Study Guide


by Mary Jo Bang

Allegory Essay - Critical Essays


Scott Trudell

Trudell is an independent scholar with a bach-elor's degree in English literature. In the following essay, he highlights the context of Guston's Allegory and analyzes its significance in order to discuss the aesthetic commentary in Bang's poem of the same name.

"Allegory" is a coherent, visually compelling poem that, in some ways, stands alone. Bang's vision comes to life because of its own imagery, so it is possible to enjoy the poem without a close familiarity with the Philip Guston painting on which it comments. In fact, Bang's themes tend to explore her own interests instead of the artist's, and she certainly does not simply explain or draw attention to Guston's ideas. "Allegory" very closely and very carefully engages with the painting, however, and to appreciate the deeper resonance of its most important theme—its commentary on art and aesthetics—it is necessary to examine how Bang interprets Guston's work.

Before discussing Bang's particular reading of the painting, it will help to highlight Guston's role in the development of art of the late twentieth century and his self-conscious artistic commentary in Allegory. Bang has chosen a painting that makes broad and ambitious claims about the nature of art and engages explicitly with the vehement debate during the 1970s about the direction American art should take. Allegory appeared after Guston had famously and controversially disavowed abstract expressionism, at the height of his return to figurative painting. The work rejects the tenets of abstract expressionism, a movement that centers on the importance of free self-expression that does not refer or allude, symbolically or otherwise, to any external objects or events.

Allegory, a prominent example of the kind of symbolic, representational painting that occupied the final stage of Guston's career, appeared at a point when American artists were breaking away from abstract expressionism, which had been such an important and predominant movement a decade earlier. Andy Warhol, for example, had already established himself as a famous leading figure of pop art, a movement that returns to figurative art and incorporates themes and ideas from mass-produced, mass-media culture. Meanwhile, mini-malist artists such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt had become popular and influential. Unlike pop art, minimalism was not associated with symbolism, figuration, or representation; on the contrary, it often involved sculpted objects that were abstract and referred only to themselves.

American art in the 1970s, therefore, was in the midst of a debate about what art should be. Few artists were still practicing abstract expressionism, but many artists and critics refused to return to figurative, representational work. Abstract art was seen throughout the years after World War II as a liberating, exciting, pro-American practice that opened up an enormous variety of artistic possibilities. Even the Central Intelligence Agency, eager to denounce the "social realist" art characteristic of totalitarian and Communist regimes such as the Soviet Union, sponsored and promoted abstraction in the arts. As antifigurative movements began to take hold in the 1960s, major American artists' positions in the controversy were closely watched, particularly in New York City, the locus of the debate, where the key artists lived and worked.

Guston had been one of the leading figures in abstract expressionism and a childhood friend of Jackson Pollack, the leading figure of abstract expressionism. A prominent artist living in New York, he was one of the key converts to the movement, involved in its origins in the 1940s. He was also one of its chief exponents in the fifties and sixties. His sudden conversion in the late 1960s to figurative art, therefore, which included cartoonlike figures, ordinary objects, and highly politicized representations, including Ku Klux Klansmen, shocked the art world. Many claimed that Guston was a traitor to the cause of American art, and his return to figuration was...

(The entire section is 1658 words.)

Jennifer Bussey

Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she explores the relationship between mythology and reality in Mary Jo Bang's poem.

Throughout her poem "Allegory," Mary Jo Bang introduces the twin themes of mythology and reality. She sets them beside each other to demonstrate that mythology has no relevance to reality. The poem instead praises experience, preferably personal experience, as the real source of truth and knowledge. Her references to mythology are so readily recognized by the reader that Bang succeeds in making her point that mythology is, and always has been, an enduring element in thought, belief, and culture. By including these references in "Allegory," Bang seems to be challenging them head on and dismantling their past claims to truth.

The first stanza begins the process of defeating mythology by pointing to its meaninglessness in the real world. The speaker comments, "Of course, we're caught / in this sphere" (lines 3 and 4). These lines remind the reader not only that all people have in common their current place in the sphere of this world but also that they are caught in it. There is no choice in the matter. It is merely the reality of being here, and it is a common experience shared by people everywhere. The speaker's personal point of view is reflected in her word choice "caught," which gives the reader an initial insight into the speaker's particular experience and personality. While this makes the speaker seem more realistic by giving her a persona, her word choice does not affect the truth of what she is saying.

Finishing the first stanza and moving into the next, the speaker adds, "where it doesn't much matter / whether our song reaches / the ear of Prometheus or not" (lines 5–7). This is an important classical allusion. Prometheus was a character in Greek mythology who stole fire from Zeus to give to the mortals. Some accounts of the story of Prometheus tell us that he had already given the mortals other gifts, including brickwork, medicines, signs to be read in the sky, and art. After Prometheus had tricked Zeus and given mortals fire, however, Zeus punished Prometheus by having him chained to a mountain where an eagle came to gouge at his body and eat his liver. Every night, Prometheus would heal completely, and the eagle would return the next day. It was a horrifying punishment for a kindness done for mortals. In "Allegory," the speaker introduces the image of Prometheus suffering alone high on his mountain to show how useless music on earth is to him in his doomed state. Even if he were real, what good would a song do by reaching him? Bang makes the point that art created on earth is not for the benefit of mythical characters but for that of real people. The first two lines ("Let us console you. / Music's the answer") make very clear that music and, by extension, art in general exist in the earthly world and have the ability to affect people. Music can provide true consolation to a person in emotional need. This is because people think, feel, and have experiences in the real world, not in the world of myths.

In the eighth stanza, the speaker comments directly on mythology, where she states, "Myth equals fate / plus embellishment" (lines 39 and 40). Although fate may or may not be real, the truth is that there is nothing people can do to control or alter it. Because the speaker is developing a theme about truth, the notion of fate seems to be irrelevant. To put it into an equation with embellishment, which is divergence from the truth, makes fate even more meaningless. Together, the speaker essentially sums up myth as embellished fate. She understands myth as the creation of people bent on fashioning stories, interest, history, and purpose in their reality. To cast this light on the story of Prometheus, the speaker would likely say that the story was made up as a way for the ancient Greeks to value their ancestors because, after all, something as basic as fire was a divine gift to them, for which someone paid a very high price. This understanding is more exciting than just believing that early people got fire from a lightning storm. To return to the speaker's equation, the myth of Prometheus is simply an embellishment of the fact that early people would inevitably have fire. The myth has no meaning or relevance to reality or truth.

The speaker rejects mythology as a source of truth or wisdom, but she does not leave the reader wondering where truth can be found. She believes that reality provides truth and meaning...

(The entire section is 1903 words.)

E. M. Kaufman

In the following review, Kaufman provides an overview of Bang's intent with her collection and finds "music in Bang's lines."

Bang's fourth collection takes ekphrasis (poetry about works of visual art) to the limit: each of the 52 poems involves a different art object, the last of which is Bang's own "mixed media collage." The work's eclectic nature may worry readers who have watched the film Mulholland Drive or seen the paintings of Sigmar Polke and Dorothea Tanning, not to mention Bang's collage. Knowing the artwork would, perhaps, help, but these poems are not tactile explorations of art but rather explorations of the idea of ekphrasis and the relationship between the verbal and the visual. The title...

(The entire section is 262 words.)

Publishers Weekly

In the following review, the reviewer notes Bang's "signature quirky pathos and alliterative staccato."

"Art / is the depth of whatever has deepened / an abbreviate existence," writes Bang in this fourth collection, comprising ekphrastic poems that search relentlessly for the meaning of—and the reason for—art in our contemporary world. The book is without sections; instead it operates by proposing its subjects in a somewhat overly direct and thematically oriented first poem titled, "Rock and Roll is Dead, The Novel is Dead. God is Dead, Painting is Dead," which ponders the place of art in the postmodern age. The book proceeds through a series of 52 poems to try to find that place—finding a meager, not entirely satisfying answer in art's resistance to the depredations of time. Each draws upon a different work of art, from sources as various as Willem de Kooning, Cindy Sherman, Picasso and David Lynch. Unlike classical ekphrasis, however, Bang does not attempt to directly describe the work of art, but instead uses the works as springboards for her signature quirky pathos and alliterative staccato: "We are posing. We are poised. / This is where we live. We are ever / but only when ever is all that there is." The collection concludes in a poem drawn from an original artwork by Bang herself. "Here darling, take this," she writes, "and Time gives the mouth a morsel."

Source: Publishers Weekly, Review of The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 251, No. 42, October 18, 2004, p. 1.