Monday, April 22, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

(note: Epizeuxis or palilogia is the repetition of a single word, with no other words in between.)

In his widely-read book, entitled How to Haiku: A Writer's Guide to Haiku and Related Forms, Bruce Ross cautions his readers, “ Obviously, in such a small poem,  repetition would unbalance the haiku.” 1 (p. 22)  Obviously, there is nothing wrong about the employment of repetition in “such a small poem.” It’s because the repetition of a sound, word, phrase, line, or metrical pattern is an important unifying device in poetry. This highly-valued stylistic device performs various literary functions depending on genre, theme, tone, and poet. It’s how the haiku poet uses repetition, not the device itself,  that defines the quality of the poem.

Below is an award-winning haiku by John Soules, one that is thoughtfully reviewed by the judge, Don Wentworth

spring thaw
the stone Buddha
still still

Haiku Third Place, 2012 San Francisco International Competition

Judge’s Comment:

The haiku poet risks all in repetition and, when done correctly, gains it back and more. Here the same word, repeated side by side, elicits its dual definitions (note: Antanaclasis is the repetition of a word or phrase to effect a different meaning) plus a certain additional meaning as a two-word phrase.  Humor, truth, and beauty, all in 7 words – this is admirably executed. Innovative.

The following is another fine example that effectively uses repetition:

Symmetrical Rhythmic Substitution

           the cat in
           the fog in
                       (Vincent Tripi in Ross, 1993)

Rhythmic repetition combines with lineation, creating disjunctions yielding a light, humorous effervescence. In the above [example] brevity also plays a role. “Substitution” refers to word substitutions occurring in symmetrically repeated rhythmic patterns…. the symmetrical substitution evokes a quality of superposition (image layering) and jump-cut, filmic “snapshot” action, as cat/fog… arise both as identities, and are paradoxically separated by the disjunctive technique. [This haiku contains] not one but two juxtapositions, of varying intensity  (excerpted from "The Disjunctive Dragonfly:A Study of Disjunctive Methodology in Contemporary English Haiku" by Richard Gilbert)

As Ian Marshall emphasizes in Walden by Haiku, “one flaw evident in much contemporary [English language] haiku…. is that its emphasis on simplicity and invisibility of language called “wordlessness” 2 at times leads to a flatness that often lacks any “rhetorical anomaly…,” (p. 50) a characteristic of classic Japanese haiku. In his study of haiku aesthetics (included in Chapter Two, "The Poetics of the Haiku," of his award-winning book, entitled The Poetics of Japanese Verse: Imagery, Structure, Meter), Kōji Kawamoto notes that the appealing power of a haiku mainly stems from some "rhetorical anomaly" that "can come in the form of pun, paradox, repetition, hyperbole, something striking in the haiku's sound or its image, or some disruption of syntax or expectation -- in short, something in the language, some derivation from language's denotative function, that catches our notice." (Marshall, p.50)

Take the following classic Japanese haiku for example: the production of hyperbole includes the repetition of synonymous words and similar sounds (for more information, see Kōji Kawamoto, “Hyperbole through repetition,” pp. 83 -85; “Reiteration in the Superposed Section,” 3 pp. 137-43)

ara toto                            Ah, awesome sight!
aoba wakaba no              The young leaves, the fresh leaves
hi no hikari                       in the sunshine

The repetition of the assonant synonyms in aoba wakaba (“The young leaves, the fresh leaves”) strengthens the emphasis upon the vivid green color of the tree leaves in early summer. The words, hi no hikari, conceal the place name Nikko (meaning “sunshine”), where the mausoleum of the deified first Togugawa shogun is located (ibid., pp. 83-4)                   

Therefore, there is nothing wrong about the use of repetition in haiku writing. It all depends on how the poet uses it to increase the impact of a haiku. Now, I conclude this post with the following two poems: one is a well-known apocryphal haiku often attributed to Matsuo Bashō 4 who, upon the sight of  Matsushima, was at a loss for words, and the other  a “postmodernist sonnet” by Ron Padgett who tinkered with form “irreverently.”

    Matsushima ah!
    A-ah, Matsushima, ah!
    Matsushima, ah!

Nothing in That Drawer 5

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.


1. To the best of my knowledge, Florence Vilen's "Repetition - For Meaning and Melody" is the first article that deals with the use of repetition in haiku writing. However, she says nothing about what the reasons are for the dismissal of repetition by the current fashion of haiku " as emphasized in Susumu Takiguchi's preface below:

Here is an important essay by Florence Vilen, dealing with one of the aspects of musicality and content of haiku poetry: the question of "repetition". Repetition is widely dismissed by the current fashion of haiku. However, Florence challenges it and tries to show that it does work in haiku if it is well executed. Not only does she speak from her own conviction but she also draws many examples from leading haiku poets. Put together like this, as in a art exhibition, we experience and rejoice at a mesmorising array of fine haiku using "repetition" technique. One wonders why we have been inhibited to use such a wonderful tool of trade.

2. In The History of Haiku, Vol. 1, R.H. Blyth  lists thirteen characteristics of the Zen state of mind required for the creation and appreciation of haiku: Selflessness, Loneliness, Grateful Acceptance, Wordlessness, Non-Intellectuality, Contradiction, Humour, Freedom, Non-Morality, Simplicity, Materiality, Love and Courage. However, haiku as the "wordless poem" was popularized by Alan Watts whose writings and recordings used haiku (what he called "the wordless poem") as a way of illustrating Zen principles (Higginson 1985, 67).

3. The term “superposed,” synonymous with juxtaposition, has been recently introduced in English via Kawamoto’s The Poetics of Japanese Verse:

The main appeal of a haiku lies in the operation of a dynamic segment, which—while drawing the reader’s interest through powerful stylistic features—remains only a single layer that offers little indication of the poem’s overall significance (or else gives only an ambiguous clue). . . . We will refer to this part as the “base section.” Similarly we will use the term “superposed section” to refer to those evocative phrases which . . . work upon and in conjunction with the base sections in order to furnish the reader with clues to the poem’s overall significance. . . . A segment of the base [may] simultaneously function in the role of the superposed section (pp. 73-4).

4. Bash did write the following haiku in spring 1689.

morning and evening,
as if someone waits for me at Matsushima
my unfulfilled love

translated by David Landis Barnhill

Matsu means both "wait" and "pine," and Matsushima is a cluster of pine clad islands famous for its beauty. Basho yearned for it so much seemed that a beautiful lover was there waiting for him (Basho's Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, p. 208)

4 In his brilliantly-written book, entitled Creative Reading: What It Is, How to Do It, and Why, Padgett raises the following questions about his poem: “Did every nothing feel the same? Every in, that, and drawer? Is the tone of each line exactly the same as that of every other line? It can’t be.” (p.45)


  1. Yusef Komunyakaa used to tell creative writing students never to repeat a word in a poem. He claimed that the second presence of the word reduces the energy at that point as well as at the first appearance of the word. Generally speaking, this is good advice. However, in this post, I deal mainly with the issue related to the "aesthetic ideology" behind the disuse of repetition.

  2. Below are two good examples from Florence Vilen's article:

    A haiku may be intentionally ambiguous. Reading aloud you may find shifting images in this nightly scene of ever-deepening distance (L. A. Davidson):

    stars beyond

    Here the feeling of depth is almost equally compelling (Jim Kacian):

    clouds seen
    through clouds
    seen through

    In other haiku the repetition may express pure joy, the exuberance of seeing the abundance of nature. Here there is also a fine example of focus, from
    small to large (Michael McClintock):

    a poppy.
    a field of poppies!
    the hills blowing with poppies!

    (note: like most articles published in haiku/tanka journals, Florence Vilen's "Repetition - For Meaning and Melody" gives no technical analyses of the chosen haiku.

    Please see my review of Michael's "poppies" haiku here,

  3. Below is an excerpt from Al Filreis' "Repetition," which can be accessed at

    ... 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 (e.g., Walt Whitman, "I Hear America Singing"; Carl Sandburg, Chicago, The People Yes; Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology) The repetition of similar endings of words or even of identical syllables (rime riche) constitutes rhyme, used generally to bind lines together into
    larger units or to set up relationships within the same line (internal
    rhyme). Such repetition, as a tour de force, may be the center of interest in a poem, as Southey's "The Cataract of Lodore" and Belloc's "Tarantella," or may play a large part in establishing the mood of a poem, as in Byron's Don Juan.

    The repetition of a phrase in poetry may have an incantatory effect as in the opening lines of T. S. Eliot's "Ash-Wednesday":

    Because I do not hope to turn again
    Because I do not hope
    Because I do not hope to turn....

  4. The following is an excerpt from Clay Matthews' essay, "On Ron Padgett, " which can be accessed at

    Similarly, in “Nothing in That Drawer,” another of Padgett’s poems in form, and one of his most anthologized, we find a sublime revelry in the sonnet and by extension poetry at large. In this poem, each of the fourteen lines that make up the sonnet is the same: “Nothing in that drawer.” The repetition becomes comedic, as we visually imagine a speaker looking in one drawer after another, or perhaps the same drawer over and over. And yet the move to search in this poem is also reminiscent of the postmodern sublime, as it constantly points to the failure of language and form to achieve an absolute unity—with themselves and with the Idea. We have in this sonnet the constant search, constantly postponed or deferred. We’re never sure what the speaker is even searching for, or if the movement of the poem is simply language, or boredom, even. We’re left with a sort of constant opening and disappointment, which in many ways is what poetry as postmodern sublime is—an opening on a thought or structure accompanied by a delight in the failure of the opening. And in the case of “Nothing in That Drawer,” because we’re never sure of the action, or even the context, it seems the poem is less about a nostalgia for the unpresentable and more about the loss as bliss, the sublime itself.

    Instead of lamenting the gap between form and content, word and concept, Padgett places them in conversation with one another, allowing the form to speak to the content and vice versa. The sonnet form in this poem is wrapped in a contemporary humor, much like the Gehry house Jameson discusses in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. And like the Gehry house, which features an older, traditional home renovated by postmodern architecture, Padgett’s poem allows the inside and the outside to converge. Thus, the form of the sonnet, the sonnet as move from proposition to resolution, offers a narrative to the very language that also works to deny that narrative and/or resolution.