3 Ways to Incorporate Allusions into Poems

By Ellen Gwin

1. Mimicry

Mimic rhythms or structures

Use Shakespeare’ iambic pentameter
Write a Spenserian sonnet
Mimic a poem/pieces of a larger work as a whole
For example: I modeled a poem after a famous speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

My teeth are decaying, rotting from the inside out. Years of swallowing bile laced confabulations finally decomposed the nerves within and made me numb to my next glass of gin. Bitter and crude but honest I am, no one deigns to come near my foul speaking breath. In solitude but not alone, I let my words flow. 

Friends, Americans, Countrymen lend me your nose. I come to bury “fresh breath,” not to praise it. The evil that one hides will always leak out; the good is often found in brutal honesty. So let it rest with fresh breath. Let those around me be solely filled with stinky sighs. 

Oh but the judgement! Those painted with bruised lips have lost their reason; the pain is not worth the infliction. Bear with me; I do not prefer the stench of bad breath but I must give pause to “fresh breath” in the name of sincerity. 

Mimic plot, characters, background stories, or other ideas

10 Things I Hate About You is modeled after Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

Model a character after a historical or literary figure:
Either choose one of your own accord or look into archetypes such as Magicians (Merlin, Harry Potter), Creators (gods, scientists), Femme Fatales (Lilith, Circe), etc.
Use literary/historical references as the background for your poem/story
Allude to similar ideas regarding religion, morality, politics, etc.

2. Make References

Paraphrase a quote
Shakespeare said, “These violent delights have violent ends.”
To reference it in your own writing, one could say, “They say all chaotic good brings about chaotic events.”

Compare a character/event to a literary/historical figure/event
Model a character after the infamous Mussolini; make them speak harshly and shortly with chutzpah
Model a character after Duessa in Spenser’s Faerie Queene: give them a nature of duality and deception.

Use literary/historical symbols
An apply to symbolize sin
A lotus to symbolize Buddhism
A guillotine to symbolize revolution

3. Read through your poem for associations

For example:
If you’re writing about a garden maybe make a reference to the Garden of Eden or Ophelia.
If you’re writing about the ocean maybe reference Poseidon, Varuna, rebirth, or Ulysses.
If you’re writing about heaven maybe reference Mount Olympus, archangels, or John Milton.

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