Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 27, 2015

Say it Again

We expect to hear lines repeated in poetry and songs, while a novel by its very name prepares us for novelty, with each sentence new and every word choice fresh. I’m now reaching the end of a first draft of a novel, paying attention to themes I want woven, with threads appearing and hidden. I draw out details of setting for small echoes. When trying to hint at the meaning of an object or incident that shows up more than once, I usually change the wording, so readers may get a sense of something both familiar and new.

Last week I worked on a chapter toward the end of my manuscript where children play a game they played early on. I wanted some sense of how the game was similar and different, showing how the characters had changed. Should I emphasize this by using the same words for their running and dodging, as a poet would in a refrain? I don’t think most readers would notice a line repeated maybe 100 pages later, but that isn’t necessarily the point. There’s a lot I don’t think many will notice, but matter. Could I repeat half a sentence or a whole one, I asked, pretty rhetorically on Facebook. I got an onslaught of encouragement from writers, variations on Why not?

Copy editors are trained to look for repetition, and when we committed such by accident or careless obsession, we’re grateful for being saved from stray words – repetition that happened over writing a book over months or years – or remnants left when scenes were shuffled. But sometimes we repeat words deliberately, for emphasis or to show connections. We grow up with repetition – children learn to speak by babbling repeated names and No’s, singing lines over and over, reading books again and again. Then there’s some sense we should grow out of it, with the exceptions being required memorization and prayers. Many move on to favor free verse without the refrains and rhymes of formal poetry. But let’s not give up all that’s good. In a lovely collection of essays, In the Blue Pharmacy, Marianne Baruch writes “Poetry… has something profoundly to do with how things repeat, that things repeat at all, why they can’t help repeating… past the cold dark, year after year to inevitable spring … we wait for that familiar cadence in spite of our contemporary hunger for invention and pledge of allegiance to Ezra Pound’s great call to poets to ‘make it new.’”


Surely fiction writers can borrow a bit of this. In Poetry as Survival, Gregory Orr writes of story, symbol, and incantation as the three main shaping elements of poems, with story being a way to make sense of the world, considering where we came from, where we are, and where we want to go. Symbol “allows an object to mean more than itself, to take on additional meanings, as a magnet might bristle with paperclips. The symbol’s unitary nature as an object acts as an embodiment of contraries and a reconciliation of thematic conflicts.” Of course story and symbol are part of fiction, but can we also pull in at least whispers of incantation, which Gregory Orr notes can express intense emotions as well as create them, citing the power and even magic of chants.

“There are no rules. Or, you can modify that rule by observing that each work of art generates its own unique rules,” writes poet Robert Pinsky. Yes, yes, yes. There’s a lot we can’t do, at least so we tell ourselves as we write. It’s good to pay attention to those moments of telling ourselves no, and call them into question. And if we’re not sure, try out our rule-breaker on Facebook or with other friends, and see if we don’t get cheers to go for what’s new.



  1. You are, indeed, a finely-tuned, careful writer.

  2. I agree with your Facebook friends: Why not? You answer your questions so beautifully with the quotes from Baruch and Orr. You’ve inspired me to go write and maybe break a rule or two!

    • I am glad you’re inspired to write. Let me know if you break any rules, Catherine!

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