Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

The use of repetition in poetry is a tricky endeavor. Though it has historical context--most traditional forms employ some type of repetition--when overused or used improperly, it can sound lazy, redundant, or weak. I like to think of a dessert (because I am a poet and we think in metaphor). Imagine a rich, decadent chocolate cake. You can probably only eat a few bites, but man, you will remember what it tastes like. Now go back to your childhood. Remember those grocery store cakes, tasteless and airy with too much frosting? You could probably eat a whole piece--maybe two--but the taste is completely forgettable. Repetition, when done wrong, is just as bad as a grocery store cake.

On the other hand, repetition can be a very powerful emotional tool. In blues poetry, for instance, the first and second lines of a poem are often the same, mirroring a blues song lyric. But when you get to that second line, the emphasis is different, the emotional charge is heightened somewhat. A reader says to herself: There must be something important, some dire message in this line that I am supposed to get. Take this verse:

Cooking drunk and naked is a bad idea.
I said, cooking drunk and naked is a bad idea.
When the hot oil pops, better get out of here.

DId you place extra emphasis on the second "bad?" Good, you were supposed to. Urgency, pressure, and extremity can be conveyed through a careful use of repetition.

Which leads me, inevitably, to the political race. Or, I should say, all political races. Because if there is any arena, besides bad poetry, where repetition can be dangerous, it's in a political campaign. Some repetition is, of course, necessary to solidify a candidate's message, create unity across the scope of a campaign, and facilitate communication without launching into a long speech. Some of those repeated slogans are even immortalized--anyone out there still like Ike?

But repetition can make a candidate look lazy and uninformed. When you repeat the same sentiments over and over, without regard to the event or the audience, we have to wonder if that's all you have to say. Some may criticize when a candidate makes changes, but in Rhetoric, that's called Knowing Your Audience. If you don't take your audience into consideration, they numb out, drift off; you might as well be another cookie-cutter sitcom character on T.V. These cadidates must learn that in politics, as in poetry, repetition is not always O.K. It must be handled with skill and care. Do I have to repeat myself?

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