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Friday, January 27, 2012

The Joy of Repetition

So in my explorations of UbuWeb this past week, I came across a recording called "Via," made by British poet Caroline Bergvall, in which she reads 55 different translations of the opening verse of Dante's Inferno (you know the one: the first version Bergvall reads is by Dale (1996), "Along the journey of our life, halfway, I found myself again in a dark wood, wherein the straight road no longer lay.") The subtle yet significant differences of the 55 various translations, read successively, is mesmerizing.

This got me to thinking again about the effects of repetition. Actually it had been on my mind all month because of the use of it, to varying effect, in two of the volumes of poetry I read recently.

First, in Butterfly Valley by Inger Christensen, I was entranced by the repetition in the piece called "Watersteps," in which five fountains in Italy are described one time each in seven different sections (for a total of 35 descriptions of the five fountains.) The descriptions are parallel in each section.

For example, in the first section, each fountain is described in its own subsection in five couplets. The first couplet of each fountain's description contains information about when the fountain was built and who the designer was, among other details. The second couplet gives a very brief description of the fountain. The third couplet describes where the voice in the poem is in relation to the fountain while describing it. The fourth couplet introduces a red Jaguar into the scene, a car which reappears in every section. The final couplet describes what light is reflecting off of in the scene.

If all that repetition in detail isn't enchanting enough, the second section starts with its descriptions of the same five fountains in five subsections of five stanzas each, and each stanza not only refers content-wise to the other stanzas in the section, but there is also echoing from the previous section. The effect is that, if you read the description of the second fountain from the first section, and then read the description of the first fountain in the second section, you can reasonably guess what kind of information and detail will be included in the second stanza of the second section to describe the second fountain. Not word for word, of course, but you can predict the content, and that anticipation and its realization are deeply satisfying.

And it just gets more recursive as you go through all seven sections, with the red Jaguar reappearing, the fountain architects showing up again and again, the light reflecting of this object and that, and the sections building on one another so that the reader's expectations build and build. In fact, although one might expect this amount of repetition to be dull, in fact the reality is quite the opposite: it's thrilling to anticipate. I found myself holding my breath a number of times through the reading.

The other book I read recently using repetition as a formal element was H. L. Hix's Chromatics. In particular, there is a long piece called "The Well-Tempered Clavier" containing a succession of shorter pieces titled by using the following template, "Prelude and Fugue No. X in (Key)"; for example the first piece  is "Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C."

Obviously you expect repetition in a fugue, and you get it here. And while the word choices are, as usual with Hix, gorgeously precise, the effect of the repetition is not, for me at least in most of its instances, particularly useful. In fact, in a few cases it is merely annoying, sounding almost like filler. (By the way, I'd like to reassure you that I am a big fan of Hix, and find much to like in this book, but just don't find the fugue structure as interesting as I'd expected to. This book was actually a finalist for the National Book Awards; to see a more complete representation of the book and a sample poem, see the NBA website.)

So what is the difference? When is repetition useful (evocative, or joyous even) and when is it not, especially formal repetition? I probably shouldn't be attempting to blog about this yet, because I haven't got a definitive answer. But it seems to me that at the least, repetition as a pattern should build an expectation in the reader. And while Hix does repeat, he does so in a scattershot way that is not satisfying to me. But which another reader might find very pleasing while simultaneously finding Christensen's predictable use of recursion to be overdone, overbearing even.

I suppose it's a matter of temperment. And today my preference shows.

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