Study Guide


by Mary Jo Bang

Allegory Analysis

Historical Context

The Prometheus Fountain at Rockefeller Plaza Lee Snider/Photo Images/Corbis Published by Gale Cengage

Contemporary American Poetry

The contemporary American poetry scene is diverse and varied, and no one movement or poetic school dominates the literary scene. Many poets of the early twenty-first century, however, are influenced either directly or indirectly by the artistic movement of postmodernism, which began in the years following World War II. Known for challenging fixed understandings of reality, postmodern theory suggests that the world is composed of infinite layers of meaning. Psychoanalysts such as Jacques Lacan were among the key early figures to challenge previous standards in psychological, philosophical, and linguistic thought by questioning the commonly held belief that human psychology operates in a structured symbolic universe. In literature, postmodern theory has challenged writers to think about the form and meaning of texts as variable, or not confined to one particular perspective. Many poets have been particularly influenced by the theories of Jacques Derrida, who developed a critical method called "de-construction," which stresses that texts do not refer to reality but only to other texts.

American poetry since the 1980s, therefore, tends not to take for granted that people experience and remember events in a straightforward manner in which symbols correspond to reality. Some poets have made further advances in the surrealist and abstract impressionist traditions, for example, and these traditions were particularly influential over the avant-garde "New...

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Allegory Literary Style


Bang's most important technique in "Allegory" is her use of the convention of ekphrasis, which refers to poetry concerned with the visual, particularly the visual art of painting. Often, an ekphrastic poem will take a work of visual art as its subject and describe or illuminate the visual elements of this work in literary terms. Bang's entire collection The Eye like a Strange Balloon is based on ekphrasis, and each of its fifty-two poems takes a work of art as its subject. "Allegory" is based on Philip Guston's painting of the same name, although, as is typical of Bang's use of ekphrasis, the poem does not simply explicate or depict Guston's painting but uses it as a starting point to explore Bang's own themes.


Bang is known for her use of repeated vowel and consonant sounds, particularly the technique of alliteration, which refers to the repetition of initial consonant sounds. The c sound in the line "The door of the car will click-close" is an example of this technique, as is the repetition of the d sound in the last words of the final four lines of the poem—"despair," "death," and "destruction." In addition to its usefulness as a musical and rhythmical device, alliteration allows Bang to draw attention to certain words and connect their meanings.


Bang frequently makes use of the technique of enjambment, which occurs when the...

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Allegory Topics for Further Study

  • Research the life and artwork of Philip Guston. How would you describe his artistic style? What were his key influences? Why did he shift to practice abstract expressionism, and why did he shift back to figurative painting? What are the differences between abstract expressionist and figurative art, and how are these differences apparent in Guston's work?
  • Bang makes reference to the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus in "Allegory." Who was Prometheus, and why was he important? Why do you think the mythology about him has been influential over Western literature? Why do you think Bang refers to him in her poem, and how do you think this reference affects the poem?
  • Think of a lesson you would like to teach and then create an allegory for it. Brainstorm until you find the right story and situation to bring across your message. Then tell your allegory to a group of friends or classmates and ask them to describe its message. How did their response compare with your original idea?
  • The convention of ekphrasis stretches all of the way back to ancient Greece and Rome, and it was particularly popular in the romantic period. Discuss the relationship between words and images today. When and why does literature become highly visual? What does this say about the work of literature? What are some of the ways a contemporary writer would go about describing artwork, and why would he or she choose to do so?

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Allegory What Do I Read Next?

  • Bang's first collection, Apology for Want (1997), established her as a prominent and sophisticated poet able to address intellectual themes while retaining an engaging and playful style.
  • Philip Guston's Late Work (1998) is an intimate portrait of the artist that focuses on his shift back to figurative painting, written by the renowned poet, and friend of Guston, William Corbett.
  • Jill Bialosky's Subterranean (2001) is a collection of vivid poetry about grief, motherhood, and desire.
  • The Whitsun Weddings (1964), by the English poet Philip Larkin, is a collection of masterly verse that ranges in tone from playful to biting and bleak.
  • Jonathan Strong's Secret Words (1992) is a charming and touching novel about a late bloomer who moves out of her parents' house at age twenty-nine and begins to find her way in the world.

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Allegory Bibliography and Further Reading


Bang, Mary Jo, "Allegory," in The Eye like a Strange Balloon: Poems, Grove Press, 2004, pp. 55–57; originally published in Paris Review, No. 171, Fall 2004, pp. 36–38.

Scharf, Michael, Review of The Eye like a Strange Balloon, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 251, No. 42, October 18, 2004, p. 61.

Seaman, Donna, Review of The Eye like a Strange Balloon, in Booklist, Vol. 101, No. 6, November 15, 2004, p. 547.

Further Reading

Auping, Michael, ed., Philip Guston: Retrospective, Thames & Hudson, 2003.

Providing images and analyses of Guston's work throughout his long career, including high-quality reproductions of his paintings, this comprehensive volume will help the reader place Guston's Allegory in its artistic context.

Bang, Mary Jo, ed., Whatever You Desire: A Book of Lesbian Poetry, Oscars Press, 1990.

The collection of poetry about lesbian themes that Bang edited in 1990 provides a useful background to some of the twentieth-century women authors by whom Bang is influenced.

Heffernan, James A. W., Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery, University of Chicago Press, 2004.

In this study of the convention of ekphrasis throughout the history of Western...

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