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This lesson should have probably been first in our series, so let me explain why it comes at this point. What the method is in our madness.

"Meter" was matched with "Blank Verse" because meter is the basic determiner in blank verse. "Rhyme" coincided with "Couplet" because, again, rhyme is the basic element that defines the couplet. "Tradition" went with "Sonnet" because of the strength and persistence of the sonnet tradition over the centuries. And so on.

Now "Repetition" parallels "Villanelle" because it is the basic principle that determines the villanelle: the repeated line, called a refrain.

Repetition, however, is perhaps the most basic idea in poetics. There are all sorts of repetition: the repetition of rhythmic elements (meter); the repetition of sounds (rhyme, etc.); the repetition of syntactic elements (often a lineation device in open form); the repetition of stanzas (terza rima, for example), and so on.

There is the repetition of specific forms to create tradition. As poets innovate the tradition, the consistent element is the repetition of form, sometimes with small changes in technique.

Here's what repetition does in poetry: it sets up expectations which are either fulfilled for the reader or frustrated (and often both fulfilled and frustrated).

For example, when the first line of a poem is in iambic pentameter, we expect this metric pattern to continue. As the poet introduces variations, replacing iambs with other feet, we as readers experience a mixture of tension and pleasure in the variety. Thus repetition (and the lack of it) gives a poem texture and interest.

Repetition also amplifies and intersects with sense. Remember, for example, Gwendolyn's famous poem:

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.
The repetition of the word "We" is originally planted at the start of both the title and the first line. This repetition is intensified by the memorable enjambment in lines 1-7, with "We" causing a breathy kind of suspense at each line break. Thus we have the fulfillment of expectation, right?

And then the "We" repetition is suddenly and rudely cut off in line 8 -- hence the frustration of expectation. The missing "We" at the end of the poem dramatizes through sound (or, more precisely, the lack of sound) the bitter loss of these young men who, the poem implies, have wasted their all-too-brief lives.

Repetition can be a tricky business in poems. My former teacher Yusef Komunyakaa used to tell us (me and my MFA classmates) never to repeat a word in a poem. He claimed that the second presence of the word reduces the energy at that point as well as at the first appearance of the word. This is good advice, I think.

At the same time, however, repetition can accumulate the music and the feeling. For example, in the second stanza of D. H. Lawrence's "Bavarian Gentians":

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the day-time, torch-like with the smoking blossoms of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead the way.
First, there are repetitions of words ("dark," "torch," "blue," and "flatten"). Second, the repetitions of sounds: alliteration ("dark," "day," "Dis"; "blaze," "black," "blue"); assonance ("blaze," "day," "pale"); consonance ("daze" with "Dis"; "light" with "lead"); and rhyme ("blue" and "blue"; "day" and "way"). Third, repetition of syntax ("big and dark" and "ribbed and torch-like"; "Pluto's dark-blue daze" and "Demeter's pale lamps").

There are probably other repetitions here that you can find for yourself. The point, in any case, is the way that Lawrence uses repetition, much like a jazz musician repeating riffs with small alterations in each go-round.

Repetition is so obvious and everpresent that we sometimes forget its importance. Keep repetition in mind as you write. Let's stop there.

-- Vince Gotera

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Last Updated 8/23/99