My morning newsfeed from Brain Pickings presented me with Amanda Palmer reading the Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborksa’s poem, “Possibilities,” The poem is written using a poetic device called “repetition.” The repetition is obvious, at the start of each line Szmborska is using the very same phrase. After a while, the repetition sets an expectation much like metrical predictability. Variation from the expected length is noticeable, but a nice break from the shorter lines. Still, the poem’s length, and the absolute focus upon the phrase, “I prefer” drives the reader into a sense of knowing what to expect which feels “safe.” This safety feeling, in my opinion, is an interesting juxtaposition to some of the brave risks she talks about within the poem itself.
While a reader who is unfamiliar with non-rhyming, non-metrical works as “poetry,” might not necessarily classify this work as a poem, the work fits many of the definitions of what a poem is. This piece qualifies as a poem because it is using sonic devices, such as repetition, to “achieve an incantatory effect.” It’s using this musical quality to balance the fearsomeness of some of the ideas Szmborska presents. It twists language a bit, like the phrases “the time of insects and the time of stars.”
These are some of the reasons I wanted to make sure I brought this device, as well as her poem, to your attention. But onto some of the technical details, like what repetition as a poetic device is, and how it’s used.
Repetition as a poetic device which Bob’s summarizes quite nicely:
A basic artistic device, fundamental to any conception of poetry. It is a highly effective unifying force; the repetition of sound, syllables, words, syntactic elements, lines, stanzaic forms, and metrical patterns establishes cycles of expectation which are reinforced with each successive fulfillment.
Sidelight: Repetition is so important to poetry that a large number of poetic devices are based on its different applications. Sometimes variations from the expected repetitions can also achieve a significant effect.
And here are some links on the use of repetition in poetry.
The Poetry Foundation doesn’t have a direct reference to the word “repetition,” but has a definition for “refrain” which one should be familiar with as that is a specific implementation of repetition in a formulaic manner.
And before you get to the poem, I’d like to remind you of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s famous quote from his Inland Voyage because when I read Szmborska’s poem it came immediately to mind.
To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.
I prefer movies.
I prefer cats.
I prefer the oaks along the Warta.
I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.
I prefer myself liking people
to myself loving mankind.
I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.
I prefer the color green.
I prefer not to maintain
that reason is to blame for everything.
I prefer exceptions.
I prefer to leave early.
I prefer talking to doctors about something else.
I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.
I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems.
I prefer, where love’s concerned, nonspecific anniversaries
that can be celebrated every day.
I prefer moralists
who promise me nothing.
I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.
I prefer the earth in civvies.
I prefer conquered to conquering countries.
I prefer having some reservations.
I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.
I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages.
I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.
I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.
I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.
I prefer desk drawers.
I prefer many things that I haven’t mentioned here
to many things I’ve also left unsaid.
I prefer zeroes on the loose
to those lined up behind a cipher.
I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.
I prefer to knock on wood.
I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.
I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility
that existence has its own reason for being.
By Wislawa Szymborska
From “Nothing Twice”1997
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh
Copyright © Wislawa Szymborska, S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh