In a recent workshop that I led, one of the participants spoke strongly against repetition in poetry. Admittedly, there are times when using a word or phrase more than once weakens it’s impact; however, there is a poetic technique (one of literature’s oldest, in fact) that raises the bar for repetition to create parallelism, enhance rhythm, intensify emotion, and strengthen sonic impression. This technique is called anaphora.
Anaphora derives from the Greek for “a carrying up or back” and is characterized by repetition of single words or phrases. In poetry, anaphora occurs when several lines or successive clauses begin with the same word or phrase.
A good example of this is Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 66” in which ten lines begin with the word “and.”
Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm'd in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac'd,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac'd,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly – doctor-like – controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall'd simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir'd with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
Another good example is Emily Brontë’s "Remembrance," in which the opening phrase, “Cold in the earth” is repeated.
“The Tyger” by William Blake (repetition of “what”)
“What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?”
“Birds of Passage” by Walt Whitman (repetition of “O”)
“O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers!”
Whitman used anaphora extensively in his poems. Here’s another example: "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"
And, of course, by way of example, there is "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg
This week, try to write a poem in which you use anaphora. For starters, you may want to limit the poem to fifteen lines or less. Clearly, anaphora effects a poem’s sound and how it is read, sometimes creating a kind of chant or litany effect. There is, however, a fine line between heightened effect and boring reiteration – the trick is not to overdo. With good anaphora the poet creates a kind of tension that is released into “wisdom” with a “punch” at the dismount.