Paul Hostovsky - On Repetition and Revision
Today we have poet Paul Hostovsky guest-blogging on the use of repetition with us! Paul's latest book of poems DEAR TRUTH is now out from Main Street Rag. He'll share a poem from his book at the end of this article!
I went through a phase once where everything I wrote turned into a sestina. I was in love with that form, under the spell of the repetition. There is much pleasure to be had in repetition—we all know that—and yet doing something over and over and over again, as good as it may feel, can also be bad for you, not to mention bad for your poem. Paul Fussell says in his book, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, that the trouble with sestinas is that they usually give more pleasure to the contriver than to the apprehender, i.e., the use of repetition in a poem often gives more pleasure to the writer than to the reader.
Repetition is many things: rhetorical, humorous, incantatory, sexual. Rub-a-dub-dub. And just as there is a time and a place for sex, there is also a time and a place for repetition. That being said, some people like to have sex in odd places and at odd times. And some people like to have sex all the time. And some people just don’t like sex at all, and don’t see what all the fuss is about. Fussell doesn’t say anything about the fuss over sex in his book on poetic meter and poetic form. But I think he would have to admit that sex and meter are inextricably related. For example, intercourse is often delightfully trochaic. However, rereading this paragraph now, I notice that I’ve used the word sex at least 8 times. That’s a bit excessive, don’t you think? A good writing coach would surely say that using sex 8 times in the same paragraph is a bit excessive. S/he might even say it’s an example of pure prurience, and incontrovertible incontinence on the part of the writer who has sex on the brain, not to mention very bad writing to boot. S/he would probably tell me to revise.
When I revise my poems—and I revise compulsively—I often struggle with the repetition question. When I’m in the first draft of a poem and under its spell, the use of repetition can propel me forward, can feel central to the poem’s movement and invention, its argument and rhythm. But sometimes when I return to the same poem later, the repetition has lost its magic, lost its fire, and it feels like returning to a bunch of empty beer cans and used condoms at a campsite, evidence that somebody had some fun here at some point in time recently, but there’s no fun now and in fact there’s a lot of cleaning up that needs to be done.
I know I’m repeating myself here, but getting back to the sexual analogy, one could argue that both the sexual impulse and the repetition impulse—its itch, its urge—partake of the same subtle brand of insanity. And one could also argue that in the making of great poems there is a certain amount of, well, teetering on the edge, and flirting with madness, through the sleeve of the imagination. You have to be a little crazy to make poems, after all. And the repetition can get you in the mood, it can get you going, it can make you crazy enough to fall in love with the words. Which is what a good poem is, after all: an act of love. And it’s hard to go back and revise something as irrational as an act of love.
Everyone Was Beautiful
The day that everyone was beautiful
was like any other day, the only difference
was that everyone was beautiful and the day itself
was a beautiful summer day or spring day or
one of those late winter days that smells like spring
and if it was fall it was early fall
when it’s all but technically summer and everyone
was simply beautiful, not sexy beautiful
or movie star beautiful or drop dead gorgeous beautiful,
but everyone but everyone had this patina
of slightly bruised longing, this shimmer of
I think I knew you when we were children,
this look of I’ve loved you ever since you were born
and probably longer than that and it all started
with the paperboy careening out of the blue
dawn on his bicycle, pitching to the left and right
with his ballast of fifty today’s papers
in a vast canvas sack slung over his shoulder
balancing himself and the whole world
on the tip of morning, the streets beginning to stir
with shadows and workers and cars
all of which were perfectly beautiful,
and it continued on like that throughout the day
with the gas station attendant and toll collector
and motorists and pedestrians and clerks—
even the boss, even the boss’s boss who always
seemed an ugly sort of fellow really, especially
on the inside. But on that day even the ugliness
was beautiful—it was a beautiful ugliness
the day that everyone was beautiful and the day itself
was a beautiful summer day.
Thank you for guest-blogging here, Paul!
If you want to read more poems, DEAR TRUTH can be purchased here!