A is for Anaphora

Posted by on Apr 23, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on A is for Anaphora

Which I love because it is the oldest poetic practice–feature of psalm and song, home of litany and liturgy–that you repeat a thing in the repetition you can intensify the reader’s sense of word as object and phrase as meaning.

     Look at you! You are beautiful, my darling
Look at you! You are so beautiful.
Your eyes behind your veil are doves.
Your hair is like a flock of goats.

(“Song of Songs”)

I like that anaphora connects me viscerally with the most primitive truth of poetry, which is that words have weight, and that weight is calibrated individually and mysteriously by every poet worth her salt.

Once I saw a famous poet whip a crowd of high school students into a near frenzy by simply calling out words, and asking the audience to repeat them after him. It was such a simple trick, but a very effective one. We all, sitting in a dusty high school auditorium in a hot Texas spring, heard each word he called out for what it meant in the everyday and simultaneously and strangely, as itself—a peculiar set of sounds, a particular and even arbitrary object-in-the-world, something like the colored bits of pebble and shell you might pick up on a beach and put in your pocket. Equivocal. Anti-disestablishment-
arianism.. Borderland, Migrant, Obscurity. The words he picked seemed random but in the repetition they began to tell stories o us as if we putting our ears to the shell of them and listening.

Anaphora, which means simply “the repetition of a word or phrase in successive clauses,” and comes from the Greek “to carry back, to bring up” is something like putting a shell to your ear for me. It is about the power of close listening, and what changes in the listener. I like that you can use the repetition of a word or phrase for emphasis or to build a sense of wonder (as is done in the psalms) that things are as they are—the world spins and spins again in a big wheel. You can also- and this is perhaps a more modern usage–employ anaphora to unpack the fissures and contradictions in every strata of experience as in this anaphora-poem-example I love by Cathleen Pierce:


This morning this planet is covered by winds and blue.
This morning this planet glows with dustless perfect light,
enough that I can see one million sharp leaves
from where I stand. I walk on this planet, its hard-packed

dirt and prickling grass, and I don’t fall off. I come down
soft if I choose, hard if I choose. I never float away.
Sometimes I want to be weightless on this planet, and so

I wade into a brown river or dive through a wave
and for a while feel nothing under my feet. Sometimes
I want to hear what it was like before the air, and so I duck
under the water and listen to the muted hums. I’m ashamed

to say that most days I forget this planet. That most days
I think about dentist appointments and plagiarists
and the various ways I can try to protect my body from itself.

Last weekend I saw Jupiter through a giant telescope,
its storm stripes, four of its sixty-seven moons, and was filled
with fierce longing, bitter that instead of Ganymede or Europa,
I had only one moon floating in my sky, the moon

called Moon, its face familiar and stale. But this morning
I stepped outside and the wind nearly knocked me down.
This morning I stepped outside and the blue nearly

crushed me. This morning this planet is so loud with itself—
its winds, its insects, its grackles and mourning doves—
that I can hardly hear my own lamentations. This planet.
All its grooved bark, all its sand of quartz and bones

and volcanic glass, all its creeping thistle lacing the yards
with spiny purple. I’m trying to come down soft today.
I’m trying to see this place even as I’m walking through it.

Anaphora can be sneaky or snarky or ironic. Yet like all good poetry tricks it can also be a little dumb, a little obdurate: it can woo us by simply suggesting the immobility or materiality (like boulders in a road) of certain facets of human life. Note how in this poem anaphora anchors what is in essence a parable of how everything spins and shifts wheels and rotates.

Anaphora here functions much as metaphor often does—to create a little stretch in the fabric of how a particular experience is viewed—and this occurs because of the hinge between the part of the phrase that is repeated and what follows and by shifting each time the poet is able to create a true range of timbres, colors, experiences for the reader – and these–and this is why I love you, Anaphora—happen both on the levels of meaning and of sound.

A is for anaphora, the start of the poetry alphabet because it is the beginning of pattern and pattern and its multiple variations and inscriptions in the soul of poetry—the idea that one word one phrase set against another phrase will inviolably reverberate. Anaphora is used and loved because repetition is like drumbeat is like heartbeat is the source of music. Pattern and variation, sameness and surprise.

The oldest impulse of speaking—if something is worth saying (or hearing) then we must say and hear it at least twice is the root of this device. This is why Anaphora is the tool of choice for praise and also for imprecation, denunciation, the many forms of what is loosely called the political poem, though one might argue that in life as In poetry, the political and the lyric, the personal are never as far apart as one might think.

Anaphora is, in summation, a kind of quicksilver representation of the call and response that is the beating heart of poetry. Like that poet in the hot high school auditorium chanting words, anaphora sets forth the the idea of the voice, of voicing, as about stating and amending, asking and answering, the I and the you.

A is for Anaphora, because it is mysterious how much establishing even the simplest rule—use of a word or phrase at the start or stop of successive lines in a poem, moves language into form, takes on the weight of ritual, which is perhaps the igniting spark of poetry’s singular and urgent quest to see language as both medium and object in its own right.

Say it once and it just is. Repeat and another dimension looms—that of chant, song, innovation. Anaphora—from the Greek anapherien “to carry back,” from ana to “bring up” and pherein which means simply “to bear” or “to carry,” a fabulous shorthand for what poets must do.