Repetition is often associated with comfort because it is simple and familiar. In poetry, several literary devices capitalize on the human attraction to repetition including anaphora, alliteration, and assonance. Let’s examine each of these devices, and observe them at work in some unforgettable poems.
Repetition of words, phrases, lines, and stanzas within a poem, and its sister device anaphora—the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or verses—establish a series of expectations for the reader that help to direct their attention and lead them through the poem. The recurrence of identical words also creates a compelling rhythm and helps to intensify the emotion of the poem.
In The Bells, by Edgar Allan Poe, the rhythm created by the poem’s repetitive meter gives it a song-like quality, as does the frequent repetition of words such as “bells” and “time,” which mimic the steady peal of a church bell. The repetition of the general structure at the beginning and end of each section also add to the unity of the poem and highlight the progression of the bell’s symbolism from a representation of celebration to one of mourning.
In Because I Could Not Stop for Death, Emily Dickinson uses anaphora to weave a common thread through the poem with the repeated phrase, “We passed.” This phrase is then altered slightly in the fifth stanza to, “We paused,” which alerts the reader to a change of direction in the poem. Repetition and anaphora provide the framework for a poem; an anchor from which the meaning of a poem can develop.
The use of alliteration, the repetition of an initial consonant sound, and assonance, the repetition of similar vowel sounds with different consonants, help to place emphasis on specific words and guide readers toward the recognition of a particular relationship between them. Both devices reinforce accentual meter and have the potential to add richness and texture to a poem.
In Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, We Real Cool, alliteration is used to establish a solid rhythm. “Pool Players,” “Lurk late,” “Sing sin,” and “Jazz June” are alliterative phrases describing the actions of the boys. The predominantly hard consonant sounds reinforce the picture of young men who are tough and defiant, and the staccato phrasing almost mimics the sound of a gun. Unfortunately, the boys’ lives end swiftly on a non-alliterative note, “We / Die soon,” suggesting the poet’s feeling that a life lived this way is a short and insignificant one.
In Alone, Maya Angelou uses assonance to echo the sense of isolation conveyed by the title of the poem. The similar vowel sounds of the words soul, home, loaf, stone, nobody, alone, closely, know, moan, and blow create and ethereal and reflective tone. The rhyming of vowels is a common practice in folk poems and blues lyrics as they appeal to the ear as part of poem’s rhythmic texture.
The repetition of phrases, words, consonant, and vowel sounds in a poem act like signposts to orient and direct the reader by establishing expectations and adding visual and aural rhythm. Try using repetition in your own verse and see if you like its effect.