Lyric Techniques in Your Language Help (page 3)
Paying attention to the music in your poetry and prose helps you build the emotional content and meaning of your writing:
An essential element for good writing is a good ear: one must listen to the sound of one's prose.
Sound itself... is surely a signifier of mood, and thus of message...
Use Repetition, But Artfully
As writers, we must be aware that repeating words without thinking about whether that helps or diminishes our writing can lead to avoiding the work of mining ourselves to write what we truly feel and know. Recently, I read a high school student's draft for an essay addressing the qualities of effective learning environments. In the excerpt below, I have bolded words to highlight the tiresome repetition:
The people who live in this environment must take the role of an intellectual. They must first be intelligent. Without intelligence there will be no discussions, only foolery and actions. While intelligence will give the people the ideas and allow them to think of ways to spread them effectively, it is nothing without friendliness. For ideas to be exchanged all the people involved in the discussion must be friendly. They will then be willing to talk. Not only will they talk but they will hear. Each person will listen to what is being talked about, think on it, and present what he or she believes on the subject. This will transform the conversation from the blurting of ideas into the thoughtful contemplation of what each person knows.
Of course the main problem here is that the writer is not backing up assertions with specifics and examples. That he seems to be chasing his own tail is coming unwittingly from the sound the repetitions are making.
Compare the repetition in this unworked draft to that in master orator Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech (www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm). Here are some of Dr. King's famous repetitions:
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
Since this writing was delivered by Dr. King himself, it is hard for some of us to separate the text from our memory of his soaring voice. But this speech works equally well as a written document. The artful, intentional drama created by repeating the phrase "I have a dream" is a lyric device that keeps the reader moving down the page and experiencing all that has been denied those whose skin color is not white. Even those unmoved by the fight for equal rights for all races could not have avoided experiencing the passion and dignity of the music in Martin Luther King Jr.'s argument.
Repetition is forceful in carrying the reader into the deeper emotions of a story. In Tim O'Brien's famous "The Things They Carried," (http://web.archive.org/web/20011222025122/www.nku.edu/~peers/thethingstheycarried.htm) the emotional weight of serving in Vietnam accumulates in readers just as it does in the bodies and souls of the soldiers O'Brien describes. In one passage, the word "as" is repeated to introduce the specific roles of each soldier:
As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass...
As an RTO, Mitchell Sanders carried the PRC-25 radio...
As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets...
As a big man, therefore a machine gunner, Henry Dobbin's carried the M-60...
As PFCs or Spec 4s, most of them were common grunts and carried the standard M-16 gas-operated assault rifle...
In another passage, the repetition O'Brien uses involves the phrase "they carried" at the start of successive sentences. The soldiers are no longer singled out by role but have become a collective:
They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, bush hats, bolos, and much more.
Again, as in King's speech, the repeated words make us look up close at the writer's subject. They create a music of persistence.
In August, 1970, Judy Syfers read an essay she wrote, "Why I Want a Wife," (www.cwluherstory.org/why-i-want-a-wife.html) before a San Francisco crowd celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. A year later, the essay appeared in the first issue of Ms. Magazine. The essay travels down the page via the repetition of the phrase, "I want a wife who will..." The phrase introduces and occurs inside paragraphs on caring for children, meeting the needs of a husband, and selflessly giving up one's own life. Here are some of those phrases:
I want a wife who will work and send me to school...
I want a wife to take care of my children...
I want a wife to keep track of the children's doctor and dentist appointments...
I want a wife who takes care of the children when...they are sick...
I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean....
I want a wife to go along when our family takes a vacation so that someone can continue to care for me and my children when I need a rest and change of scene.
At the essay's conclusion, the syntax changes:
If, by chance, I find another person more suitable as a wife than the wife I already have, I want the liberty to replace my present wife with another one...When I am through with school and have a job, I want my wife to quit working and remain at home so that my wife can more fully and completely take care of a wife's duties.
We read our way to the essay's last sentence feeling a sense of momentum. When that last sentence turns out to be the question, "Who wouldn't want a wife?" the answer we feel inside plays off of the list of "I want a wife who" phrases. In the same way that Dr. King gets his listeners to internalize the knowledge that those discriminated against are as real and human as those doing the discriminating, Syfers gets her listeners to understand that seeing a woman only as a role causes her mate to dehumanize her.
Another famous document that employs repetition artfully is Thomas Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence" (www.ushistory.org/Declaration/document/ ), where he uses this rhetorical tool of phrase repetition to build the case against the King of England:
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
What if the student working to define an effective learning environment took a lesson from these master writers? Here's a possibility:
Intelligence is not the mere blurting of ideas. Intelligence is the opposite of foolery and meaningless action. And intelligence is nothing without friendliness, for if ideas are to be exchanged, all of those involved in discussion must be willing to talk—not only willing to talk but to hear, and to think about what they've heard.
Not a perfect piece of writing yet by any means, but listening for music that the repeated words can make has changed the sound into that of a march toward a patient persuasion rather than the annoying sound of a needle stuck in the groove of a record.
Try your hand at using repetition and experiencing its force for helping you evoke both emotion and thinking.
- Think of something you believe in or wish for and write five or more passages, each starting with the same line: "I believe in running free and fast" or "I have a wish to swim in the ocean" or "If I could talk with my mother for just one moment more."
- Think of something you can describe well by writing a "Declaration of Independence" from it. You might address the 10 pounds that you've wanted to lose for ages, the weeds in your garden that get you down, or the person who seems to have inordinate power over the way you think of yourself (your inner critic will do as a subject here).
- Think of a role you've taken on in life that you can describe well by listing what you must wear or carry or perform in this role. Write about it using sentences that start off repeating a verb: I run, I dress myself in, I mix, for instance. Alternatively, write about the role by using the verb "want": I want to write a book that..., I want to tell the president..., I want to learn to... ."
After you have written the passages about your topic, end by repeating the line you started with three times in a row. Think about the way this builds emotional content in your writing.
More on Repetition
Remember Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" (www.heise.de/ix/raven/Literature/Lore/TheRaven.html)?
- Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
- Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
- While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
- As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
- "Tis some visitor, " I muttered, 'tapping at my chamber door—
- Only this, and nothing more.'
In school, even those of us who shied away from poetry were drawn to this poem for its eerie momentum. In 1850, Poe wrote "The Philosophy of Composition" http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/poe/composition.html. Explaining his process in writing "The Raven," he mentions his thoughts about one of the kinds of repetition in the poem:
…bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.
The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was of course a corollary, the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.
The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word "Nevermore."
Poe wrote "nothing more" at the end of his first stanza, "evermore" at the end of his second stanza and then returned to "nothing more" for five stanzas before the raven speaks his name "Nevermore;" then that word is repeated at the end of 10 more stanzas:
- (Stanza 2)
- Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
- And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
- Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
- From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
- For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore—
- Nameless here for evermore.
- (Stanza 3)
- And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
- Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
- So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
- 'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
- Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
- This it is, and nothing more,'
- (Stanza 8)
- Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
- By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
- 'Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, 'art sure no craven.
- Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore—
- Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
- Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'
- And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
- On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
- And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
- And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
- And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
- Shall be lifted-nevermore!
Of course, hearing words that rhyme at the ends of sentences and inside sentences is part of the pleasure for any listener. But certainly the ear's expectation of a stanza ending with the word "more" in it contributes. The fun also comes from repeated words and phrases on the interior of sentences. These make us feel the suspense the speaker feels as well as his sadness: "rapping, rapping;" "surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore," "some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—/Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door."
Walt Whitman is another poet who used repetition effectively for staying power with listeners as well as to mimic the intensity of his longings and perceptions. In "A Noiseless Patient Spider," notice the places where the poet repeats words and phrases:
The art of repeating phrases creates impact beyond a poem's length. Repeated three times in a row, the word "filament" mimics the act of the spider throwing its threads. The word "mark'd" used twice as the verb in a sentence keeps the readers feet on the ground with the poet pointing out his observation of the spider. "Surrounded, surrounded" emphasizes the vastness of the universe and puts us as human readers to scale in our universe as the small spider is on the promontory. When the poet uses the phrase "O my Soul," both at the opening and closing of the second stanza, we move with him from observing something tangible in the world (the spider) to an intangible hopefulness about the ongoing life of the soul, though it be alone in an unknowable vastness.
In the short story "The Pier," Mori Ogwai repeats one sentence: "The pier is long—long—" throughout about every five hundred words (page 55 on www.archive.org/stream/paulowniasevens00erskgoog#page/n86/mode/1up). This kind of repetition creates foreshadowing, convincing the reader to bring along feelings of suspense from one part of the story to another.
Ernest Hemingway is another prose writer skilled at repeating words and phrases inside of sentences. He did this in "On the Blue Water," a short story that he published in Esquire in April, 1936, and then made into the novella The Old Man and the Sea:
Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter.
To develop your ability to employ repetition to heighten emotion, when you read, note moments you come across word repetitions you enjoy. Here are some from authors whose work you might know:
Copying patterns authors use can inspire new pieces you might not have written if you weren't trying to emulate others.
Think of a decision you made. Picture yourself in a particular place where you think you made or might have made the decision. Now write a description of that moment using repetition. For example, I am thinking about the time years ago when I finally made the decision to get a divorce. Recalling that moment in a freewrite, I say: "I looked at the kitchen counter full of bottles, juices, milk, and dressings/and I read the labels on them one by one./I did not put them away, but looked at a kitchen counter full of sustenance displaced."
Then, I try a different pattern: "Because I wanted more and hoped to find it, because I wanted less and would give up much of what I had, because I wanted to mine the depths of me, I left the kitchen, the counter as it was and opened my door to earth and trees, the sun."
If I put this all together and practice compression that allows for some of the repetition, I might have a poem:
- I saw my kitchen counter full of bottles,
- juices, milk, and dressing, read the labels
- one by one. I left the kitchen counter
- full of sustenance displaced, this first
- of many days, this last of many others.
- I wanted more and hoped I'd find it;
- I wanted less. I left the counter as it was,
- opened my door to earth and trees and sun.
Now you try it: Invent lines that use repetition to describe where you were and what you were thinking when you made an important decision. Or try writing in present tense and see what decision you might be making about something you are thinking about.
Perhaps what you write will stand as a finished piece or it might become incorporated into a longer work you have in mind. But whether or not you use the particular lines you invent for the exercise, you will get the hang of using repetition; you will feel the stride it creates and how it draws writing from you.
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