by Grant Clauser
I was watching a movie that took place where snowfalls are measured in feet and the world goes dark for months at a time. The people in this movie still needed to get around their farm, so they built rope guides from the back door to the barn and from the barn to the feed shed, etc. This way each time they ventured outside into a blank canvas of snow and darkness they still had something to hold onto, a guide to keep them going in one direction.
Some poetry techniques are like that, a thing to grab onto and follow. One of my favorites is anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase, usually at the beginning of a line or beginning of a sentence. For the writer, it’s a kind of handrail to get you started and keep you going in the same direction. Or think of it as steppingstones. Each repeat of the key word is another stone along the path of your poem. For the reader, it triggers our attraction to pattern recognition—we respond to things we’ve heard before and get caught up in the regularity of it.
One of the most famous practitioners of anaphora was Walt Whitman. See how he used the repeated phrase “Just as you” in this section of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.
There’s a chant-like feeling to the repetition, like an incantation or a prayer.
In the next example, Gregory Pardlo uses repetition of the phrase “I was born” to allow a sort-of story to unfold.
Written by Himself
By Gregory Pardlo
I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet
whispering my name. I was born to rainwater and lye;
I was born across the river where I
was borrowed with clothespins, a harrow tooth,
broadsides sewn in my shoes. I returned, though
it please you, through no fault of my own,
pockets filled with coffee grounds and eggshells.
I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden.
I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.
I was born abandoned outdoors in the heat-shaped air,
air drifting like spirits and old windows.
I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry;
I was an index of first lines when I was born.
I was born waist-deep stubborn in the water crying
ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born
to this hall of mirrors, this horror story I was
born with a prologue of references, pursued
by mosquitoes and thieves, I was born passing
off the problem of the twentieth century: I was born.
I read minds before I could read fishes and loaves;
I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born
Notice how with each repeat of the phrase he reveals a little more, as if each use opens a new window onto the same person.
When I’m stuck in a writing rut I’ll turn to anaphora as my guide rope. Sometimes I’ll just randomly grab a key word or phrase out of the air, or sometimes I’ll use some tried and true simple ones—single starter words like “If,” Look,” or “Because” can work well. Or you can be more inventive and come up with a phrase like “In grandma’s yard…” or “After the flood.”
Try one of each, an anaphora poem beginning with a single word and one beginning with a repeated phrase. To make it extra interesting, try varying the phrase slightly halfway through the poem and see where that takes you.
Grant Clauser is the author of five books including Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven (winner of the Codhill Press Poetry Prize), Reckless Constellations, and The Magicians Handbook. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Cortland Review, Tar River Poetry, The Literary Review and others. He works as an editor and teaches at Rosemont College.