Stefano Versace, University of Birmingham

This entry suggests that a specific kind of repetition, far from being an accidental feature, is inherently present in all manifestations and at all levels of poetic form. That is to say, when one writes or reads a poem, an intention to repeat a linguistic sign must play a crucial role in any poetic form in the world’s languages. Therefore, repetition can arguably be regarded as absolute universal of poetic form. For example, poetic meter can be seen as a repetition of a pattern over two or more lines; parallelism can be seen as a repetition of a syntactic or semantic structure; rhyme as a repetition of phonological segments over two or more lines, at designated positions. If we understand it in this way, repetition may constitute a viable basis to further understand poetic form and to investigate several psychological effects associated with poetry.

It has been claimed by Ribeiro (“Intending to Repeat”) that the only feature consistently holding of every poetic form in the languages of the world is repetition. Ribeiro substantiates this claim by identifying several possible kinds of repetition, and inferring that the common ground to all is an intention to repeat, which, coupled with an intention to relate a text to preceding texts of a similar kind, may surface in diverse forms (e.g. a sonnet intends to establish a relation to all preceding sonnets). In this way, several kinds of poetic form can be seen as kinds of repetition, of different aspects of language, at different levels.

To elaborate on Ribeiro, I suggest that repetition can be thought of as an intentional state that picks something that has already been expressed, or at least intended, and expresses it again. This intentional state is characterized by inherently being in a relationship with an antecedent, i.e. a previously expressed form, which influences the interpretation of a new utterance, or linguistic item. The repeated form may occur in exactly the same form of the antecedent (sameness), or in a partially different form that includes variation of the original form (variation). Since repeating any kind of linguistic sign means establishing the afore-mentioned relationship of a linguistic sign with an antecedent, repetition involves different kinds of memory. The antecedent may consist of a section of the same text, or a previous instantiation of the same form in another text, or in a given poetic tradition. The relationship is established in two directions: a repeated form looks backward to its antecedent(s); and it also looks forward, to its possible further repetitions. In this sense, the term “memory” is intended here as a general faculty, not distinguishing between its different component parts (see Fabb for further discussion of this issue). Fabb also argues that the poetic form “line of verse” constitutes the fundamental, non-linguistic unit in which the linguistic material is sectioned. Other poetic forms, such as poetic rhyme, are defined by, and hold of the line of verse. Many forms of repetition often seem to rely on this sectioning of the text, at different levels: for instance, lines, rhyming phonological segments and syntactic structures often constitute the object of repetition.  Specific poetic forms, as I show below, may differ in the relationship between sameness and variation they specifically instantiate. All texts that we term “poetic” entertain a relationship to a varying degree with this interplay of sameness and variation.

In the following I show in more detail how some formal features of poetry can be understood in terms of repetition.

Poetic meter as repetition. The poetic form that commonly goes under the name “poetic meter” is characterized by two possible kinds of repetition. The first one is the fact that two lines in the same meter instantiate the same abstract form. They thus repeat that very form, as rules that hold of these lines and of each other possible line written in that meter. For example, each line written in iambic pentameter repeats the formal features of iambic pentameter, regardless of the linguistic material constituting the lines themselves. The second way repetition informs poetic meter surfaces at the level of single lines and is less abstract: meter can be seen as a repetition of, e.g., a rhythmical pattern, or other kinds of phonological regularity. In this sense, a line of iambic pentameter instantiates a repetition of an iambic metrical foot five times. This further implies that any metrical line is in some relation of sameness to both precedent and subsequent lines in the same meter. However, lines in the same meter will also combine this relation of sameness with variation, for example, in how the linguistic material is fitted to the meter, or in the specific variation (e.g., of stress patterns) that a regular meter commonly exhibits.

Poetic rhyme, alliteration and other sound-patterning schemes as repetition. Poetic rhyme is the repetition of some designated phonological features, over different lines, at specific places within the lines. For example, if this repetition concerns all the phonological material from the last stressed syllable to the edge of the line, or at mid-line position, the result is a “perfect rhyme”. If the repetition solely targets consonants at word beginning, it results into the form known as alliteration; repetition may also concern vowels, in which case is commonly called assonance. An example of a form combining, together with poetic meter, also rhyme and alliteration is Icelandic skaldic poetry (cf. Árnason). Finally, but somewhat less commonly, this kind of repetition may specifically target morphological structures, thus being a repetition of higher-level linguistic units. In this case, the repeated units are best defined in terms of morphemes, rather than phonemes. These specific forms tend to rely more on repetition of the same material, and exhibit less variation, than what is found in poetic meter. On the other hand, additional complexity may arise in the repeated patterns that poetic rhyme or alliteration may exhibit.

Grammatical parallelism as repetition. Grammatical parallelism is the repetition of a same, or similar syntactic structure over two or more lines, or groups of lines. Several poetic traditions, such as, for example, Mongolian Baatarlag Tuul (cf. Poppe), are characterized by this form. This repetition normally relies on more or less regular variation of the specific linguistic material combined in the same syntactic structure, except in specific poetic forms that may require the very same linguistic material, such as the Italian canzone. The question may be asked whether, and if so how, this kind of repetition combines with other poetic forms. Jakobson for example claimed that where a tradition exhibits regular parallelism, poetic meter is never to be found. Other kinds of poetic forms and devices can be seen as the output of some kind of repetition.This thus appears to be a necessary condition on the form of language in verbal art.

Future Research

Acknowledging the role of repetition as an absolute universal of poetic form has the advantage of shedding light on characteristics of verbal art as diverse in their very nature as, for example, meter and lexical repetitions. Identifying the common ground of these features as a key feature of the poetries of the world is an important step towards understanding the deeper structures and effects of these features. Furthermore, a formal understanding of repetition in poetry may improve the fine-grain psycholinguistic investigation of poetic language and its effects.

All this raises the question of why repetition is such a widely attested poetic feature. Why did it come to be so, and what role does it play in producing the psychological effects normally related to poetry? For example, the effect known as “Semantic Satiation” (cf., e.g., Warr, Margulis), as an effect by which a linguistic expression loses its meaning if repeated several times, may bring us closer to an explanation of the semantic indeterminacy and vagueness often related to language in poetry. On the other hand, the same effects of indeterminacy and vagueness can receive an explanation in terms of Relevance Theory, which would in turn account for repetition as a feature increasing pragmatic processing (cf. Pilkington). Although we are still far from an understanding of why repetition is so widely found in the products of human psychology that we term “poetry,” this concept may offer promising ground to understand and further investigate its mechanisms.


Works Cited

Árnason, Kristian. The Rhythms of Dróttkvaett and other Old Icelandic Metres. Reykjavik  Institute Of Linguistics, University of Iceland, 1991.

Fabb, Nigel. What is Verse? Language and Memory in the Poetry of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Jakobson, Roman. “Grammatical Parallelism and its Russian Facet.” In Roman Jakobson. Language in Literature.  Ed. K. Pomorska and S. Rudy. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1987, 145-179.

Margulis, Elizabeth Hellmuth. “Repetition and Emotive Communication in Music Versus Speech.” Frontiers in Psychology 4 [167] (2013): 1-4.

Pilkington, Adrian. Poetic Effects: A Relevance Theory Perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2000.

Poppe, Niklaus. “Der Parallelismus in der epischen Dichtung der Mongolen.” Ural-Altaischen Jahrbücher 30 (1958): 195-228.

Ribeiro, Anna Cristina. “Intending to Repeat: A Definition of Poetry”. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65.2 (2007): 189-201.

Warr, Peter B. “Repetition and Verbal Learning.” British Journal of Psychology, 56.2-3 (1965): 147-156.