Just for a moment, focus on your breath. In slowly. Out slowly. In slowly. Out. The same pattern repeats within every one of us and consider your pulse. The beat is built into the very fabric of our being. Simply put, we’re creatures of rhythm and repetition. It’s central to our experience, rhythm and repetition, rhythm and repetition. On, and in, and on, and out. And we delight in those aspects everyday, in the rhythm of a song, the beat of the drum, the nod of your head, or in the repetition of soup cans, the rows of an orchard, the artistry of petals. Pattern can be pleasure.
In language, rhythm and repetition are often used as the building blocks for poetry. There’s the rhythm of language, created by syllables and their emphasis, such as, “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see.” And there’s the repetition of language at multiple levels: the repetition of letters, “So long lives this and this gives life to thee,” of sounds, “breathe,” “see,” “thee,” and of words. With so many uses, repetition is one of the poet’s most malleable and reliable tools. It can lift or lull the listener, amplify or diminish the line, unify or diversify ideas. In fact, even rhythm itself, a repeated pattern of stressed syllables, is a form of repetition.
Yet for all its varied uses, too much repetition can backfire. Imagine writing the same sentence on the blackboard twenty times, again, and again, and again, and again, or imagine a young child clamoring for her mother’s attention, “Mom, mom, mommy, mom, mom.” Not exactly what we might call poetry. So what is poetic repetition, and why does it work? Possibly most familiar is rhyme, the repetition of like sounds in word endings. As with Shakespeare’s example, we often encounter rhyme at the ends of lines. Repetition in this way creates an expectation. We begin to listen for the repetition of those similar sounds.
When we hear them, the found pattern is pleasurable. Like finding Waldo in the visual chaos, we hear the echo in the oral chatter. Yet, rhyme need not surface solely at a line’s end. Notice the strong “i” sound in, “So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” This repetition of vowel sounds is called assonance and can also be heard in Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Notice how the “e” and “o” sounds repeat both within in and at the end of each line: “Oh, there goes gravity, Oh, there goes rabbit, he choked, he so mad but he won’t give up that easy, no, he won’t have it, he knows his whole back’s to these ropes.” The alternating assonance creates its own rhythm, and invites us to try our own voices in echoing it. Similarly, consonance is the repetition of like consonant sounds, such as the “l” and “th” in, “So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” In fact, this type of specific consonance, which occurs at the beginning of words may be familiar to you already.
It’s called alliteration, or front rhyme. Great examples include tongue twisters. Betty bought some butter but the butter was bitter so Betty bought some better butter to make the bitter butter better. Here, the pleasure in pattern is apparent as we trip over the consonance both within words and at their start. Yet tongue twisters also reflect the need for variation in poetic repetition. While challenging to say, they’re seen by some as lesser imitations of poetry, or gimmicky because they hammer so heavily on the same sounds, closer to that blackboard-style of repetition.
Ultimately, this is the poet’s balancing act, learning when to repeat and when to riff, when to satisfy expectations, and when to thwart them, and in that balance, it may be enough to remember we all live in a world of wild variation and carry with us our own breath and beat, our own repetition wherever we go. Download Subtitles Download Video Download Audio ↑ Return to Top ↑ Arabic Spanish Serbian Russian Portuguese (Brazil) Korean Japanese Ital