Say That Again, Please

by Emily Bedard, Roosevelt High School

Each semester I tinker with my syllabus to make sure the teaching stays alive and fresh, but some lessons make the cut every single time I prep. One of these is a class centered on repetition as a scaffold for building a poem. I love repetition as a device in almost any kind of poetry, but it seems to light particularly exciting fires in high school kids. After numerous experiments, I have come to my conclusions why this is: (1) because it makes use of their hair-trigger boredom detectors and (2) it pushes against the normal headlong pacing of their days.

Here is something that is not news: High school kids are totally unafraid to call something boring. This might not seem like an obvious merit. But when we experiment with deliberate repetition in a poem, a ready nose for boredom is actually a big advantage. We don’t want the reader (or the writer) to glaze over, and so we must find interesting ways to move while simultaneously holding still. (We are not, in fact, really holding still, but more on that in a minute.)

As for playing against the typical pacing of a high school day, I think that repetition on the page can feel like a kind of relief for students. It is a way to slow or even suspend time, to make space for looking around with real attention, to discover a concealed rhythm, to pull crisp details from the blur. It is an alternative to racing ahead to the next assignment, the next class, the next practice, the next grade. It is a chance to hold still and listen.

There are countless ways to play with repetition in a class, and I try to fit as many as I reasonably can in a given hour. But more important than what I do with repetition is what the students do with it. Sometimes they allow themselves to dwell, to truly inhabit, a sensory perception, as in this red-infused piece by Kari L.:

My favorite color
Is that of a
Setting sun
The blood that
Strikes contrast to
Our skin
The fiery pepper
The crimson
Rose

Sometimes they create compelling voices, imbued with story and wry insight, as in “Remember” by Abby H.

Remember that time I had a fur
I had a big house that echoed
Hello Hellooo Helllloooooo
I had three cars and a job that paid
Remember when I had fur
I wore it because it was warm and it was symbolic
“You have a fur coat?!”
Yes, I would say
and they judged me and I smirked
and it was blissful

And sometimes they delve into an emotion or a complex world of emotion, as Michael M. does in this piece, trying repeatedly to get difficult experiences right with words.

Being alone hurts like
Flying off the swing set
Falling down the stairs
Having the door slam in front of you
Feeling the cold, hateful rage of the wind and sound
Of the door slamming
While she walks away

In all of these poems, the repetition is just a set up or framework, a scaffold from which the poem can lean daringly to pull something startling from the air. It is especially clear in poems that use repeated words or phrases, as in “Remember,” that the actual repeated element can be plain, almost negligible. What is in between is what dazzles.

And yet, there is a kind of delicate alchemy that takes place in the repeated bit itself, even in a simple word, like “remember.” If the repetition is working, it allows the reader to think, not linearly, from X to Y to Z, but with a kind of reverberation. The ripples of the repetition hit the edges of the poem and travel back to the center, changing the way we hear their echoes.  That change in the poem reveals a change in the reader. That moment is the reason that we read and write and reread and rewrite, once, twice, a thousand times, discovering that each time we are the same and each time we are new.

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