Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, September 17, 2006

A really good allusion works even if you can't identify it. Like myths, allusions change with each repetition. The chariot of the sun, the bitter withy, Tippecanoe and Tyler too, Pandora's box, the Manassas Mauler: They mean more after you have looked them up, but they contain enough hints of sound and image to succeed on their own. Anybody can make a good guess, for example, at which of these phrases are political, mythological or biblical.

Sometimes, the wrong guess is a revealing part of making sense: If a great prizefighter's nickname sounds a little classical or biblical, alluding to him that way becomes part of his meaning. The sound and aroma of the syllables affects the myth.

Without some skill at guessing, who could navigate through any ordinary day with its words and images? Sometimes sorting and guessing is part of the point. The myths and allusions and meanings may be several. They may be invented, merging or overlapping. Here is "A Myth of Innocence," from Louise Glück's recent book Averno :

One summer she goes into the field as usual

stopping for a bit at the pool where she often

looks at herself, to see

if she detects any changes. She sees

the same person, the horrible mantle

of daughterliness still clinging to her.

The sun seems, in the water, very close.

That's my uncle spying again, she thinks--

everything in nature is in some way her relative.

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