January 2, 2010KR BlogKR

The Same River Twice: We Talkin’ Bout Practice

There is a small person in my house, and this was his first heave-ho through the holiday season–mini sweaters, reindeer-themed bibs, impossibly small mittens, tiny child in a huge winter suit, the whole bit. More photo documentation than most criminals. To commandeer the pace of life as best we could, my wife and I would steal the child away and read a book, slowly, to make time, at least temporarily, mimic the pleasure of reading. This worked, perhaps as much for the parents as the infant, and I learned about two new favorites: Fifteen Animals! by Sandra Boynton, and Down on the Farm by Merrily Kutner.

Both sweeten by repetition–Fifteen Animals! through humor, Down on the Farm by song, and both made me think more about what repeating words does. Isn’t it weird that it can cause so many different effects? From earnest emphasis, to humor, to anxious sympathy, and finally an affinity to song? Or weirder still that an act of repetition can go through all those phases? Take the famous clip “Practice” clip from Allen Iverson:

I remember seeing this for the first time and going though the trajectory of responses–first allowing the repeated “practice” to show emphasis, trying to pick up on Iverson’s point. But at some discrete moment, a threshold is crossed into humor–there are simply too many “practices” out there for this to rationally bear, right? It’s funny. He over-made his point. Even the reporters start laughing. But Iverson does a strange thing once his opinion devolves (elevates?) into humor–he continues to insist. And his insistence isn’t funny. What humor there temporarily was evaporates into anxious sympathy for Iverson. He’s really still trying to make this point, even though he’s used up all the rhetorical force of the phrases he keeps repeating. And suddenly, it dawns on me that Iverson sort of sounds like he’s signing, like the phrase is a musical sample on repeat. Song is the closest to nonsense, and is liable to fail the rational expectations of language’s more daily information-bearing duty. As such, song is either a different type of sense, entirely, or a failure of the rational expectations. The most important part of the song? The chorus, the part that repeats. (I’m reminded of the poet Sam Sampson’s imploring us to “cut to the chorus”). Imagine the reporter, coming to a press conference to cover the story on the basketball star, and instead leaving feeling serenaded?

Other cult-famous examples of repeatable poetic excess in the service of effect: Tao Lin’s ” I went fishing with my family when I was five” or James Tate’s “Lewis and Clark Overheard in Conversation,” both of which depend on repetition for humor, and the in the case of the later, the ‘nonsense’ of song, I’d hazard. Tate’s poem feels sort of like a song, or a chant. There’s something incantatory about it. It would really confuse a corporate office if the picket line mixed this in with the “Hell no, We Won’t Go!” chants. But in a way, “Then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs!” would fit, too.

Repetition is where a villanelle’s emotive power (or poorly done, failure) comes from–do it right, and we’re bewitched into wakefulness. I’m reminded that when I want to memorize something, I repeat it incessantly. I learn poems by saying them over and over to myself. Is it coincidence that a villanelle’s form plays with the powers and act of memory?

Or this: Iverson wanted to get his point across the same way I sometimes want to get my point across to my son–by saying something repeatedly until the listener catches what is meant. Repetition is the simplest form of teaching. And a type of prayer, too, though I won’t say that’s what I’m doing when I look at my son and say “We don’t pull hair” five times. But I often do feel like I’m doing something spiritual, at the very least important, when I say a poem out loud a few times over.

And isn’t this, finally, how rhyme works, too? It’s own variation on repeating?

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

This, of course, is Yeats, doing what Yeats does exceptionally. I can’t read these words and not be deeply moved, the way a current moves deeply. And finishing them, I’m amazed always at how the front of the rhyme sets up the end of the rhyme for maximum effect. Fire, gyre, desire; wall, soul, animal; me, eternity. You can almost distill it down. How it reminds that even the shape of rhyme rhymes with other types of telling, and so is a type of repetition, too–how the first part of a joke sets up the ending, how the work of the story is to bring us to a satisfactory end. There’s some pleasure in recognizing that shape, in having expectations fulfilled, or frustrated, or met in a way you sort of expected, but were still surprised by too, in the end.

So this past holiday season, we’ve been singing in our house–and not just the holiday songs you’d expect–“Sun comes up / KID WAKES UP!/ down on the farm, / Down on the Farm!” And talking about practice.

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