Friday 7 July 2023

Repetition in Paul Stephenson's 'Hard Drive'

Paul Stephenson's noted for his use of forms. The forms aren't often traditional. The most common device is repetition of words/phrases. I'm rather allergic to repetition, so I thought I'd focus on this aspect of his work. Here, after an introduction borrowed from another article of mine, I'll list some examples from "Hard Drive" and try to classify them.


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)

Hard Drive

Roughly, I'd classify the poems that use repetition as follows -

Psychological realism

  • "The Thesis"
    It was June and I had to see a student.
    A Tuesday morning and I had to see several students.
    I knew something was wrong.
    I called and asked a friend for help.
    I was far away, and I had to see a student.

    She said she'd go round and ring the bell.
    I tried to listen to the mouth of the student.
    He or she was seeking my approval.
    I knew something was wrong.
    It was June and I was seeing a student
    (and so on for 2 more stanzas)

The repetition works for me here. It's used in a standard way, as it might be in literary prose. It's 'backtracking', 'contrasting with change'.

Lists and Tables

  • "On mailing a lock of his hair to America, belatedly"
    Would his hair be worth it?
    Would his hair provide comfort?
    Would his hair cause upset?
    (and so on for 10 lines)
  • "We weren't married, he was my civil partner"
    By which I mean in the past.
    By which I mean mine, belonging to me.
    By which I mean one night came into my life.
    (and so on for 15 lines)
  • "Cause (2016)"
    Soft heart failure/ Hard heart failure/ Short, sharp heart failure /
    Rich heart failure/ Poor heart failure / Clean heart failure /
    (and so on for 15 lines)
  • "Better verbs for scattering"
    To dizzywind the ashes
        To kindrelease the ashes
            To roxette the ashes
    (and so on for 8 stanzas)
  • "Other people who died at 38"
    include the Thracian Gladiator, Spacticus
    and Roman Emporer, Lucius Verus

    include the painter Caravaggio
    and the painter, Dora Carrington
    (and so on for 5 more stanzas)
  • "Grief as two sides of the Atlantic ocean"
    This side me. That side them.
    This side ten o'clock. That side five.
    This side mobile. That side cell.
    This side pub. That side bar
    This side getting on with it. That side too.
    This side telling everyone. That side no one.

I have more trouble with this category (maybe because I'm wary of list poems as well as repetition!). I'd rather "On mailing a lock of his hair to America, belatedly" were less verbosely a list

Would his hair
  • be worth it?
  • provide comfort?
  • cause upset?
I'd rather "Grief as two sides of the Atlantic ocean" were more overtly a table - making it a page piece, but many of the other pieces already are
This side That side
me them
10am 5am

Why does "Other people who died at 38" bother using the word "include"? Why are there stanza breaks?

Borrowed forms

  • "A prayer for death admin"
    For the message received to establish contact
    and being the designated representative;
    For the formal letter of authorization
    and acting on behalf in matters regarding.
    (and so on for 12 lines)
  • "Grief as the preamble of the Maastricht treaty"
    RESOLVED to establish a day-to-day routine as part of coping

    RESOLVED to implement a policy of continuation in order to promote peace of mind,
    anxiety reduction and sleep
    PAUL STEPHENSON, Minister for Regret and If Only
    (3 pages)

Here the repetition come from the form that's being re-used in popular hermit-crab fashion. I like both the pieces - the first for the contrast of form and content, the second for the combination of emotion and effect - not least humour. Admin as a prop, as pseudo-communication, is an abiding theme in the book.


  • "The hymn of him"
    The app of him, the bop of him, the cap,
        the cop of him, the cup of him, the dip;
    the fop of him, the gap of him, the hip,
        the hop of him, the jip of him, the lap.
    (a sonnet)
  • "Namesake"
    Tod not Todorov. Tod not Tzvetan, son of Todor Todorov Borov and Haritan (nee Peeva)
    Todorova. Tod not Todorov. Not born in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria
    (and so on for 20 lines
  • "St. Pancras"
    I want my time with you
        for a coffee in St. Pancras.

    I wanted my time with you
        over coffees in St. Pancras.
    (and so on, more or less, for 4 more stanzas)
  • Putting it out there - 22 lines, 21 uses of "death" - "worrying myself to death/ about commodifying your death ... check your death for typos ... wait for a box with hard copies of your death ... told how well your death has sold" - death ending up as the book. On one line that lacks the word "death", "it" replaces the word. I don't see why, if "it" is used in one line, it can't be used in more.

I like the idea of "The hymn of him" but the poem runs out of worthwhile one-syllable rhyming words. If the idea is that the poem carries on anyway, I'm not convinced. I don't think I get what the other two are trying to do.


  • "Nurture"
    I was raised as a tomato in a tomato shaped house.
    My bedroom walls were tomato red, the carpet too.

    I was shy, didn't play much with the other tomatoes
    and locked myself away cataloguing my tomatoes.
    Weekdays, I'd run and catch an early tomato.
    My favourite subject was Tomato. I was good at it.
    (and so on for 14 lines)
  • I've seen others use this device. I enjoyed the poem while thinking that it's not hard to do.

  • "Relationship as covered reservoir"
    All the years close to water. By a bulk of water. The hulk of water. Flat water.
    Still water. Being water. Water in the dark. Oblivious water. Obviously   water.
    (and so on for 20 lines)
  • I'm puzzled by this one. The text is aligned on both sides so that the text is a rectangle, like a reservoir.

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