Riddling Allegories: a “Tapestry”

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Visit our page on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.  We’ll also intersperse news about books.
Riddling Allegories in Music: Carole King’s “Tapestry”

When songs and poems haunt us, enticing us to return over and again, they have served the writer’s purpose:  to have us read and re-read their words.

Sometimes the enticement is the beauty of the words or the music or both.

Sometimes the enticement is the emotion and memories that the song or poem evokes.

And sometimes the enticement is the riddling mystery that surrounds the work.  We long to decipher the maze of words.

The best writers tell us everything and nothing.  They reveal even as they veil.

And thus we have “Tapestry”, the 1971 song and album by Carole King.

A Little History
Carole King's great album
1971 Classic, Still Heralded

The album Tapestry is ranked 35th by Rolling Stone for its list of the top 100 albums of all time.  It also is second on the Billboard’s longest-running albums list (Number 1 is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon).

Lyrics here: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/caroleking/tapestry.html and video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiQshgKO6Co

What is an Allegory?

First, an allegory depends upon an extended metaphor.  We have a comparison which has multiple points for linkage.

A tapestry creates an image stitched with bits and pieces of different-colored threads.  The canvas upon which it is built is blank;  the needleworking artist creates the image as she stitches.  The threads can be pulled out, removing the created image.

The allegory works by following through the extended metaphor > life = tapestry.  However, in an allegory, a story is told.  The elements of the story link to the points of the extended metaphor, each as interconnected as the threads in a tapestry.

How to Write a Riddling Allegory

In “Tapestry”, King does not bother with the usual refrain.  Each stanza serves a disparate purpose:  the first to build the metaphor, the second and third and fourth to work out the parts of the story, the last to connect the story to herself (and us) and conclude the metaphor.

Alliteration ties the lines together:
  • 1st stanza :: rich / royal, vision / view, wondrous / woven, bits / blue
  • 2nd stanza :: soft silver sadness / sky, torn / tattered, coat / colors
  • 3rd stanza :: what / where, and perhaps hanging / hand
  • 4th stanza :: rutted road / river rock, turned / toad, seemed / someone / spell
  • 5th stanza :: gray / ghostly, deepest darkness / dressed

With the allegory creating the obvious writing skill, the song depends upon a simple paired couplet structure for each stanza.  The rhyme scheme is the simplest of all, AABB.  The last stanza has five lines instead of four (a neat echo to the stanza), but the very last line is a repeat of the last part of the line before.

In the song itself, King chooses to conclude with a piano repetition of the last stanza, unvocalized.

So, a seemingly simple structure for her allegory.

However, King is extremely clever with the elements of her story.

How King Writes a Riddling Allegory

Like the Moonspinners of Greek mythology, the speaker in “Tapestry” is weaving different threads together to create an image of her life.  The Fate Clotho spins the thread;  her sister Lachesis measures it; their fellow triplet Atropos cuts the length with her dreaded shears.

“My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue / An everlasting vision of an ever-changing hue / A wonderful woven magic in bits of blue and gold / A tapestry to see and feel, impossible to hold.”

King’s barely visible tapestry

We are our own Moirai, controllers of our fate.  We select the colors for our lives, of “rich and royal hue”.  In the paradox of the antithetical repetition “everlasting” and “ever-changing”, we construct meaning in the disparate parts of constancy and change.  Our lives seem to push steadily onward even as they alter visibly and invisibly.  When we end, our souls continue to a new existence.

This is the magic, the miracles that we don’t recognize.

The last line contains yet another seeming paradox:  “A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold.”  If we can feel it, how can we not hold it in our hands?  Ah, we have a dual meaning of feel ~ touch and emotion.

Riddling Starts in the 2nd Stanza

The allegorical story begins in the second stanza with the entrance of the tatterdemalion drifter, each bit and piece symbolic of his wanderings.

“Once, amid the soft silver sadness of the sky / There came a man of fortune, a drifter passing by / He wore a torn and tattered cloth around his leathered hide / A coat of many colors, yellow, green on either side.”

He wears a coat of many colors, like the biblical Joseph, forced to leave his homeland because his brothers sold him into slavery.  Joseph had to make the best of his situation—just as we should when we sell ourselves into the slavery of work rather than pursuing our dreams.

Much Mystery in the 3rd Stanza

“He moved with some uncertainty as if we didn’t know / Just what he was there for or where he ought to go / Once he reached for something golden hanging from a tree / And his hand came down, empty.”

This drifter “moved with some uncertainty”:  We often don’t understand our purpose.  I’m sure Joseph had many years when he wondered why he was where he was.  In our pursuit, we reach for a golden item, unnamed, unclassified—yet something which we desire, the ultimate treasure.  Like Adam & Eve, eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Yet his hand grasps nothing.  He reaches for his treasure, reaches for the knowledge of his desire.  He hasn’t found it yet.  Like the fairy tale of the Enchanted Song Bird in a gilded cage in a tree, we desire songs of love—but how often do we find such love?

King merely hints at this allusion, yet it fits best with her other wide-ranging allusions.

4th Stanza Reveals as it Veils

“Soon, within my tapestry, along the rutted road / He sat down on a river rock and turned into a toad / It seemed that he had fallen under someone’s wicked spell / And I wept to see him suffer, though I didn’t know him well.”

On the rutted road of his journey, the drifter takes his ease on a river rock only to fall victim to a curse.  He becomes the frog prince, transformed by a wicked spell—as we all are transformed when our desires are put off, again and again,

Every frog prince needs a princess both great and kind.

dreams as deferred as Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”. Click to read “what happens to a dream deferred?

Yet who created this wicked spell?  Why curse the drifter?  Would the curse have fallen on anyone?

Or was it intended for him alone?

And inferred is that he needs his princess, to kiss him and remove the curse.  He is trapped in his toad-eous form until he receives a kiss from someone both inherently great and innately kind.

5th Concludes and Continues the Riddling

An unknown figures enters the tapestry, one that the speaker recognizes as a companion even as she questions who he is.

“As I watched in sorrow, there suddenly appeared / A figure grey and ghostly beneath a flowing beard. / In times of deepest darkness I’ve seen him dressed in black. / Now my tapestry’s unraveling;  he’s come to take me back / He’s come to take me back.”

Is he the Reaper?  Death (as in Donald Justice’s “Incident in a Rose Garden”)? Click to read Justice’s poem.

Before she can discover, the tapestry and life is unraveling;  the Moonspinners’ thread is done.

Riddling to Truth

The Moonspinners who provide the threads to weave the tapestry are from Greek myth.  Joseph is biblical while the golden treasure in the tree could be the Enchanted Songbird story from the Orient.  The Frog Prince is a European fairytale, and Death—gray and ghostly, sometimes dressed in deepest black—comes from many cultures’ mythologies.

What is this journey to find the greatest treasure of all, a journey that makes us so weary we might fall into a wicked spell of non-pursuit?  Is the drifter Perseus, bringing back a gorgon’s head?  Is the songbird the golden nightingale that heals the dying emperor?  Or is it the golden bird that the young prince seeks, a prince who constantly makes mistakes and needs the fox’s avuncular help?

Like the best of the ancient balladeers, King doesn’t give us all the answers—deliberately, she does not.

These questions keep us returning to decipher the clues she has given us.

Her allegory draws from every where and every when and every what, just as we do.

We don’t have all the answers.

We keep returning to our own story to decipher its clues.

Clues we may never decipher.

Writing Riddling Allegories

When constructing your own poems, play with the idea of the allegory.  Set up your extended metaphor, and guide your story through it.

Use a comparison that is universal.  When story speaks to everyone in every time, story endures.

Use simple methods to tie your lines together.  Use clever methods to develop your story.  King is clever with her use of alliteration and allusions to develop her structure and story.

And leave enough clues so that your readers, like Hansel and Gretel, will journey back to your work, over and again.

Coming in Mid Summer ~ the classic Rock Allegory of “Hotel California”

But first, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and then Occasional Poems fill up May and June.

4 Requirements of Song :: “Paper Cup”

We’re shifting to the Fifths!

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Starting with 4 Requirements of Song, visit our page on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.

4 Requirements of Song: Paper Cup

In the 3/15 blog on Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers”, I noted the 4 Requirements of Song:  poetry should 1] speak clearly and 2] from the heart.  Music-driven poetry should also provide 3] strong lines and 4] powerful imagery.

Jimmy Webb’s 1967 “Paper Cup” fulfills these 4 requirements that elevate poetry over types of communication.

Strong Lines

The extended metaphor in Webb’s poem presents a narrowed little world into which we cage ourselves.  This world satisfies us with a shower stall, running water, a den, and refrigerated air, bland walls that make our lives easy.

Then Webb turns this life around with its bleached, waxed-paper world.  We may thing we’re in the catbird’s seat, but one day we’re “going down the drain” and won’t care, for we have so deadened ourselves to reality that we “feel no pain”.  We find “life is kind of / groovy in the gutter”.

Powerful Imagery

Webb tells us that such a life has no purpose;  we are living “without a rudder”.  We follow the currents of life and never stop to consider what we want, what truth is.  The mass declares what is popular and “hot”, and we follow, rat-like, behind the pied piper crowd.

Heart-felt Speech

The Matrix should have awakened us to those myriad things that the mass provides us to keep us distracted from anything higher than mundane existence: drugs, sex, blingy rat-race materialism, taxes, insurance—all the things we worry about instead of the IDEAS and SOULS we should care about >> Click here for “The Matrix” and the Cave, a five-minute precis on the film’s philosophic underpinnings, especially Plato’s anti-materialism.

Webb is preaching to us, much as Tyler Perry does with his Madea films.

Madea preaches that people can make us miserable only if we choose to let them do so.

Webb tells us that we may claim freedom, we may shout Freedom!, but all those material possessions just put us in a bland round cage.  We are “always looking up” since our lives are nothing extraordinary.

Politics of Poetry

As Percy Shelley said, “Poetry is a mirror” reflecting life.  By presenting life, it “awaken[s] and enlarge[s] the mind . . . [to] a 1,000 unapprehended combinations of thought.”

Webb wants us to reflect on what we think life should be by comprehending how bleached-out and bland such a life is.  Like Dolly Parton’s “lost in a crowd” Wildflowers, too afraid to pursue their goals, Webb reminds us that a boring constricted life focused on things is no more than living in a gutter.

A better world is available to us.  Webb points out to us the problems of merely existing in a mundane world, with distractors that keep us on the rat-race wheel.

  • Ha! The wheel in the rat’s cage can be turned sideways to be a round cup that imprisons us.  At least the rat can look through his bars.

Parton’s “Wildflowers” tells us how we can escape that “common and close” existence.  Never forget that we must uproot ourselves from gardens where we will wither and hitch a ride with the wind.  

We have to act to achieve.

4 Requirements of Song :: “Wildflowers” by Dolly Parton

We’re shifting to the Fifths!

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Beginning with 4 Requirements of Song, we are shifting our blogs to publish on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th).  Join us to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.

Wildflowers :: 4 Requirements of Songs

Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers” is structured around an extended metaphor.  The song itself has a catchy tune, one of the best by Parton.  click here for lyrics / no video available

Music with Poetry = County Music

Country music is the venue of poets who love to play with music, much more so than rock and pop, which may occasionally dip into the tropes.  More than rock, which usually depends on a guitar riff or other elements, country music is known for its strong use of imagery and figurative language.

Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” :: click here for video, a live performance by the Old Master

Kathy Mattea’s “Standing Knee Deep in a River” :: Click here for the promotional video

Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces” ::

Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls” :: Click here for the controversial video that aired only ONCE in its original, Brooks-chosen form

Dolly Parton is one of the great performing songwriters to come out of country music.  More than any other communication, poetry should speak clearly and from the heart.  Music-driven poetry should also provide strong lines and powerful imagery.  “Wildflowers” fits these four requirements of song.

Strong Lines

The extended metaphor keeps everything tied together.  The persona is a wildflower.  Unlike other flowers, she refuses to wither.  She has a dream she is determined to pursue, so the wild mountain rose uproots herself from safety and security.  As she says in her refrain, “When a flower grows wild, it can always survive. / Wildflowers don’t care where they grow.”

Powerful Imagery

Parton’s imagery strengthens the extended metaphor into a powerful message.

Wildflowers that remain in the safe but crippling home garden die in the sun.  Rather than become strong themselves, which is the nature of the wildflower, they allow themselves to be kept weak.  The sun truly will burn up a plant, but I wonder if this is Parton telling women not to be wholly dependent on a man (sun > son).  She is not anti-man; after all, she “hitched a ride with the wind . . . HE was my friend.”

She presents that men who try to stifle women and women who CHOOSE to be stifled are all weak.  As she writes, the weak and stifled lack a strong independent nature:  The flowers that don’t pursue dreams (weak women) are “content to be lost in the crowd / . . . common and close . . . [with] no room for growth. / I wanted so much to branch out.”

Clear Heart-felt Message

Perhaps her “fast and wild” upbringing caused her to “uproot herself and take to the road”.  Perhaps the isolation she felt in the garden “so different from me” drove her decision.

Whether either or both, she “never belonged, I just longed to be gone / so the garden one day set me free”.

Who has not struggled with rebelling against conformity?

Who has not felt isolated from those around us?

And who of us has dreamed—yet hesitated to pursue the dream?  We hesitate, for it requires abandoning our safety net?

Clear Communication Results in Action

When writers connect to audience through these four requirements of song, their words often provide an impetus for us.  “Wildflowers” wants us to let go of whatever withers us, release the anonymity of the mass blob of the crowd, and hitch our dream to the wind.  We are promised room for growth.  We are promised us.

After all,

“Success is a journey, not a destination.  The doing is usually more important than the outcome.” ~ Arthur Ashe Jr. (1943-1993)

The Guarded Heart

We end the month of Love by looking at a broken relationship, still tied together but with one person’s having a guarded heart.


“Fortress Around Your Heart”

Enniskillen Castle

Video Here and Lyrics Here

Sting is above other songwriters for this singular reason:  he never seeks

the mundane metaphor that everyone else is selecting.

In “Fortress”, a guarded heart is a walled city, guarded because of constant emotional hurts.

He Speaks

The love who caused the emotional damage—by something as simple as continual slights or inconsistencies or as painful as unfaithfulness or perfidy—must besiege the city to conquer the guarded heart.

Of course, the relationship is already doomed.  Love is not a battlefield (Sorry, Pat Benetar.)  As e.e.cummings told us (see the 2/14 blog here), relationships should be between two equally independents who are enriched by the love and the loved one.

Neither of the two people in “Fortress” are so enriched.  The speaker recognizes “the walls” he caused.  He’s done so much wrong with her and to her and away from her and without her that just approaching her is crossing a minefield.  Every step brings up a trap partially buried.  Not even partially, really.

He recognizes the “chasm” between them that his idiocy caused—but he still wants to try.  He wants to build a bridge:  span that deep chasm of trouble and avoid the minefield, connect to her guarded heart and burn out—with passion—the walls protecting her heart.

She Listened

Poor, gullible woman:  she believed him.  She must have, for in Stanza 2 they had declared a truce.  That “tattered flag” they made, it’s still flying.

But he’s repeating his sins.  He goes off, leaving her behind, to pursue his own goal.  And she, when she thinks about him and their relationship—well, she keeps it going, but she wishes she didn’t have to do so.

Is this Separation Worthy?

Is he a soldier, sent off to war?  Nyah.  That’s too simplistic.

Is this Sting and his pursuit of fame and fortune at the expense of his relationship?  Maybe.

Is this all of us?  Bingo!

Heart wrapped in barbed wire

We involve ourselves in a relationship, but we devote ourselves to other things: jobs, hobbies, grown-up toys (Bass boat, painting, coaching, shopping with friends, gaming, children).  We leave no room for couple-time, and when the partner expresses dissatisfaction then increasing complaints, we ignore or cast them off.

Stanza 3 repeats most of S1, except for the first two lines, the key ones:  When we cause too much emotional damage, then the hurt heart will place themselves in a prison, and everyone will suffer.

Last Words on Lost Love

The unusual extended metaphor builds a depressing little song for a depressing little condition.  The problems are never quite enough to explode, and everyone serves a sentence of pain.

Catchy tune, though:  bright chords, interesting brass line—juxtaposed with the bleak lines.  Great irony here:  we can’t have our passion-fruit cake and eat everything, too.

This series of blogs is for poetry lovers, hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Visit our page on every multiple of 7 (7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.

Philia: One of the Four Types of Love

The Greeks classified four types of love.  In modern life, we often get hung up on passionate love alone, but the other three also enrich our lives.

Eros :: the love that includes sexual passion.  This is the love that we usually mean, the miraculous and mysterious love that joins two hearts in a relationship

Storge :: the love between parents and children, familial love.  It has expanded to include the love we feel toward a protective patron (such as patriotic love for our nation) or fan-based love (“That’s my  sports team.”)

Brotherly Love is Mutual Protection against the Zombies that Devour our Life 😉

Agape :: the love of God for people and of people for God;  the charity of Corinthians 13.

Philia :: “brotherly love” which is loyalty, comradeship, affectionate friendship;  community compassion.

Philia is our focus on Love in this blog.  Many of us have experienced that desirous connection to family and community that drives us to reach out to those in need.

This brotherly love forms the basis of Rufus Wainwright’s “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s my Brother,” the 1969 hit by the Hollies.

Video Here and Lyrics here


In our road of life, with its twisting turns and steep hills and declines, we do need the occasional support of others.  If we have the philia when we see someone troubled, we want to help.  We are all equal, linked together by ties as strong as blood.

And those we help, they do not seek to “encumber” or overly burden us.  They are equally on the road.

Unfortunately, we must admit that some people’s dysfunction means they want to share misery rather than hope and gladness.

Remember, Wainwright, tells us, it’s memento mori, not carpe diem.  We all come to the same dark mysterious end, and when considering that end, we should reach out to others.  Then our own burdens will not “weigh [us] down”.


Easy metaphors, easy alliteration, easy repetition.  The only interesting line is the 2nd about the road that “leads us to who knows where who knows when”.  That oblique line is more clearly expressed in the 1st line of the last stanza :: Death.  That’s depressing.

Which is Wainwright’s point.  With death at the end, life is depressing enough.  Make it brighter by connecting to family and community.

Help others, for we are then helping ourselves.  Love others, for we are then loving ourselves.

Ain’t that the truth?

Coming Up

Broken Hearts on the 28th before we launch into the fertility of March and the rebirth of Spring

This series of blogs is for poetry lovers, hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Visit our page on every multiple of 7 (7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.