Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | September 1, 2012

From Buddha to Tolkien – Using Allusions

How much should a writer risk in alluding to books, songs, films, or any other elements of pop culture or history?

It’s an issue most of us struggle with as we craft our poems and stories.

Allusions enrich our own work, bringing a depth and universality to our message by suggesting a link to the past or to another experience.  But if we make a reference to a movie that few readers have seen, the comparison fails — and we risk alienating those readers.

I’m working on a poem today about the hypocrisy inherent in our relationship with trees:  We admire and revere them, but we can’t live without the products created by chopping them down.

Here’s my first stanza:


How the accolades persist:

Buddha beneath the Bodhi,

Kilmer’s icon looking at God,

Katharine Hepburn’s stately oak,

or the drooping twig of Charlie Brown.


While I’m 99% sure all of my readers will understand the last line, and I’m 90% sure of the first, I’m less sure of the two references in the middle.  So in the service of certainty, do I change them?  Or do I keep them and hope that even those who have no clue about Kilmer or Hepburn will figure out what I’m doing and soldier on regardless?

Titles are trickier still.  I’ve decided that the perfect way to end my poem is to point out that the giant tree characters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series would not exist for us if it weren’t for books — which are made by destroying trees.  To set the stage for the poem’s ending, I’m thinking of titling the poem “Paradox of the Ents.”  But in doing this, I risk losing readers.  If you didn’t know what an Ent was, would you read such a poem?  Probably not.  However, if you were a Tolkien lover, you just might dive into that poem with the expectation of delight.

I think most often, so long as the allusions aren’t too obscure, and so long as the writer includes enough clues to keep all readers from being lost, allusions can improve the overall effect of the poem or story.  I’m willing to alienate a few readers for the sake of enriching the experience for the majority of them.  A well-placed allusion can produce a wonderful “aha!” moment — which is, I believe, one of the clearest signs that a poem is a success.


  1. Do we need them all? I don’t think so. We get what we get and we’re sure to get at least two of those.

  2. Glad you agree, Pete! Thanks.

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