Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Repetition in Jon Stone's "School of Forgery"

Jon Stone frequently uses repetition - within and between his poems. His poems also repeat phrases from other sources. Repetition's a technique I rarely use, so I thought I'd use his School of Forgery book to examine the effect.


According to Tannen, "Repetition ... is the central linguistic meaning-making strategy, a limitless resource for individual creativity and interpersonal involvement" ("Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue and Imagery in Conversational Discourse", CUP, 1989). Various technical terms are described on the Wikipedia page on rhetorical repetition (Anaphora - repetition at the start of lines, Epistrophe - repetition at the end of each clause, etc). The list of effects below comes from Al Filreis' Repetition page and elsewhere.

  • Sound/ritual - "Primitive religious chants from all cultures show repetition developing into cadence and song" (Filreis)
  • Providing structure - "a refrain, which serves to set off or divide narrative into segments, as in ballads, or, in lyric poetry, to indicate shifts or developments of emotion. Such repetitions may serve as commentary, a static point against which the rest of the poem develops, or it may be simply a pleasing sound pattern to fill out a form." (Filreis)
  • Unifying - "As a unifying device, independent of conventional metrics, repetition is found extensively in free verse, where parallelism (repetition of a grammar pattern) reinforced by the recurrence of actual words and phrases governs the rhythm which helps to distinguish free verse from prose" (Filreis)
  • Emphasis of the succeeding phrase - "Sometimes the effect of a repeated phrase in a poem will be to emphasize a development or change by means of the contrast in the words following the identical phrases" (Filreis)
  • Indicating closure - the final line being a repetition of the first or penultimate line
  • Generating expectation - which can lead to surprize
  • Backtracking - an indication that a path of enquiry has ended (failed), that one has to go back and try again
  • Habitualisation - In "Flesh and Blood Repetition and Obscurity in Gothic Poetry" (Sara Deniz Akant, Wesleyan University) it's suggested that a way of making the strange familiar is to repeat it - "poetic repetition does not aim to provide the reader with a resolving grasp on something that is obscure, but rather to make its inherent obscurity a continual source of his pleasure."
  • Sheer pleasure - In "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" Freud wrote that "repetition, the re-experiencing of something identical, is clearly in itself a source of pleasure."
  • Emphasising the significance of context over content - Because of context, the 2nd occurrence of a phrase won't have the same meaning as the 1st (in villanelles but also with "and miles to go before I sleep")
  • Contrasting with change - In "Nietzsche and Philosophy", Gilles Deleuze distinguishes between Platonic repetition (which effects semblance and strives towards unity) and Nietzschean repetition (emphasizing divergence and difference). Repetition is part of the "same/different" binary that drives narrative. Narrative stands between repetition (where the text is the same) and random juxtaposition (where there's no repetition). Narrative keeps some things the same (the context, the characters, etc) while changing something else. The longer the sequence where the division between mutable and non-mutable remains stable, the more likely the sequence will be considered as narrative - foreground against background.

Monet and Warhol are amongst the artists who have produced series of similar works. Monet's paintings of haystacks and Rouen cathedral emphasise the differences. Warhol's repetitions sometimes dilute the image's meaning.

There are attendant risks. As with many rhetorical devices (but especially those used by preachers and politicians) repetition can evoke distrust in readers. Beginners use much repetition - once end-rhyme is rejected it's one of the easier ways to sound poetic, to carry on when you've run out of things to say. It might be merely verbose, unnecessary - first-draft scaffolding. It's used by people who used to write short poems but now want to write longer ones - each repetition is like a new start. It can give fragments spurious unity - the repeated pegs on a clothes line of imagery. It's a way to induce trance. It can degenerate into sing-song echolalia. Or it can be plain boring.


In Lexical Repetition in American Poetry Alan H Pope points out that repetition is commonly used. In "Ariel", Plath uses reiteration in 23 of the 40 poems. In Stevens' "Harmonium" at least 26 poems use repetition (6 begin and end with the same line/stanza). Stevens' longer poems (and some of Eliot's) repeat a central argument or statement (each time with perhaps a different, more complete understanding). Poets with oratory styles - Ginsburg in "Howl" for example - exploit repetition.

Helen Dunmore's Glad of these times uses it. "The Art of Falling" by Kim Moore (Seren, 2015) has much too. For example, the first 7 couplets "In That Year" begin with "And in that year". The 8th and final couplet is "And then that year lay down like a path/ and I walked it, I walked it, I walk it". It's also used by less mainstream poets - see for example "We needed coffee but ..." by Matthew Welton (Carcanet, 2009)

School of Forgery

Jon Stone's book doesn't include standard forms where there's word repetition (sestina, villanelle), so the expectation/surprise aspect is missing. He doesn't seem to be a theory-purist - word-repetition is used in many different situations.

  • "Dojinshiworld" is 7 xaxa stanzas, 4 of them beginning with "We came to".
  • "The Mark" is in couplets, the line-endings being "emotion's/emotion", "absence/absence)", "hoodwink/something", "hiding/emotion", "something/emotion".
  • Each line of "Mustard" ends with an anagram of mustard.
  • Successive stanzas of "Send in the Mink" begin "Send in the mink", "Send in the savage mink", "Send in the unsuitable mink"
  • The "Near Extremes" poems on p.3, 13, 20, and 29 are related by repetition - the first line of each is "Where I came from it's the other way round". They all have 2 5-lined stanzas
  • The "Swallow" poems on p.12, 19, 28, and 35 all have on their first lines "know of nothing beyond the". They all have 5 3-lined stanzas.
  • "The Year Long Dress Rehearsal" and "All Year Dress Rehearsal" have similar first lines - "I'm going to be mad - my first major role" and "I'm going to be sorrowful - my first big part"
  • 4 of the 5 pairs of lines in "III. Hurricane Polymar" are of the form "With a *** ***, Detective Takeshi,/ you become a futuristic ***."
  • 4 of the 7 lines in "Far Dancing and ..." (part II) begin "I cure her,"
  • 4 consecutive lines of "The Laughing Body" begin "They want to drink breast"
  • In "Second-Hand Kite Feathers" (part II) the 1st line of all 10 aabxb stanzas is "Very highly recommended"
  • In "Adcock Modulations" each part has 2 stanzas of 4 lines. The 1st stanza begins with "They" and the 2nd with "But s/he"
  • All 7 shaped poems begin with "in which"
  • On p.72 is a shape poem where John Steed's umbrella is created from 11 repetitions of the word "to".
  • "The Year Long Dress Rehearsal" has 4 consecutive lines of the form "Your ... kill(s) me" and 3 consecutive lines that begin with "That ticking which is my". There's more (incidental?) patterned repetition - line 1 from the top and bottom both end with the word "role". Line 3 from the top and bottom both have the word "lines".

The layouts are standard. They use black text, one font-face, little italics, no bulletmarks, only 1 gap in a line (p.46) and no indentation (except for p.44-45 which has continuation lines, and the shape poems), so the words have to do extra work. The following shows some options that can be used when there's parallelism. I think Jon Stone prefers the form in the first column/row.

I love you for the way you never doubt me.

I love you for a hundred thousand reasons.
I love you for the way you never doubt me. I love you for a hundred thousand reasons.
I love you for 1) the way you never doubt me; 2) a hundred thousand reasons.I love you for
  • the way you never doubt me
  • a hundred thousand reasons

It's presumably not coincidence that 3 of the "Swallow" poems immediately precede "Near Extremes" poems, and that one of each sequence is unattached, but I can't see the purpose. Anyway, why weren't the "Swallow" poems put together, making them stanzas of a single poem, or a series of variations? It's done elsewhere in the book.

At times repetition helps hold these poems together (when there's little else that does). The repetition is never percussive, never has a [mock-] Churchillian charge. It helps provide structure, and may perform habitualisation. In pieces like "Second-Hand Kite Feathers" there may be a Warholian effect. Sometimes it helps emphasise the succeeding phrases, but in poems like "III. Hurricane Polymar" I don't get it at all.

As an experiment one could try removing repetition from some of these poems and adding repetition to some poems that currently lack it. These, and the originals, could then be tried out on new readers.

Al Filreis points out that "Allusion or quoting is a special case of repetition". Jon Stone uses that case too.

No comments:

Post a Comment