by Louise Robertson
An allegory is a story about one thing, that is actually talking about another thing. It’s not just an extended metaphor on steroids, or a parable going through puberty, it’s a full blown story that stands on its own, drinks coffee, and is about to hit a mid-life crisis but is too busy paying attention to the water bill and the car payments to notice. (That’s an extended metaphor. An allegory forgets itself, like when Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina.)
Some people call them parables. I think the best ones are the ones that make you forget you’re reading symbolism and you’re just hearing a story — save the deconstruction for your next dissertation.
The most famous one is the Plato’s allegory of the cave. But since I never took Philosophy, I haven’t actually read that one. I have, however, read an allegory based on this allegory and found it to be good enough for me. (The allegory of the cave is supposed to be pretty brilliant so go look it up for yourself if you didn’t take a good Philosophy class at some point.)
Here’s a poem by Stephen Dunn to get you up to speed:
Allegory Of The Cave by Stephen Dunn
He climbed toward the blinding light
and when his eyes adjusted
he looked down and could see
his fellow prisoners captivated
by shadows; everything he had believed
was false. And he was suddenly
in the 20th century, in the sunlight
and violence of history, encumbered
by knowledge. Only a hero
would dare return with the truth.
So from the cave’s upper reaches,
removed from harm, he called out
the disturbing news.
What lovely echoes, the prisoners said,
what a fine musical place to live.
He spelled it out, then, in clear prose
on paper scraps, which he floated down.
But in the semi-dark they read his words
with the indulgence of those who seldom read:
It’s about my father’s death, one of them said.
No, said the others, it’s a joke.
By this time he no longer was sure
of what he’d seen. Wasn’t sunlight a shadow too?
Wasn’t there always a source
behind a source? He just stood there,
confused, a man who had moved
to larger errors, without a prayer.
But the featured poem and poet for this today is Taylor Mali’s “Bodhisattva”. It does something really, well, really poetic. And you can corner me in a coffee shop and ask me why and then argue with me all you want. Or you can listen: