by extension, obsolescence. Finally, the narrator says she “let the fish go,” which is the polite way of saying, “Thanks for your kind interest, but no thanks.” Critics and biographers have detailed some of the conflicts Bishop was experiencing with respect to Moore in the mid-Thirties. In addition to the letters Bishop wrote to her mentor at that time spelling out some of their differences, we can also see a chalk line being drawn in “The Fish,” just as we can in the later poem “An Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” where Bishop has the forthrightness to designate openly the primary addressee of the poem. I’m not saying that the only purpose and value of these poems resides in partly concealed gestures indicating artistic differences between Moore and Bishop. You can read Bishop’s “The Fish” without any inkling of an extra dimension of meaning and find it comprehensible and rewarding. It had more than enough to offer readers who were “out of the loop” back in the 1930s, just as it would to a contemporary reader unaware of Bishop’s relationship with Moore.
Moore is not the only contemporary poet Bishop ever addressed (under the veil of metaphor) in her poems. When she wrote “The Armadillo” and attached a dedication to Robert Lowell, she was (as with “An Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”) making herself at least partially accountable for the negative overtones found there: the subject animal’s armoring, his “weak, mailed fist clinched/ ignorant against the sky!” and so forth. Lowell’s reciprocal dedication of “Skunk Hour” to her shoulders the same sort of partial accountability while it develops its allegorical critique—a fairly transparent one, let it be said. There is, for example, Lowell’s not-so-casual mention of a hermit living on Nautilus Island, whose “son’s a bishop.” The allusion calls to mind the “more stately mansions” of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “The Chambered Nautilus” and Moore’s “The Paper Nautilus,” with Moore allegorized here as the literary “parent” of Bishop. (These connections were first suggested by Sandra M. Gilbert in “Mephistophilis in Maine: Rereading ‘Skunk Hour,’ from Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry.) A bit more cutting is Lowell’s evocation of a “fairy decorator,” who festoons his shop window with fake nautical paraphernalia; and the title’s mammalian protagonist, who dips her (note gender) muzzle in a cup of sour cream “and will not scare.” Veiled as they are, these two poems can’t be described as fighting with bare knuckles. Yet they land some daunting blows, which perhaps explains why during those years Bishop and Lowell kept a certain distance from each other.
To move forward to another generation, it’s instructive to see James Merrill, a poet always ready to praise Bishop directly, also make some indirect comments about her in his poems. In fact, he adds one more in the series of Moore and Bishop fish allegories with his “The Parrot Fish,” heightening the suggestion of mimicry even further by drawing on the notion of “parroting.” Here the fish is female, “all veils and sequins,/a priestess out of the next Old Testament extravaganza,/with round gold eyes and miniscule buckteeth.” The Bishop expert can find allusions not only to “The Fish,” but to “The Bight,” “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” as well as “At the Fishhouses,” all of this in a mere 20 lines. I may as well state my opinion: No one was more skillful than Merrill in devising poems that, apart from their surface interest, also contained an allegorical layer of meaning designed to be understood only by a quite small sector of the readership. To his credit, he was not entirely self-congratulatory about his abilities in that direction. I’m not enough a specialist in his biography to identify the addressee of the poem “To a Butterfly,” but Merrill’s dissatisfaction with veiled reference is apparent enough in the tone of weariness that accompanies these lines:
Goodness how tired one grows
Just looking through a prism:
I’ve tried, Lord knows,
To keep from seeing double,
Blushed for whenever I did….
The poem looks forward to the day when its speaker and the allegorized butterfly “will have flown/The other’s jail.” But that day was never permanently ushered in during Merrill’s lifetime. He continued to write poems with extra meanings for that part of the readership that could catch them. I have to say that some of them made me squirm—as do the next paragraphs of this essay because the information conveyed is personal and may give the impression of vanity or self-importance. If there were any other method of heightening the plausibility of the more general assertions made in this essay, I would adopt it. But there is none that I can think of, and so I have for a while to hold in abeyance my objections to speaking out.
When I first began to publish, I had no clue that poets sometimes asked the Muse to serve as postmistress for secret letters sent to each other. More than that, I was a social naïf, who didn’t realize that in daily encounters, people convey difficult, embarrassing or hostile feelings to each other by a vast, elaborate system of codes and signals. This sort of communication, I eventually saw, was managed not merely in statements made with double meanings. It could also be achieved in the choice of clothes and colors worn, the scheduling of dates and hours for meetings or social occasions, the kind and order of food served at dinner parties, and the identities of the guests gathered there to greet each other. All of these phenomena could be freighted with an extra dimension of meaning by a sufficiently skilled deviser of non-verbal metaphors. (Maybe I will allowed to ask, in an aside, whether anyone else shares my impatience with this social practice, which often involves all sorts of waste and bother: dates and meeting hours chosen not because they are the most convenient but because they have the desired symbolic content; company assembled so as to manufacture a composite reflection that guests may not find especially congenial; and presents given not because they will gladden the heart of the recipient but because they convey the requisite “message.” Moreover, when the obliquely communicated message is one that many agents consider important to convey, the recipient may expect to have it sent over and over again, with a cumulative effect of intense boredom and unavoidable feelings of pity for the purely mechanistic side of human nature. Five dozen calculators, given the same problem, will, of course, all regurgitate the same answer to it; but it’s always depressing to witness programmed responses in human behavior.)
To return to my narrative, there was never a more thorough literalist than myself at age twenty, and I wonder how many thousands of messages went completely over my head back then. No one had ever, in a concerned prompter’s whisper, nudged me to look for symbolic gestures in the daily round, and so I never saw any. Disturbing also is the near-certainty that non-symbolic words and deeds of mine were interpreted “allegorically,” understood as conveying an inappropriate commentary on my social circumstances. If my failure to grasp the program was a social indiscretion, how much more must it have been a literary blunder when I began publishing? Most likely I failed to make the expedient literary homages and (with more perplexing consequences) produced inadvertent critiques in texts intended literally but read “allegorically.” Of course it’s also possible that, again inadvertently, I produced works that seemed to convey the requisite praise or censure, texts to which readers ascribed extra meanings the author didn’t for his part see. I certainly knew, during that phase, that allegory was a standard literary mode in use since at least the Middle Ages in Western literature; but the object of traditional allegory was more generic—“The Progress of the Soul,” as in Dante or Bunyan. No one told me it could be used to comment on what fellow or rival authors had published last month, and my native obtuseness or innocence prevented me from seeing that it held that potential.
I can’t remember exactly when it began to dawn on me that daily social interaction was filled with coded meanings, but it was probably in the late 1970s when I moved to New Haven and suddenly found my calendar filled with dinner parties, public lectures, and “receptions.” It was a much more sophisticated, cosmopolitan milieu than I’d been used to as a fledgling, downtown poet in New York. A frequent participant was James Merrill, who came down from Stonington, Connecticut, for various events or was himself a host at his own place an hour’s drive north of New Haven. In the discussion above, I suggested that he was the most expert producer of poetic allegories we’ve seen in the contemporary period. It follows that he was also extraordinarily skillful in the techniques of conveying implicit meanings in purely social contexts. He was able to do so in casual conversation, certainly, but just as adroitly in social arrangements or what might be called the “orchestration” of the presumably random collection of objects and books that might be lying about on any given evening in his living room. In his Ouija board trilogy, he wrote at length about that Stonington house, which he’d already made into something of a concrete “poem” by choosing and arranging its permanent contents. For example, a large Venetian-baroque mirror with a gilt frame stationed opposite a window onto the harbor; a blue and white Japanese ceramic lamp next to the Louis XVI armchair he always received guests in; and a grand piano tucked beneath the angled gables of the top story, whose exposed beams were as complicated as the bone structure of a bat wing.
As said before, discussing my own life and writing isn’t my favorite pastime, but the only way to continue is simply to state the facts. Late in 1979, I sent James Merrill the manuscript draft of The Various Light, which was published in revised form a year later. After he read it, a dinner invitation came, along with a few noncommittally encouraging words about the manuscript. During the drive to Stonington, I was already having second thoughts about the prospective book. After dinner, JM, as we often called him, said he had a new poem and asked if I would like to hear it. He took his usual seat beneath the Japanese lamp and began reading “Clearing the Title,” its stated subject the problem of finding an overall title for the three books of the Ouija trilogy, originally published separately but soon to be issued under one cover (and a title, which he needed to choose). The narrative details a flight the poet takes to Key West in order to rejoin his partner David Jackson, ebullient with the news that he has just bought a house there. A basic pun in the poem’s conception has to do with clearing the deed of title for the property and at last coming up with a title for his trilogy. Readers may or may not remember that he eventually chose to call it The Changing Light at Sandover. Well, at least he didn’t settle on The Various Light at Sandover, but the difference wasn’t large enough to blind me to some of the concealed objectives informing “Clearing the Title.” Merrill didn’t generally like overt literary allusions; and he wouldn’t have used a phrase from Marvell as I had for my title (drawn from “The Garden”). Only later did it occur to me that he probably understood that title as a double entendre, one based on the similarity between the names “Marvell” and “Merrill.” But that’s just it: The inveterate allegorizer assumes that everyone else is adopting the same approach. Anyway, the immensely long epic dictated by creatures from the other realm, its voices including a bat who changes into a peacock named Mirabell and a unicorn sans horn named Uni, was going to be called by the title that the poem had “cleared.”
JM gave me a typescript of “Clearing the Title,” which I took back with me and read with much more comprehension than I had been able to muster after a dinner where more than one bottle of wine had been served. What became apparent was not only the origin of his title, but also the symbolic import of other details in the poem. It was a metaphoric response to the manuscript I’d sent to him—and not especially flattering, though it eventually manages to muster a few favorable perspectives toward the end. Chances are, he’d almost despaired that I would ever catch on to the veiled aspect of contemporary poetry and had settled on the glaring hint of the title as a way of waking me up. It worked. I revised the ms. and added a longish poem called “The Outdoor Amphitheater” that could be described as allegorical itself, if a less practiced example of the genre than those Merrill regularly produced. The allegorical mode as applied to contemporaries isn’t one I really like, partly because I’m not good at it. (For that matter, I’m not really good at social double entendre, either, and tend to be flatly literal in all I say and do.) But it’s also partly because this form of allegory strikes me as not fully honest; the problems outlined farther along in this essay hadn’t become clear to me as early as 1979.
A large part of Merrill’s remaining years were spent in David Jackson’s house in Key West, where, among others in a more forthright mode, he wrote a number of poèmes à clef. Some of them, like “Bronze” and “Family Week at Oracle Ranch” I can’t read without a strange mixture of anger and repulsion. It was never clear to me how many other readers noticed the second level of signification, but I knew that some did. Embarrassment was compounded by frustration. You can challenge an enemy who stands boldly out in the open. But how do you fight a shadow whose existence is unrecognized or at least unacknowledged by the public at large? The old cliché solution is that you fight fire with fire, or in this case shadows with other shadows.
In 1989, as a result of private events that also involved other people, JM broke off friendly relations with me. It was a difficult time, when a number of people I’d considered friends almost overnight severed all contact. I was suddenly without a permanent address and with very few allies. In retrospect, I can see that my own unsettled circumstances and anxieties led me to take some inadvisable steps. And that included publishing a poem I’d been working on. For several years I’d been taking notes for a characterized monologue based on the Dracula fable, which interested me on several counts (as it apparently also does our culture, given how many treatments of the subject we’ve seen over the past decade). I looked at the drafts I had and realized that with a few additions the poem could touch on what felt at the moment like an important theme: the inculcation of habits of perception and communication based on double entendre. The text conflates those practices and habits with the condition of vampirism in its more familiar aspects. A corollary theme developed in the poem was the mentor-apprentice relationship—applicable to artistic contexts, certainly, but to others also. This all may sound solemn and weighty, yet I thought of the poem as a comic work, mainly. It had a serious side, but it wasn’t a poem of the first importance, anyway not one central to my idea of myself as a poet.
Uncertain whether it was finished or publishable, I showed it to Richard Howard, who was then poetry editor of The New Republic. He was eager to have it appear there, as it did in record time. In the career of the poet, there are not many moments that make a “Before” and “After,” but this was one such. If I had known the consequences, I would never have written or at least published the poem (titled “My Neighbor, the Distinguished Count”). I didn’t know it would be subject to reductive allegorical readings and interpreted as an attack, pure and simple, on James Merrill. Not that anyone said so in print or in private, or not directly. It won me some “veiled” enemies, along with some gleeful allegorical accomplices. I wanted neither kind of association, based as both were on a misapprehension. Of course, if you ever do anything substantial you will end up with both friends and enemies; but I prefer friendship (or, for that matter, enmity) when it is based on something substantial and important, not something inferential and hypothetical.
An even more serious problem developed in the years following. As soon as an author has been perceived as writing allegorically in one instance, insiders begin to look for an allegorical dimension in everything he or she produces from that day forward. On many occasions when I’ve published a poem in which I was dealing with the announced subject and no other, it became apparent that some readers were “reading between the lines” to discover a subtext I never put there. The instant I realized what was happening, I would say, “Oh, no, you don’t think I meant that?” But only silently; you can’t defy the taboo forbidding any open mention of indirect communication. Or so it seemed to me then.
An especially painful instance for me was a poem that I do, myself, value more than many others I’ve written, titled “Insertion Arias.” It uses the analogy of music to suggest that we all in a sense insert ourselves in the memory of those we love and are loved by, so that after death they can remember us, much as they remember a favorite piece of music. However that may be, it gradually dawned on me that the poem was being read as an allegory for the transmission of poetic influence. Even worse, the influence being transmitted was being understood as something closer to influenza, infection—or, to go the distance, the condition of vampirism. The Dracula poem had reported the knocking of a ghost at the narrator’s door; readers of “Insertion Arias” saw another one, and this time it was myself. Faced with this appalling misconstrual, I kept quiet, however frustrating it was to do so. Yet I wanted to ask, Why would anyone write an allegory as self-incriminating as that? Isn’t it preposterous to lend the poem such a dire meaning? Social conventions, however, oppose calling a mask a mask; so I pretended not to notice and hoped it would all quickly subside and be forgotten.
Then subtext-poems in response—unimaginably—began pouring in in extraordinary numbers, some of them astonishingly venomous. Let’s put it this way: I always regarded myself as a bit of a specialty item and never assumed there was a large audience for what I wrote. (Yet this particular poem was published in The Paris Review, which is widely read, not many pages away from a poem by James Merrill, allowing for juxtaposition and subtextual surmises.) In any case, there are always some who latch on to the “Zeitgeist of the moment” and, without bothering to inform themselves at the original source, are able to spout the going buzzwords along with all the others in the herd they’ve joined. Maybe a bee swarm is a closer metaphor, considering that bees have stings. The uniformity of these stings is a convincing recent proof that the vast collectivity of contemporary writers is unoriginal. What others say, they say; whom others attack, they attack. The current vogue also probably qualifies as a literary form of scapegoating, and, if so, the explanation is easy to find. Concealment is a form of dishonesty, and where there is dishonesty, there will be guilt acknowledged or unacknowledged. One way of handling guilt feelings is to project them onto a convenient scapegoat, to castigate it for the very thing we are unable to face in ourselves. To look on the bright side, we can at least be glad that the stoning underway here is performed with words and not with anything harder. Yet words are hard, too; they will suffice. That so many of the attacks involved fictions about violence done to women was particularly painful to an author who had signed on three decades ago as a supporter of Women’s Liberation and since that time incorporated feminist themes into his writing. (On the other hand, I’ve come to realize that, quite apart from any reference to me, the archetype of “Death and the Maiden” is one of the most potent for artistic production in our day and therefore apt to be deployed in all sorts of contexts. It’s tempting to hazard an explanation for the current appeal of a Gothic theme dating back to the Romantic period, but that would be for another essay.)
Meanwhile, the outpouring of coded messages struck me as a stunningly paradoxical response to the inference that literary texts should not encode comment directed at those in the know, as the Dracula poem tried to suggest. I put up with it as well as I could. But, really, aren’t there others besides me who, paging through lit magazines, are appalled to see so many treatments of gloom, doom, horror, vampires, mummies, ghosts, victimization, rape, incest, infection, serial murder, suicide, maidens welcoming the arrival of fanged mortality, ghoulish or satirical banquets—well, I could go on. There is more to life than death, right? At least there was when Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, and Crane were writing.
To me the most regrettable of these negatives has been the annexation of a purely medical problem to the repertory of contemporary metaphor. Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, spoke courageously about the damage done to the psychological well-being of cancer patients when they saw that their illness was used as a metaphor for personal or social problems. She carried the argument further in Aids and its Metaphors, applying it to the current epidemic. Unfortunately, the lessons drawn in her books have been ignored. Although I do not have AIDS and am not HIV-positive, many of my friends are living under that threat; in past years, close friends have died as a result of it. I repudiate any use of AIDS as a metaphor for pyschological, social, or literary ills. Those suffering from it have enough to contend with at the purely literal level; no humane writer would add to those difficulties by using their condition as a convenient metaphor for non-medical topics. I want to add that I did not know James Merrill was HIV-positive until a few days before his death. We were not in contact, and, in any case, only a small number of intimates were told of his condition. It’s unfortunate and discouraging that some devisers of metaphor have exploited one or two points of resemblance between a medical condition and a Gothic fantasy to produce works that may cause distress to those faced with this life-threatening illness.
I can now put aside (with relief), my own story and discuss allegory of this special kind in general terms. Given that coded or “allegorical” writing flourishes most often under totalitarian regimes, you have to wonder what conditions in the present-day Republic of Letters favor the production of so many works whose surface themes are a mask for unannounced subtexts. Of course the action of a coded dimension in a literary text is very hard to prove; where there is no freedom of the press, that very indeterminacy is what saves the allegorical writer from imprisonment or worse. But given that dissidents can’t be arrested (or not literally), for what they write in our liberal Western democracies, why do so many resort to a technique common under governments practicing censorship? Why are contemporary writers willing, in effect, to impose partial censorship on themselves by adopting a mode most often used by modern writers faced with actual censorship? One answer is that, although detractors of the status quo can’t be imprisoned, they are subject to other sorts of reprisals. Editors can choose not to publish their writing; if it is published, reviewers can choose to attack or entirely ignore it, which amounts to the same thing; and fellowship and prize committees can reward some other writer or book more in tune with the views of the literary faction the committee supports. I wish I could say that most poets currently on the scene would never let career factors affect what they wrote; but that would put a strain on readers’ tolerance for naïveté.
On the other hand, maybe we should be glad that writers are willing to commit themselves even to the extent of expressing their actual thoughts and feelings “allegorically,” given that the most influential part of the readership immediately grasps the subtext. But that argument would be convincing only if the subtexts were most often positive (in the sense of being on the side of justice), as allegorical writings generally were when produced under dictatorships. In our time, though, the overwhelming majority of poems with an extra, resonant dimension have a negative, not to say appalling content. No official censorship forbids the expression of sentiments in favor of freedom, justice, and tolerance. An unofficial censorship, however, discourages the expression of personal critiques, and here the usefulness of oblique reference becomes apparent. Because there’s no way to prove that concealed implication is actually there, the allegorizing writer feels it’s safe to encode all sorts of negative commentary no one would dare to state openly. That very slipperiness points up a serious ethical issue connected to the phenomenon. The fact is that texts with “overtones” or special insinuations have real consequences for real people in the real world; and yet, because such statements remain at the virtual level, their framers are dispensed from normal rules of accountability. I’ll go even further. The carte blanche of coding actually encourages spite. Oscar Wilde’s famous statement, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth,” should actually be revised to, “Give a man a mask, and he’ll overstate the negative.” Why? Because he can. It’s the one chance to be nasty and get away with it, a chance to indulge in the pleasures of satire without having to pick up the tab.
In the view of some, the opportunity that oblique reference provides for the free expression of hostile comment is the main justification for the practice: It makes accessible to us information or opinion that would otherwise be withheld. I have three objections to that argument, one already mentioned. The “information” we get this way is actually distorted, unduly stressing the negative. As with all emotions, a welcome sensation of release, almost a pleasure (at the very least, an adrenaline high) comes in first feeling and then expressing hostility. People tend to extend the process of “ventilation” of angry feelings long beyond the point when actual content has been communicated. Recalling that sentimentality is simply emotion in excess of the occasion, we have to acknowledge that anger, no less than tenderness, can be sentimental. More than half of the negative allegories we now read could be described as sentimentally spiteful, and false exactly to that degree.
Truth is also compromised by the ambiguity, the undefined character, of figurative signification. How hard it is to convey an exact sense of things even when you are writing “out in the open,” with only an occasional recourse to metaphor. A poem with a subtext conveyed merely through figuration and innuendo risks vagueness at the least, and it may even be understood as conveying a content directly opposed to the author’s intention. Each reader is certain to come up with a different interpretation of what has been communicated; and there’s no chance for comparison and revision because the whole process is conducted without public acknowledgment. Finally, the process of free discussion and argument, fundamental to modern democratic societies, is subverted because allegorical gestures evade being designated as actual assertions, subject to regular discussion and debate. The only way to counter or qualify an allegorical assertion is to produce another allegory, and so on in a downward spiral that moves farther and farther away from any verifiable truth. It’s probably for reasons like these that Jacques Ellul, in an essay titled “Contempt for Language” (from The Humiliation of the Word) says, “We need to make what we say monovalent instead of ambivalent; we must eliminate uncertainty and transform language into a useful supplement to demonstration. Language must be purified of references to any unacknowledged thing.” He is speaking mainly of non-imaginative uses of language, but the same criticism could be directed with equal cogency at imaginative writing, at least when the deployment of calculated ambiguity becomes as widespread and cavalier as it has in recent years.
I wonder, too, whether others agree that the use of “subtext” in public ceremonials or in electoral contests has become odious. Is this the inevitable byproduct of living in the era of instant communication, in which every word, deed, item of clothing, and current geographical location of public figures is made available, live and perfectly visible on a million color TV sets across the land? Probably. But those words and deeds are designed, before anything else, to send the right “message,” to serve as a symbolic embodiment of the attitudes and policies likely to win public approval. You would think that a symbolic approach to public affairs would succeed only to the degree that its appeal was directed below the level of the audience’s conscious mental activity. But, in fact, newscasters always openly discuss the symbolism behind statements and appearances of political figures, especially when the latter are campaigning for office. It’s assumed that everyone is aware what sort of game is being played, and that the key issue is the candidate’s adroitness in the manipulation of metaphor, even more than the political positions he or she might hold.
An odd feature of allegorical assertion is that negative instances can harm much more than positive ones can help. A purely metaphoric gesture of support extended through a text to a person in difficult circumstances might give the addressee a reassuring sense of having sympathizers, but it doesn’t do more than that. Because they can’t be made accountable for a positive message any more than a negative, supportive allegorizers are able to set conscience at rest on the basis of having lent a helping hand, even though such assistance comes at no special risk and doesn’t materially alter the status quo. In human affairs cowardice can be taken for granted; but allegory is the only form of it allowing the prudent calculator to imagine he has demonstrated courage.
A complementary abuse connected to the now ingrained habit of looking for subtexts is that allegorical intentions will be mistakenly ascribed to fictions that have none; and those ascriptions, too, may have real consequences for the persons involved. As a result, a new difficulty is added to the already formidable task of writing with clear focus: You always have to screen what you write so as to expunge from it anything that could be understood, as the French say, au deuxième degré (“on the second level”). By the same token, if you somehow manage to keep things simple, you may find the reader or editor presented with your work disappointed at not finding in it the magic ingredient of double meaning. You may be told that you’ve failed to “transform” your subject—the implication being that readers today above all prefer insider information to actual substance. But that couldn’t be true, could it? The readership for contemporary poetry doesn’t much overlap with the subscription list for Vanity Fair or Talk, does it?
Perhaps it’s true that fictive texts always hold the potential for an allegorical reading, with or without the conscious intention of the author. To concede as much is to say that readers are free to devise their own interpretations of a given work. Fair enough, but shouldn’t we at least permit authors to say what they intended and not insist that someone else’s interpretation has priority over theirs? Certainly it’s hard to blame readers for seeing allegory everywhere, considering how common it has become. Actually, in the agora or arena of contemporary poetry, several popular symbolic “sites” and tactics are so often employed they’ve worn through to perfect transparency. That transparency obviates the disguising function of allegory, without, unfortunately, restoring a principle of accountability.
Which tactics and “sites” do I mean? Well, the strategy of seeing one poet or artist as a sort of pun for another poet not mentioned in the text; or making the figure of a biological parent stand for a poetic precursor; or the figure of a narrator’s offspring understood as either the author’s current poem, book, or poetic disciple. And then, certain persistent metaphoric topoi that fill the literary quarterlies: angels, the alphabet, Venice, Japan and things Japanese, museums, French culture, baroque music, Henry James himself, and the trappings of Gothic in general; and, on the other hand, dogs and underdogs, jazz, cartoon characters, figures from pop culture like Elvis Presley, or “outsider art.” Any one of these can be remade into vehicles for comment on writers currently publishing. It may in some sense be true that, as much modern literary criticism has suggested, the fundamental subject of poetry is always poetry; yet what we get nowadays much more often is poems in code (a favorite parlor game) about other poets.
Actually, considering it as “just a game” helps explain why the practice is so prevalent. Like all games, devising codes and metaphoric vehicles provides an occasion for the exercise of ingenuity; devisers get to indulge in the pleasure of feeling particularly clever when they score their points. In the long run, vanity and the appeal of cleverness supplant any intention of communicating actual content. Mere accuracy is sacrificed to the fun of the (to use a figure) video game Meta-Forum. In poems like Bishop’s, the ostensible subject matter is fully independent and satisfactory on its own. Overtones and private references come in as a far second, and need not be grasped in order for the reading experience to seem complete and coherent.
Meanwhile, paging through the quarterlies nowadays, over and over again you come across poems whose surface meaning is negligible or indeterminate; extra “resonance” has been acquired at the expense, on the literal level, of clarity and coherence. Fathoming the poem’s subtext is relatively easy for insiders, but an unsolvable puzzle for the common reader not acquainted with behind-the-scenes conflicts of our particular moment. But that reader’s puzzlement hardly figures in the equation; magazines and books are directed at those in the know. Actually, a necessary stage in the “professionalization” of the novice writer is the acquisition of enough inside information to become a player, able to comment—indirectly—on current literary topics. And in the long run the practice becomes simply a habit; no longer motivated by any pressing desire to communicate, it’s just a reflex not fully within the control of the addicted allegorizer. What you don’t see is what you get, and somewhere in all this fiddle, the gift to be simple is utterly lost, with who knows what consequences. I find myself in complete agreement with Octavio Paz’s statement (quoted here from his monumental study of Sor Juana): “A culture of silences, reticences, charades, and circumlocutions is not a modern culture.”
I present the next consideration as an afterthought, even though from one vantage it might be regarded as the most important objection to privileging symbol over substance. Since the Romantic era, the governing aesthetic myth has been this: that artistic production is motivated by sincerity, by urgent personal concerns. It is the myth that I myself subscribed to from the outset. For that reason, when the ostensible subject of a poem is only a pretext for a hidden content understood by only a portion of the audience, that poem’s sincerity (for me) is compromised beyond repair. Instead of a human face, the producer of an allegory has offered a simulacrum, a deceptive “mask,” thereby forfeiting the trust that is a fundamental component in audience response. I remember Keats’s objection to poems “that have designs on us.” Some would say, though, that the locus of artistic sincerity has simply shifted, and that the subtext, rather than the pretext, now embodies it. But that would mean that sincere convictions are stated without risk, a situation quite different from those in which an author has been willing to deal directly with experience and formulate, openly, a comment on it. Is it just naïveté to admire those authors who are willing to “take the rap” for the statements they make rather than those who couch their opinions in “code” and bypass the consequences of forthrightness?
The current vogue for subtexts probably qualifies as a literary form of scapegoating. And it isn’t dishonesty alone that sets into motion the scapegoating mechanism, but a kind of hypocrisy as well. To understand how both of those qualms figure into the equation, we have to determine what literary feature or quality is being scapegoated. In those cases where the attack is directed at the allegorical approach itself—the habit of seeing and writing double—in what way is a poem using that very method exempt from the same charge? Supposing that current allegorizers regard allegory as illegitimate, then they must also feel guilt about having used it in turn; and then need a scapegoat for still more atonement. To characterize another writer as (metaphorically) a “killer” or “assassin,” for example, is just as much a metaphorical form of murder (at best, capital punishment); and thereby falls under its own judgment.
If we turn to editors, someone needs to point out that their adaptation of what film-makers call “montage” can be used to convey extra meanings as well. Soviet theorists of cinema referred to one of its methods as the “Kuleshov” effect. For example: Begin with a shot of a man smiling broadly; then precede and follow it up with a cut of a mother kissing her child; the result is a mini-portrait of a man with a good heart. Then, take the same shot of him and sandwich it between shots showing a young woman undressing as seen through her bedroom window. The grinning man will suddenly be revealed as a perverted peeping Tom. Those overseeing the layout of magazines dispose of an analogous resource. Whatever they put before, after, or around a given poem affects how it is read and understood, whether surrounding texts are other poems or prose or even advertisements. And opportunities like this aren’t limited to magazine publication. Though editors of poetry anthologies can’t use inserted ads “allegorically,” they can certainly lend extra meanings to individual poems by, first of all, choosing one selection of a poet’s work rather than another for inclusion; and then by choosing what poet and poems come before and after that selection. Hence the anthologizers’ penchant for selecting a particular poem for inclusion not because it is one of the author’s best but because it dovetails with hidden agenda. The poem can be one piece of the overall mosaic the anthologizer is constructing. Well, everyone wants a chance to play, including editors, and the practice might be considered legitimate if they were content simply to amplify meanings already foregrounded in a poem. Too often, however, the content of individual poems ends up distorted by editorial “montage.” The author has lost control of the original intention, which has now been altered in a direction chosen by someone else. A poem of Dickinson’s once objected to publication as “the Auction of the Mind.” In the case of magazine or anthology appearances, you can often object to it further as a subversion of communication, through an editor’s bending of authorial intention into shapes foreign to it.
It’s only possible to argue, not to prove, that the practices described above exist; and that they are prevalent enough to be objectionable. If this article has been printed, then the clear inference is that I’m not the only observer to have noticed the phenomenon. Readers could also weigh in with corroboration (and I hope not double entendre poems) if they would like to see contemporary literature kick the habit. We pride ourselves on belonging to an age in which, so the theory goes, there are no taboo subjects. Yet it’s often difficult to get people to discuss this one, either because currently enforced bans foster timidity (who wants to be called “paranoid”?) or because most people so much enjoy this particular parlor game they won’t do anything to jeopardize access to it. Still, a few friends of mine have been willing to admit, in private, that it exists, that it is real. Paradoxically, these were people whom I’d imagined the least likely to recognize the Allegory Syndrome. Others, who, on the face of it, might have been expected to have first-hand knowledge of the practice, said they were unaware of it. A third group responded by not responding at all, their silence even so not difficult to interpret. Prudential evasion in some instances, alas, took allegorical form. Apparently the essay is capable of acting much as a drum of fuel oil might on a brush fire, provoking a sudden uprush of enflamed, subtextual writing. For that reason, I’ve been hesitant to go public with these observations, in advance dreading the stereoscopic or double-barreled poems that might result from doing so. On the other hand, if direct discussion stimulated an even wider indulgence in the vice, if under every weeping willow a new allegory sprouted, if under every stone slithered a centipede of double entendre, the inflationary absurdity of the procedure would burst like a party balloon, and the reasoning sector of the audience would collapse in heaps of helpless laughter. The key to poetry’s encoded strongbox would then become available to all, and undaunted cryptographers the source of a new kind of amusement for everyone else. Evasion aside, maybe the topic isn’t really a mystery, nor its various cases in point unsolvable. Once the decks are cleared for discussion, greater numbers among those able to appreciate inside jokes may be willing to speak freely and open a new field for critical study.
It seems that literature at different times and places passes through periods of heavy allegorization, one of them, apparently, Russia at the beginning of this century. Because he was the poet he was, Mandelshtam objected to the practice and no one could improve on the summation he directed against it in the essay, “On the Nature of the Word”:
The rose is an image of the sun, the sun is an image of the rose; a dove, of a
girl, and a girl, of a dove. Figures are gutted like scarecrows and stuffed
with foreign content. Instead of the Symbolist forest, we are left with a workshop
turning out scarecrows…. Nothing remains but a terrifying quadrille
of ‘correspondences’ nodding to each other. Endless winking. Never a clear
statement, nothing but hints and whispers. The rose nods to the girl, the girl to
the rose. People don’t want to be themselves.
During the early stages of working on this essay, the events of September 11, 2001 were being played out on television screens all over the globe. No one will be able for many years to frame a complete and adequate response to a calamity that touches on so many issues. There is, though, an aspect to it that I must address. As I watched coverage of these events, over and over I heard newscasters stress the “symbolic” nature of the attacks and the importance of a properly “symbolic” response to it. For example, some worried that George Bush’s failure to return to the White House immediately was a mistake at the level of “symbol.” But until sufficient security measures had been taken, wouldn’t it have been an irrational action to take? To prefer symbol to substance is to risk disaster in the real (non-metaphoric) world we all live in. Because of their location, their prominence, and their name, the World Trade Towers were deemed a convenient symbol of the United States’s global economic domination and therefore marked for destruction by terrorists with a tutored grasp of symbolic communication. The deed was planned and carried out with a demonic indifference to the fact that it would cause the death of thousands of civilians (including children) in no way involved with American economic policy or the Middle East conflict. Down came these twin structures, and so ended those lives. The story doesn’t end there. On March 20, 2003, George Bush launched a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, one that was understood by the majority of the American public as a reprisal for the destruction of the World Trade Center. The fact that there was no connection between Iraq and Al Quaeda operatives was overlooked by the Bush Administration and by its supporters. A symbolic display of strength was deemed necessary, with Iraq as a convenient target, a symbol paid for with Iraqi and American lives.
Can anyone fail to see that it is time for the privileged position of symbol in global culture, artistic or otherwise, to be dismantled? Doing so would mean that substance would then be restored to its natural function as the primary source of the desire to speak and as a chief consideration in determining choices we make. Which site on the globe will be seen as qualifying, symbolically, as the next target for attack? And where will the perpetrators find a source of indifference sufficiently numbing to insulate themselves against the suffering they will cause?