Sunday, May 13, 2018

Types of Closure, Part 3: Using Repetition to End a Poem

One tried and true way to create closure in a poem is to use repetition. Repeating a phrase, line, or series of lines establishes that the poem has come full circle and is now ending. Ironically, the fact that some words in the poem are the same indicates to the reader that these words are different from any others, since they announce the ending.

There are different ways that poets use repetition to create closure. One way is to use the rhythms and cadences of the repeated lines as a sort of chorus, the way a song often ends with a repeated refrain. The master of this sort of repetition is the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca

Federico García Lorca
In his classic “Sleepwalking Ballad” [“Romance sonambulo”], Lorca opens with these unforgettable lines:

Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar
y el caballo en la montaña.

Green how I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship out on the sea,
and the horse on the mountain.

(translation by William Bryant Logan)

The poem depicts a surrealistic world where strange and mysterious events take place, such as a young gypsy woman with green hair being suspended over water by an “icicle of the moon.” But in some ways, this poem is much like a traditional ballad. Lorca repeats the opening lines in various permutations in the poem, sometimes just duplicating the opening line, sometimes the first two lines. But at the end of the poem, he repeats all four of the opening lines, as if we are hearing the refrain of a ballad, and it’s clear that the repetition signals the end of the poem. By extension, that repetition indicates the fate of the gypsy bandit who is bleeding and pursued, and his doomed lover.

A different way of using repetition is to repeat a phrase at the end in a very different context and with a different emphasis. This sort of repetition establishes closure by contrast—we hear or read the same words as we did earlier in the poem, but now we understand their deeper meaning. It’s the sharper insight that makes for closure in the poem.

Lorca uses repetition in this way in his poem “Your Childhood in Menton.” Here he describes a lover who cannot answer the call of his passion because of social conventions. The poem begins and ends with the same line:

 Sí, tu niñez ya fábula de fuentes.

Yes, your childhood now a fable of fountains.

In the epigraph, Lorca attributes the line to a poem by Jorge Guillén. The first time we hear these words, they sound innocent: they refer to youth and fables and running water. By the end of the poem, the line resonates very differently, since we know that the person addressed in this poem has betrayed his own impulses in favor of norms he absorbed in childhood.

Another example of using repetition in a different context at the end is “Each Bird Walking,” by Tess Gallagher one of my favorite poems. 

Tess Gallagher

Gallagher uses a fascinating series of flashbacks, quickly going backwards and forwards through different layers of time to tell a complex and moving story that the reader has to construct, like a detective solving a mystery.
The poem is about the end of an affair, an affair between the speaker and her lover, who is in a long-term relationship. To end the romance without bitterness, the speaker elicits from her lover the gift of an unforgettable memory. He chooses to tell her how he bathed his own mother by hand at the end of her life, as if he had been her mother instead of her son. Describing this incredibly intimate moment of cleansing, the lover quotes his mother as saying, “That’s good, that’s enough,” when the washing of her body is complete.

That's a banal enough phrase. But it becomes extremely powerful when it’s repeated only 10 lines later. Now the speaker is the one saying the phrase, since she is satisfied that her lover has given her access to a part of his soul that no one else has shared. The second time the poet quotes, “That’s good, that’s enough,” the phrase has a deep resonance, since we know it means not only that the speaker and her lover have exchanged an imprinted moment of intimacy, but that their relationship is now done.

Types of Closure in Poetry, Part 1, Part 2, Part 4

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

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Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
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Types of Closure in Poetry

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