Slow poetry: a manifesto

Whilst trying to earn some money this week, I’ve also been thinking about the poem that I published here a few days ago and wondering whether this particular vein should be pursued. Positive feedback from Jim Kleinhenz and my daughter makes me think that it might be worthwhile but as working with repetition and small changes is new to me, I thought I’d put a few thoughts down before I progress any further with the material.

This started when I was listening to Laurence Crane on Radio 3 last week.  He was being interviewed as a way of introducing each piece. In the introduction to ‘Ethiopian Middle Distance Runners’ he said that he was interested in repetition and the effect of small changes and also in the way that these changes can still carry something of the original. My immediate response was to groan inwardly because I’m not usually fond of this level of austere abstraction.

The piece was then broadcast and I listened whilst trying (again) to write something interesting about Bloody Sunday. about two or three minutes into the piece I found I was listening intently to the repetition  and waiting for the change to occur. The pen was then put down and I gave the rest of the piece my full attention.

Things then began to fall into place quite quickly, I recdognised that repetition and small changes could be used in verse to produce similar effects. I’d had a line running through my head- ‘we don’t die enough’ that I’d absorbed and adapted from Blanchot and started to make a few notes. I have to say that I was pleased with the result because it provided a ‘use’ for the line and also pointed to other possibilities. I then tried to be a bit more ambitious with a description of a wound taken from the original Bloody Sunday pathology reports and developed that using less repetition and more complex changes to the line. I found this satisfying to do primarily because I was working with language in a different way and because the ‘technique’ seemed quite straightforward.

I then read the two pieces aloud and had a bit of a panic as to whether they should only be read aloud or printed on the page as well. I then found that I had a need to put these initial efforts on this blog- something I haven’t done for many months and that this need wasn’t so much about getting a reaction but more about display for it’s own sake- I still haven’t made sense of this impulse.

That’s by way of a longish introduction to a manifesto on what I’ve decided to call ‘slow poetry’. I think that this has two main strands-

  1. the use of repetition to encourage greater attention and to provide emphasis- a kind of incantation;
  2. the use of small changes to demonstrate (indicate) the complex relationship between the words and ‘sense’

There are a couple of other provisos, the first is that the initial line has to be quite strong, by this I mean that it has to gain and hold the reader’s interest and that it has to hold the potential for development. The second proviso is that things when modified shouldn’t become too complex or busy. The third is that the piece needs to end properly and that the last line requires as much thought as the first.

These have all come to light since I’ve started to see what repetition can do. I’ve also discovered the joys of appropriation, in working out ‘strong’ first lines I’ve found that it is feasible/reasonable to plunder bits of philosophy and to subject these to repetition and modification. I’ve done something with a line (which is almost an aside) from Derrida’s ‘La carte postale’ which has led me to think quite hard about this line in particular and what Rorty says  that Derrida’s doing with this  tome.  The good thing about slow poetry is that I’ve been able to work through very very gradually what might be going on. I’ve also discovered that appropriation is misnamed, it is much more about selection than theft.

There is also the documentary aspect, I have on my hard drive many of the witness statements provided to the Saville Inquiry and twenty or so of these describe one particular event in many different ways. I’ve been using some of these differences to experiment with what language does to sense described above. This has been immensely rewarding because I’ve spent 18 months using the ‘superabundant’ approach  to achieve the same effect and this minimal approach seems so much cleaner and more disciplined.

Bloody Sunday is important to me for several reasons and one of the things that it shows is how complicated and fragile the witness / knowledge / proof / judgement  process actually is and that this fragility undermines our notions of knowledge and ‘truth’. What slow poetry gives me is an opportunity to demonstrate this in a reasonably compelling way.

I’m very encouraged by Jim’s response primarily because he’s a very accomplished poet who gives a great deal of thought to what he writes. Both Jim and my daughter throw up ways of thinking about this stuff that I haven’t considered and will need to incorporate in the near future. I’m also intrigued to see Jim’s use of repetition on his blog this week.

The other thing that comes to mind is that I’ve spent this week thinking more about language (in all its forms) and less about poetry……. I also feel the need to post more of this stuff.


7 responses to “Slow poetry: a manifesto

  1. You raised a point of mutual interest: I have been listening closer to the lyrics within the American Blues Movement, specifically the various Robert Johnson songs. The English/Irish folk ballads use the same technique– I am trying to develop a poem-lyric which mimics the formula and at the same time maintains reader’s/listener’s interest.

  2. I think you’re right that repetition can encourage attention and give emphasis and that it can provide the basis for small and significant changes. I’m cautious about it because the emphasis can be heavy-handed.
    But I can recall examples of repetition at different points along a scale.
    At one end is strong repetition that provides the very structure for the poem, as in traditional ballads or the villanelle – and here there is often a flavour of the naive (deliberately at times).
    Or in Yeats’s “Easter, 1916” where repeating “All changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born” with slight variations, while not providing the structure, seems to become the cutting edge of the piece (actually I hate this poem, but he does the same in “Long-legged Fly” which I love).
    At the other end of the scale we find the unexpected, occasional, repeat of a line or phrase which has an important but subtle effect. I can think of 3 examples which have different effects:
    * Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” which ends with “But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.” That repetition totally changes the sense.
    * TS Elliot’s “Love Song of JR Prufrock” with the echo of “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” and other repeats such as “Would it have been worth it after all?” – which seem to deepen the mood of reflection and inertia.
    * James Fenton’s “German Requiem” which is very close to being prose but builds up a sense of rhythm (and poetry) through the repetition of various lines and phrases throughout. I think DH Lawrence used repetition in this way too (eg in Snake).
    So that’s my bit of theorising done for the day!

    • John,
      Thank you for your thoughtful response which has set my small brain going in yet more directions. I think there is something to be said for repetition in drawing attention and encouraging more focused reading or listening than the line scanning that must of us go for. I think you’re right to be cautious and my current experimentation has shown the need for what gets repeated and in what way. I’m now going to think about Frost and Eliot. There’s also a line from Neruda- “Come and see the blood in the streets!” which is repeated twice.

  3. Vance Maverick

    I think repetition in music and in text work quite differently — the effect of a refrain, to take JS’s example above, is much stronger in verse (“Sweet Thames run softly”) than in music. Partly it’s just that words have semantics, and repeating a phrase means saying the same thing again; repeating a cadence in music, even a melody, isn’t “saying” anything, so doesn’t test our conversational tolerance for redundancy of meaning.

    As a challenge, what’s the most repetitive canonical/good text you can think of? I would start off with Beckett, e.g. How it is.

    • I’d counter your ‘How it is’ with ‘Lessness’ also by Beckett. Does the use of the same words in Prynne’s ‘Word Order’ count? I had attributed this to a kind of improvisation but I now realise that this is probably wide of the mark.
      I think you’re right about music and text working differently but I’m not sure that this is entirely about semantics. I listen to quite a lot of music and this particular very simple repetition followed by a very small change did make me listen and to look forward to whatever the change would bring. Applying this to my own stuff- especially the Bloody Sunday related material has enabled me to say things that I’m quite satisfied with- although I’m not quite sure why.

  4. Do you know Ted Richer’s work? E.g.,, or (Richer starts at 38:11). A perfection of slowness via repetition.

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