How To Use Allusions
One of the questions that I am asked by my students in creative writing workshops is "How do I use allusions in my work?" The first thing that I try to explain is that the use of allusions is not confined to literary work--they are parts of language and life and extensions of our linguistic imagination. Eavesdrop on any conversation (this is what writers do) on any street corner anywhere in Jamaica, and you will hear people making all kinds of allusions to the Bible, proverbs, and folktales. Sometimes they even spice up their storytelling with metaphors when they are telling jokes with sexual content. Songs such as "Ketchy Shuby" by Peter Tosh and "Stir it up" by Bob Marley are not just about children's games and cooking. In other words, allusions like any other literary device such as symbolism grow organically out of language and the writer uses these devices to heighten the effect of the work.
Most writers use allusions when they realize the similarity in theme or tone between the poem, short story, or novel that they are working on with another writer's work within a literary tradition. For example, the wandering of Leopold Bloom through the streets of Dublin in Ulysses by James Joyce is a direct allusion to the wandering of Ulysses in Homer's Odyssey. Several episodes such as Nausicaa and Calypso have given literary scholars enough material to keep them "busy for three hundred years."
As a cautionary note, I always stress with my students that the telling of the poem, short story or poem comes first. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner calls this "the creation of a vivid and continuous dream." The poem, short story, or novel must first adhere to the inherent craft of the genre and the dumping of metaphors or allusions into the text will not make them "better." I also remind them that the writer always has the option of playing with the allusion. In the case of Ulysses, Bloom is Jewish and Joyce is making a reference to the myth of the "wandering Jew." In Benjamin, my son, Virgil becomes the dreadlocked Rastafari, Papa Legba, drawn from the Vodoun pantheon, and whose antecedent is Eleggua or as we know him in Jamaica--Anancy.