Monday, May 28, 2007

A Bad Case of the Rogets

Reading Kate Clanchy's Samarkand the other week, I spotted the word "rheumy" in two consecutive poems*. It stood out enough in the first as that unusual beast, a rare cliché**, but for it to be found twice in not only the same collection but in such close proximity struck me as a significant slip-up in the poet's and publisher's editing processes.

This got me asking myself what degree of repetition of any given word is acceptable in a collection. The question is particularly pertinent to me at the moment, because I'm trying to put together a manuscript for a book-length collection of poems. So, today, I read through the pieces I've been thinking about collecting with that in mind. I got a bit of a shock: I reuse quite a number of words, a significant handful of which I stick in fairly frequently.

However, when I say "fairly frequently", I mean they pop up in, say, between five and seven poems out of 60-odd. None of the words repeated with such frequency is uncommon. Does it matter how common a repeated word is? Is it easier to get away with repeating a common word than a (comparatively) rare one? The above example would indicate that the answer is yes in both cases: I suspect the second "rheumy" would have stood out to me even if it had been several poems later in Clanchy's book, and I didn't spot any other repetitions (though I might be paying closer attention in future).

But if that's the case, how often can one get away with repeating a common word, such as "eyes" or "voice" or "coat"? If significant weight is put on the word in a poem, does that make it harder to get away with using it elsewhere even if it isn't carrying so much freight in the second (or third, or fourth or--gulp--fifth) poem? Up to what point is repetition of a word/image (perhaps we could call it a "poeme") part of an aesthetic and at what point does it become simply irritating to the reader?

I would be extremely interested in any comments on this. I suspect it's something on which every writer has to reach his or her own conclusions, but those conclusions are probably best arrived at in concert with other writers and some segment of one's audience or readership. So come on, pitch in. (Just don't repeat yourself.)

*Page 11, line 10 of "Act 2" and page 13, line 29 of "Deep Blue".
**The cliché is, of course, "rheumy eyes", which is the precise phrase used in "Act 2"; in "Deep Blue", by contrast, we have "rheumy, hooded eyes": a double cliché!


Rob said...

Maybe it partly depends on how important the word it, what weight it has. If it relates to a theme that undergirds the book, it might seem to a reader like a deliberate strategy.

Nell noticed, when examining the draft manuscript of my chapbook, that the phrase "lipstick...applied" appeared in two of the poems. The uses come at different ends of the book, so we decided it was OK for it to stay in. But I think - if there had been an alternative for one of the poems that worked as well, I would have used it. I couldn't come up with anything else that sounded right.

Jane Holland said...

My worst repetition in poems is of the word 'the', which I seem to use constantly. I'm not sure of the significance of that.

Tch. There I go again ...


Andrew Philip said...

Jane, I'm not sure what, but it definitely means something ...

What's New on Tonguefire