REPETITION IS ALWAYS AT THE HEART OF GOOD POETRY
According to the poet Theodore Roethke, “Repetition . . . is the very essence of poetry.” Repetition can involve words, phrases, lines, meter, rime—all kinds of things. It certainly is an aid to memory, and so it is often involved in why a poem becomes memorable. Take a look at the book of Psalms in the Bible, or Ecclesiastes, especially the latter: “A time to . . . a time to . . . . Does the use of repetition mean that the poem is always going to work? Of course not. But it often helps. And here’s another point: when you repeat something in a poem, such as a refrain, make sure it’s worth repeating. In the song/poem, the line, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is worth repeating, and it sets up the entire song: “Where have all the young men gone?” Also, note the power of: “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” in the same song.
Nursery rimes, of course, contain a lot of repetition. Sometimes this is in the rhythm/meter, as in “One, two, buckle my shoe . . . .” “Hinx, minx, the old witch winks . . . .” Metered poetry is naturally repetitious: “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?” says Christopher Marlowe in a famous poem. Da DA da DA da DA da DA da DA? And then this same rhythm—iambic pentameter—is repeated throughout the poem. All of Shakespeare’s plays, and his sonnets and long poems, are written in iambic pentameter (though there is some prose in the plays). Consider, for example, from ROMEO AND JULIET:
“But soft, what light from yonder window breaks,” says Romeo, looking up at Juliet on the balcony. Then:
“It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” All iambic pentameter. And it sounds like someone talking too! Agree? A famous actor once said that Shakespeare’s lines are “stickable,” that is, they stick in the memory easily, readily. He was a playwright, of course, not only a poet. And—he was an actor.
Your poem may be structured on a pattern of repetition, for instance, if you begin every stanza with the same phrasing. Lately I did this in a poem in which every stanza begins with “When.” “When I pick up . . ., When I walk . . . ” and so on. It’s probably one of the oldest devices in poetry. And it’s a universal. All human cultures have poetry, and poetry generally contains that universal characteristic known as repetition.
The catalogue poem is based on repetition. Typically, every line begins with the same syntax, as in the famous catalogue poem by Christopher Smart about his cat: “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry/ For he . . . .” etc. You might want to look at the poem if you haven’t already.
Whitman’s free verse contains a lot of repetition:
. . . what I shall assume, you shall assume . . .
. . . When I heard the learn’d astronomer . . .
when the proofs, the figures were arranged in columns before me . . .
And Carl Sandburg and Allen Ginsberg—who owed much to Whitman’s poetry—also used plenty of repetition in their work.
You might want to write a catalogue poem in which you begin every line with the same phrase—try to think up an unusual, interesting phrase to use, not something you’ve seen before. The lucky thing about doing a catalogue poem is that you don’t have to worry about an ending, since all you need to do is just stop. You don’t have to invent any conclusion or final stanza or line. Just stop. And there is your ending.
Another assignment you might give yourself: find a poem that you like a lot, a poem that’s structured on repetition, and use its repetitious structure in your own way to make your own poem. I recommend blatant imitation to poets who haven’t yet written much poetry, and even to those who have. I tell them: imitate other poets’ poems deliberately, and find out how their poems “work.” And remember too that “there’s nothing new under the sun.” That is, those poets whose poems you imitate or emulate, also imitated and stole from (T.S. Eliot’s phrase) what they were reading. We’re all imitators, emulators. That’s how we find out how poetry works. After awhile, we break away from our “models” and strike out on our own. But we always owe a lot to the poets who came before us, and showed us how to make poems, just as they learned from the poets whose works they read and imitated.
Want to be a good bull rider? Then you have to go to rodeos and watch the bull riders, observe them carefully, even take notes. Then when you get up on the bull you’ll know a whole lot more about what you need to do than if you hadn’t gone to rodeos and observed bull riders doing what they do. See what I mean? The same is true for writing poetry. Theodore Roethke said that the ability to write poetry is related to the ability to remember. Remember what? One thing for sure: the poems you’ve read. So, be a reader of poetry, as well as a writer of it.