Thomas Sutcliffe: Rules of repetition, broken repeatedly

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The Independent Online

In the preface to one of his collections of essays, Julian Barnes tells an instructive story about the literary dread of repetition. It's a kind of writer's war story, told in honour of his New Yorker copy editor Charles McGrath. Going over the galleys for a piece - already subjected to three or four exhaustive fact-checkings and style policings - McGrath noted the word "crepuscular" and objected that Barnes had used it before. Barnes said that he hadn't. McGrath insisted he had. So Barnes asked which page it was on. Not in this piece, replied McGrath, but one you wrote earlier. When he checked, he saw it had been nine months previously - which I would have thought fell well outside the statute of limitations on vocabulary overuse. Barnes, though, capitulated instantly. For him, McGrath's vigilance was exemplary, not eccentric, and I imagine the fact that he'd forgotten his earlier usage only confirmed his sense of having been caught out. Conscious repetition, after all, is no problem. It's the accidental or unconscious repeat that leaves you blushing. The urgencies of journalism mean that it happens to me far too often - and I can tell you that I would far rather be caught misspelling a word than re-using one inadvertently or prematurely.

I was a little surprised, then, to find myself enchanted by a line in Paul Muldoon's new collection of poetry, Horse Latitudes, which looked as if it broke all the rules about writerly variation. I say "looked as if", because Muldoon is very good at the usual forms of poetic and rhetorical repetition. If you're a big fan of anaphora - the rhetorical form in which the same word is repeated at the beginning of a phrase or sentence - then this is the book for you.

Muldoon's long poem "The Old Country" begins 72 of its 182 lines with the word "every", though it feels like more than that since quite a few of those left over begin with the words "and every". In other poems, he uses ballad-like repetitions of entire lines to steadily tamp them into your memory - so that by the end of even a first reading they have acquired the familiarity of something inherited. But none of those traditional uses of repetition could quite account for the opening line of his poem "The Coyote".

"Veering down the track like a girl veering down a cobbled street", he writes, in an image that compares the animal with a girl teetering home on high heels after a night on the town. And it's that sudden reappearance of "veering" that startles. Poetic simile usually carries with it a guarantee of crafted paraphrase which here fails to be honoured.

And it isn't that the poet can't be bothered to find a synonym for the coyote's sudden change of direction, or isn't able to. It's that "veering" can't be improved on by synonym. As in a later pair of lines - "the dog lying in a heap on our porch/ like a heap of clothes lying beside a bed" - the awkwardness of the repetitions somehow doesn't read as a faltering of vocabulary ("honestly, can't you think of something other than "heap"?) but as a rather bold way of saying "I mean it - these two things overlapped so closely that there's no point in prising them apart for the sake of writerly amour-propre".

It reminded me, anyway, of how powerful it can be when poetry falls short of its own expectations in this way - when it risks an accusation of inadequacy. Take TS Eliot's lines in "The Waste Land", for example: "A crowd flowed over London bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many", where the uncomfortable recurrence of the final words seems to lift us out of poetry all together, into the dazed words of a survivor, unwittingly echoing his own sotto voce exclamation ("So many!").

Or take Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll". This is a song that uses repetition in a straightforwardly conventional way - using a refrain to deny premature emotional reaction ("Take the rag away from your face/ Now ain't the time for your tears") until finally granting permission in the last line.

But it also contains a wonderfully moving repudiation of technique, when Dylan is singing about the life of a 51-year-old black waitress, killed in a fit of pique by a rich and privileged young playboy. Hattie Carroll, Dylan tells us, "carried the dishes and took out the garbage/ And never once sat at the head of the table/ And didn't even talk to the people at the table/ Who just cleaned up all the food from the table". It's as though the song briefly locks into the grinding repetitions of its subject's life - just one table after another. Literary polish is suspended - which is sometimes a polish all of its own.