The Power of Repetition, Part 2: Haves and Have No(t)s

by | Mar 5, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

Repetition is a spiritual practice. As we are mostly bombarded with novelty, asked to scatter our attention to a thousand news items and viral stories and hashtags, repetition can sustain us. Major religions honor repetition deeply and widely: reciting a prayer, rising and falling, lighting the candles and snuffing them out, rolling out a prayer rug, chanting a Psalm, whirling in a trance of mystical devotion, singing the same hymn at the same time every Sunday. Rituals center and sustain us. With relief, we eschew novelty and reach for the eternal. 

As with the spirit, so it is with art. With repetition, we access something greater, some mystery or question that moves beyond the curtain of our everyday awareness. 

Last week, the “I Remember” prompt introduced anaphora, or the repetition of the first word(s) of a line or sentence. As promised, this week brings another anaphora prompt. 

The examples for today’s prompt both live in the elements, in the fundament of things. At first glance, they both seem almost more elementary than elemental, but a closer read reveals something more sophisticated in their simplicity. 

The first is “I Have a Horse” by Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun. Every line has two sentences. In almost every line, the first sentence starts with “I have,” and the second repeats the predicate of the first sentence, often in an explanatory sense, often stating the obvious, as in “I have a coat. I have a coat to keep me warm.” The plainness of the language evokes Easy Reader books or foreign language worksheets meant to reinforce vocabulary. Line by line, “I Have a Horse” does not sound like a poem at all, really. But taken all together, the repetition works a kind of alchemy and touches something human, and mortal, and beautiful. 

My friend Mark Leidner, who uses repetition in his work to reach points of absurdity and truth in equal measure, recently posted this poem, or maybe creed, by an anonymous 14th-century Samurai. I’d read a version of this written by the American poet Robert Pinsky called “Samurai Song” and have used it as a writing prompt, but what Mark posted struck me differently, and more deeply. Consider lines like:

I have no home—I make awareness my home.

I have no life or death—I make the tides of breathing my life and death.

I have no divine power—I make honesty my divine power.

I have no means—I make understanding my means.

And

I have no principles—I make adaptability to all circumstances my principles.

I have no tactics—I make emptiness and fullness my tactics.

I have no talents—I make ready wit my talent.

The asceticism here is even greater than Šalamun’s—I mean, it’s “I have no” instead of “I have,” after all—but there’s also a well of resourcefulness, and a spirit of claiming something greater while relinquishing something lesser—and boldly labeling as inessential things like home and life and death. How enviable, how inspiring to let go of thoughts of life and death in favor of “the tides of breathing.” In and out, reflexively.


Prompt

Write using anaphora. Write the simplest, least poetic or writerly lines and sentences that you can muster. Strip away lyricism and metaphor. Be concrete.

Your opening phrase could be “I have” or “I have no,” or you could come up with an equally simple alternative. I am or You know. Sometimes or Never. In “Praise the Rain,” Jo Harjo repeats “Praise” to begin every two lines and then every line. And in “Some Feel Rain,” Joanna Klink uses anaphora twice–first with “Some feel” and then with “Why.” 

Anaphora works in prose as well as poetry, though in prose you’d use it more sparingly, not in every single line. The most obvious example is “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien:

Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky.

Choose your phrase with intention. Then keep it simple. Then let the repetition take you to the center of the earth or the center of your own heart or the middle of nowhere.