A few days ago I posted my list of the Four Noble Goals of metrical attention: Hearing what they Hear; spotting Local Expressive Effects; thinking about Thematic Relevance; and noting Historical Associations. Of these, the last is always my favorite, simply because it always gives me the strongest sense of discovery--and, I suppose, the greatest thrill of making a connection between, not just two poems, but two bodies of knowledge in my own head.
I like to play the Historical Association game with parts of poems even more than with whole texts; that is, I love it when a poem shifts gears briefly into some recognizable pattern, so that my ear catches the unspoken allusion. Consider what happens during Sharon Olds' "Language of the Brag":
The Language of the Brag
I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw,
I have wanted to use my exceptionally strong and accurate arms
and my straight posture and quick electric muscles
to achieve something at the center of a crowd,
the blade piercing the bark deep,
the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock.
I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body,
some heroism, some American achievement
beyond the ordinary for my extraordinary self,
magnetic and tensile, I have stood by the sandlot
and watched the boys play.
I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire
and the crossing of waterfalls, I have dragged around
my belly big with cowardice and safety,
my stool black with iron pills,
my huge breasts oozing mucus,
my legs swelling, my hands swelling,
my face swelling and darkening, my hair
falling out, my inner sex
stabbed again and again with terrible pain like a knife.
I have lain down.
I have lain down and sweated and shaken
and passed blood and feces and water and
slowly alone in the center of the circle I have
passed the new person out
and they have lifted the new person free of the act
and wiped the new person free of that
language of blood like praise all over the body.
I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.
Among the various allusions here (to Whitman and Ginsberg most obviously, and not just at the end), I hear one that really tickles me. It comes in the fourth stanza, when the rhythm shifts just enough for you to hear a strong-stress tetrameter line emerge, complete (in some lines) with alliteration and assonance to mark the stresses. It's a wee taste of the old Beowolf line, a beat sampled from the soundtrack to Old English tolchocking, which Olds uses to toast the heroism of pregnancy. More--just as that primitive, original 4-beat strong stress line tends to take over whatever text it touches, warping it to sing-song, so here it suits the primitive take-over of the speaker's body by biological forces over which she has no control, which don't feel hers, the way that her strength and poise felt hers at the start of the poem. (That would be Thematic Relevance interwoven with the Historical Association.)
Two other poems that use rhythmic allusion to wonderful effect draw on another metrical pattern, the Adonic. This is the five syllable pattern--in English, "TUM-ti-ti-TUM-ti"--made famous as the short tag line at the end of a Sapphic stanza, as here in stanza 1 of Sappho's "Hymn to Aphrodite," translated by Jim Powell:
Artfully adorned Aphrodite, deathless
child of Zeus and weaver of wiles I beg you
please don’t hurt me, don’t overcome my spirit,
goddess, with longing...
"GOD-dess, with LONG-ing": got it?
That little riff has two strong associations: one with Sappho, hence with love poetry, and the pangs of Eros more generally; the other, via its name (Adonic) with the famous elegy for Adonis whose tag line, "O ton Adonin," shows the pattern at its purest.
Listen how Michael Heller ends his splendid love poem "She" with an Adonic, invoking the first Historical Association with both passion and wit:
is looking up, and then she is not looking up.
With a lovely uncontrollable quiver, she's become herself.
I can see she is no longer the breasts which offer up
their enticements, nor the dark mysteries of the pubis.
She is not even her laugh. She is she, without residuals.
'Bye, my love, I think. And, possibly, by my love? And I
am happy, happier even then when her mouth is on me and I
gasp at the ceiling.
Damn--I love that. Those adonics get me every time. "She" comes near the end of Heller's New and Selected Poems, called Exigent Futures, which I'm now reading; it has some marvellous, haunting ekphrastic poems, too, based on photographs, in a sequence called "Bialystok Stanzas."
Here's a second example, where the Adonic isn't used to recall Sappho and eros, but rather Adonis and the untimely death of beautiful youth in general. It's by Charles Reznikoff, from his book Rhythms, 1918, and was originally an elegy for the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Breszka, killed in WW 1:
How shall we mourn you who are killed and wasted,
sure that you would not die with your work unended,
as if the iron scythe in the grass stops for a flower?
The poem keeps edging towards the Adonic all through: lots of "TUM-ti-ti-TUM" patterns surfacing, from the first line to the last. Only in the final syllables, though, does that rhythmic outcry ("O ton Adonin!" "Oh, for Adonis") finally emerge: "STOPS for a FLOWer." In effect, the Adonic IS the "flower" that the scythe does stop for, even if it won't stop, as it never does, for the beautiful young man.
Yes sir, I sure do
LOVE that aDONic!