Article for Teachers

Adventures in Anaphora

Students write more creatively when they repeat themselves.
Image of "Season Repeat Again!" graffitied onto a building

Humans are pattern-seeking animals, pre-tuned to the music of language. We are pleased when we hear patterns in language, perking our ears in recognition, and can be both vexed and delighted when those patterns are broken. Many poetic devices, such as assonance, consonance, alliteration, and sibilance, take advantage of our ability to perceive repetition, making them valuable tools when teaching poetry techniques to both beginning and more advanced students. In the classroom, anaphora can be particularly useful in drawing student attention not only to sound but also to concrete detail, metaphor, and rhetorical movement.

Many of my beginning students enter the classroom with little previous knowledge of poetry, and some are already convinced that poetry is entirely foreign to their experience, possibly old-fashioned, and certainly not reader-friendly. At some point in their education, they’ve been persuaded that poetry operates via some sort of signifying code to which they don’t own the key. Convinced their attempts can’t possibly approach those of “the greats,” they feel defeated before they begin. They complain that they have nothing to write about, that poetry is hard, then dutifully produce the metaphors they feel are expected: hearts, flowers, love. Just like all expected things, these poems offer no surprises.

My more advanced students have other difficulties. They’ve been trained to avoid needless repetition, and have responded to this well-intentioned restriction by forgetting the “needless” part, using little to no repetition at all, producing poems lacking musicality. They’ve also become so focused on the minutia of word choice that they aren’t thinking as much about the overall structure of the work, resulting in poems that are carefully crafted, line by line, to no great consequence.

For beginning students, anaphora can be used to demystify poetry, to encourage concrete details rather than abstractions, to combat “I can’t think of anything else to write about” syndrome, and to encourage bolder experimentation with metaphor. For more advanced students, using anaphora reinforces these skills as well as encourages thinking about the overall structure of a poem and the importance of knowing when too much is enough.

For my beginning students, anaphora is a device they already have some familiarity with through popular culture and history. Pointing out this knowledge to students can be a way for them to enter into poetry and to demystify what students can see as a daunting subject. Raising this awareness can be done through political speeches, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which uses anaphora not only in its oft-quoted “I have a dream” refrain but throughout, as in this passage:

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

King’s anaphora, directly following his acknowledgment that by pursuing civil rights, many of his followers have been “the veterans of creative suffering,” exhorts them to return to the oppressive Southern states, to the marginalizing ghettos of the North, in order to continue the good fight. By beginning each phrase with “go back to,” he acknowledges their past work and encourages their future commitment, all the while uniting people from different regions of the country under the umbrella of one cause.

It’s useful to remind students that anaphora is alive and well in contemporary political discourse as well, as in Barack Obama’s 2008 speech after winning the Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina:

I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina.
I saw crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children alike. I saw shuttered mills and homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from all walks of life and men and women of every color and creed who serve together and fight together and bleed together under the same proud flag.
I saw what America is and I believe in what this country can be. That is the country I see.

The repetition of “I saw” transforms the speaker into a witness, both to the difficulties facing South Carolina (crumbling schools, shuttered mills, homes for sale) and to the potential of those South Carolinians and, by extension, America. In this way, the speaker becomes not just a witness but an oracle, seeing what America is and what it could be.

Indeed, whenever a soul-stirring speech is needed, anaphora is there, as evidenced in Winston Churchill’s famous 1940 speech before the Commons:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.

Churchill’s anaphora allows him to conscript his listeners, through the use of both “we” and “shall”—the latter of which, while used interchangeably with “will” in England, connotes obligation, even a sense of a legal contract.

This is so popular and effective a device for politicians and other persuasive speakers that it’s ripe for parody, as in Homer Simpson’s impassioned speech from the 1994 Simpsons episode “Fear of Flying”:

I want to shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I want to explore the world. I want to watch TV in a different time zone. I want to visit strange, exotic malls. I’m sick of eating hoagies! I want a grinder, a sub, a foot-long hero! I want to live, Marge! Won’t you let me live? Won’t you, please?

As humorous as Homer’s speech is, it’s also useful in the classroom because of the contrast it provides with these previous examples. The delight we derive from Homer’s vision of “explor[ing] the world” stems from the fact that it is so very pedestrian and myopic: watching TV somewhere new, visiting new malls (which, by definition, are like the old malls), trading one sandwich for another. His narrow worldview highlights the expansiveness and inclusiveness of these other speeches.

If politics leave your students cold, try teaching them about anaphora via popular music. Although attempting to find examples may make you look sadly out of touch, it’s still worth a shot. Perhaps your lack of connection to the larger world your students inhabit will endear you to them. Here’s an example from Mumford & Sons’ song “I Will Wait”:

And I came home
Like a stone
And I fell heavy into your arms
These days of dust
Which we’ve known
Will blow away with this new sun

And I’ll kneel down
Wait for now
And I’ll kneel down
Know my ground

After embarrassing yourself with your unhip taste in music, you can ask your students to volunteer songs with anaphora and have them share sample lyrics on the board. Once students realize that this is a technique they see in their daily lives, it’s not hard to encourage them to use it in their work.

I like to use anaphora-heavy poems not only to show students the musicality of repetition, but to suggest a generative engine for their own work. The cascading verbosity we see in poets such as Whitman and Ginsberg shows us the expansive qualities anaphora can give a poem, which is a boon for students who fear they have nothing to say. The anaphora demands more, more, more, and is a never-ending question for the student to answer. If we look at a section of “Howl,” for instance, that question is where:

Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland
   where you’re madder than I am
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you must feel very strange
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you imitate the shade of my mother
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you’ve murdered your twelve secretaries
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you laugh at this invisible humor
I’m with you in Rockland
   where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter
I’m with you in Rockland
   where your condition has become serious and is reported on the radio
I’m with you in Rockland
   where the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you drink the tea of the breasts of the spinsters of Utica
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you pun on the bodies of your nurses the harpies of the Bronx
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse

Each time Ginsberg answers that question, we learn more about Carl Solomon, spinning out into wilder and wilder details, from electroshock to splitting the heavens to resurrection. With each refrain of “I’m with you in Rockland / where,” we are grounded once more, and begin again. The refrain brings comfort, both in its reassuring familiarity for the reader and in its promise that the addressee won’t be alone.

While Ginsberg’s anaphora in this example tempers expansion with contraction, Whitman’s anaphora in “Song of Myself” can seem to ever expand the scope and subject of the poem, as in these lines from section 33:

By the city’s quadrangular houses—in log huts, camping with lumbermen,
Along the ruts of the turnpike, along the dry gulch and rivulet bed,
Weeding my onion-patch or hoeing rows of carrots and parsnips, crossing savannas, trailing in forests,
Prospecting, gold-digging, girdling the trees of a new purchase,
Scorch’d ankle-deep by the hot sand, hauling my boat down the shallow river,
Where the panther walks to and fro on a limb overhead, where the buck turns furiously at the hunter,
Where the rattlesnake suns his flabby length on a rock, where the otter is feeding on fish,
Where the alligator in his tough pimples sleeps by the bayou,
Where the black bear is searching for roots or honey, where the beaver pats the mud with his paddle-shaped tail;
Over the growing sugar, over the yellow-flower’d cotton plant, over the rice in its low moist field,
Over the sharp-peak’d farm house, with its scallop’d scum and slender shoots from the gutters,
Over the western persimmon, over the long-leav’d corn, over the delicate blue-flower flax,
Over the white and brown buckwheat, a hummer and buzzer there with the rest,
Over the dusky green of the rye as it ripples and shades in the breeze;
Scaling mountains, pulling myself cautiously up, holding on by low scragged limbs,
Walking the path worn in the grass and beat through the leaves of the brush,
Where the quail is whistling betwixt the woods and the wheat-lot,
Where the bat flies in the Seventh-month eve, where the great gold-bug drops through the dark….

It is difficult to excerpt Whitman for this reason, and this section goes on to take us to the ocean, from the pastures to the city, to Judea with God walking by his side, and to the cosmos beyond—fitting for a passage beginning with the phrase “Space and Time!” You might ask your students how to film the described actions, and it will become apparent that a film crew, a crane, and possibly a helicopter would be needed to do justice to the scope of the vision.

With these examples in mind, I show students model poems and ask them to write imitations, keeping the anaphora but letting their imaginations run free. I choose examples that reinforce different aspects of poetry as well. For instance, these excerpts from Joe Brainard’s book-length poem I Remember create the atmosphere of a remembered time and place through specific detail:

I remember a piece of old wood with termites running around all over it the termite men found under our front porch.
I remember when one year in Tulsa by some freak of nature we were invaded by millions of grasshoppers for about three or four days. I remember, downtown, whole sidewalk areas of solid grasshoppers.
I remember a shoe store with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green.

After reading this, I have students write an “I remember” poem about a specific place and time, requiring them to focus their poem’s subject. I suggest they choose a place they know well, such as their hometown, the house they grew up in, their high school. Brainard’s poem, with its concrete descriptions, encourages sensual and specific details. The anaphora asks us to return again and again to the well of memory and, like the “I spy” games of their childhood, to articulate what they see there.

Anaphora can also be a way to encourage metaphor. I suggest N. Scott Momaday’s “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee.”

I am a feather on the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows
I am an eagle playing with the wind
I am a cluster of bright beads
I am the farthest star
I am the cold of dawn
I am the roaring of the rain
I am the glitter on the crust of the snow
I am the long track of the moon in a lake
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things
You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful
I stand in good relation to the daughter of Tsen-tainte
You see, I am alive, I am alive

The anaphora’s declarative motion encourages a confident, assertive voice, while the “I am” construction demands metaphor. After discussing the poem, and noting that Momaday’s metaphors are mostly concrete (or, if abstract, quickly linked to a concrete thing—“angle of geese,” “hunger of a young wolf”), I ask my students to write their own “I am” poem. Having seen Momaday’s surprising lines, they often loosen up quite a bit.

Momaday’s poem demonstrates how an anaphora-based poem can function as a sort of generative list—a ready answer to students who claim they don’t know what to write about. Models such as Ann Porter’s “List of Praises” can provide a structure that such students can’t deny; the anaphora “give praise with …” demands an answer, and the poem rockets forward:

Give praise with psalms that tell the trees to sing,
Give praise with Gospel choirs in storefront churches,
Mad with the joy of the Sabbath,
Give praise with the babble of infants, who wake with the sun,
Give praise with children chanting their skip-rope rhymes,
A poetry not in books, a vagrant mischievous poetry
living wild on the Streets through generations of children.

If some students purport to be too cool or jaded to “give praise,” they might consider turning their imitation into an anti-praise poem, either by modifying the anaphora (“Damn the …,” perhaps?) or by adopting a sarcastic tone. Either way, the power of the listing anaphora still works.

For my intermediate students, I eschew the more listlike anaphora poems and provide a poem to imitate that uses anaphora more sparingly, such as “Hospital parking lot, April” by Laura Kasischke:

Once there was a woman who laughed for years uncontrollably after a stroke.


Once there was a child who woke after surgery to find his parents were impostors.


These seagulls above the parking lot today, made of hurricane and ether, they


have flown directly out of the brain wearing little blue-gray masks, like strangers’ faces, full


of wingèd mania, like television in waiting rooms. Entertainment. Pain. The rage


of fruit trees in April, and your car, which I parked in a shadow before you died, decorated now with feathers,


and unrecognizable  
with the windows unrolled  
and the headlights on  
and the engine still running  
in the Parking Space of the Sun.

In addition to being lovely and heartbreaking, this poem has several advantages from a teaching standpoint. It begins with one anaphora, ends with another, and in between departs from anaphora entirely. This is a significant move for students to emulate, as it recognizes and combats the potential stagnation of an unchanging line. Additionally, the opening lines allow you to address the importance of anaphora’s content, as well as its sonic qualities. “Once there was” is the language of fairy tales, promising a story that resolves happily ever after (at least by our Disney-influenced standards). But the initially positive or optimistic opening sentences, “Once there was a woman who laughed for years” and “Once there was a child who woke after surgery,” close with conclusions suggesting helplessness and alienation. The impossibility of the fairy tale is further reinforced by the anaphora, as the poem essentially starts and then starts again, to no avail. The happy ending isn’t coming.

The poet Sean Bishop suggested Joanna Klink’s “Some Feel Rain” for these purposes, and I’ve also found it a useful poem when considering how form and content can reinforce one another. The initial anaphora calls the world into being and establishes the rules of that world, where some feel some things and, by implication, others do not:

Some feel rain. Some feel the beetle startle
in its ghost-part when the bark 
slips. Some feel musk. Asleep against
each other in the whiskey dark, scarcely there.

The question of the poem seems to be whether one belongs to that former group or the latter, and by ending with lines like “why others feel” [emphasis added], “sparring and pins are all you have,” and “the earth cannot make its way towards you,” Klink’s poem suggests a powerful isolation and detachment from the sensual natural world:

… And wonder. Why others feel 
through coal-thick night that deeply-colored garnet 
star. Why sparring and pins are all you have.
Why the earth cannot make its way towards you.

When I ask my students to write an imitation of “Some Feel Rain,” paying specific attention to anaphora as well as other sonic effects such as assonance, consonance, alliteration, and so on, there’s benefit to the exercise regardless of whether they approach the task of imitation strictly or loosely. Here is a first draft of a Klink imitation by my student Paige Townsley, for instance, called “Some See Light”:

Some see light. Some see the wheat fields waver
in the end-favor past gates
bare. Some see love. Away but close
to reach in the smoky air, waiting there.
When it shatters, some see the whispered screen
dampen stars from the pinprick glints to
glow. Growing splashes of hue through the cracks,
a seeing-glass defogs and contracts, the stream of morning
you can swallow from the shoving glare and the lucid
truth promised. Some see the weeping red bleed
dark in the irises behind eyelids
and hope to heaven for one last grace.
Knowing that it would have been, ailments pale
and fleeting like forgotten fears on wake of dreaming.
Do I fear there is any wretch so base it can’t be
wrecked? Some see waters cleave, dark path
through chasm, as if Cocytus were broken by
the breath of the humble. The bride remains close
to betrothed in strength and shortcoming.
The unseeing stagger in dusk-light until
the second they are renewed. You can wait
to hear the repercussions, you can wait to
taste the sweet of nectar from the fruit
you reaped. And question. Why others see
through muffling silence the moving lips far in
cloud. Why the havens and pills are all you have.
Why the hands of earth still reach and snatch for you.

As is clear from the bolding, the student’s first draft hews closely to the original poem’s pattern of anaphora, which appears and leaves at approximately the same place in each poem. She also attentively follows the source poem’s rhetorical moves by posing questions, shifting address and point of view, and even, in some places, imitating sentence construction. To do so, she had to seriously consider the source poem’s structure. This is a valuable activity for a student to perform, as it encourages students to think of poems not as the spontaneous results of a flash of inspiration, but as a series of choices on the author’s part. Though many intermediate students have likely progressed beyond this romantic notion, it’s still worth reinforcing.

Other students move further afield from the source poem. My student Britney Woodall begins her first draft of “The Night” in Klinkian fashion, with a “Some see” refrain, but uses it only intermittently throughout the poem:

Some see stars. Some see the black expanse
Riddled with bright lights and wonder
At its mysteries. Some see the twinkling telltale sign
Of a satellite, caught in orbit. The moon moves the tides down below
And is worshipped by the wolves, their howls echoing across
The water and surrounding land. Forbidden secrets have no restraints in the world of
The nocturnal—lover’s passion or perhaps something much worse
Has been known to transpire—a tangled web which can still ensnare
Those naïve enough to stumble into its grip. Some see shooting stars flash from
One side of the velvet expanse to the other, a diamond falling and disappearing into
The Milky-Way spirals out of control yet still has its hold on our home
And the surrounding spheres that are ever revolving, slowly moving.
When caught in a helpless state, some see hope in the endless blanket
That engulfs and warms even those who have faded to almost nothing.
The largest star of all makes no appearance while the moon has full rein,
Yet its light is what reflects off the surface, so it’s not completely in chains.
Some see nothing of interest when glancing skyward, the sparkling abyss holding
No appeal. Some see the shapes and figures of legend and feel blessed in their presence.
The shadows toss and turn, flashing quickly or slowly creeping by,
In the dense foliage, curious eyes watch from afar, the night
Giving perfect cover. Life thrives in the dark, and all activity is observed
By the ever present, all-knowing splash of stars that are splattered
All over the canvas of the heavens.

Though this is a less strict imitation, the exercise still encouraged the student to use anaphora to create cohesiveness in the poem. Her closest placement of “Some see” occurs at the beginning and the end, a move that helps her close up a poem that ambitiously tries to describe our universe and our relation to it, the “all-knowing splash of stars.”

Both of these students, regardless of how closely they imitated the original, took risks with their language that they’d not shown in previous exercises, and wrote poems of greater length and complexity than they had before. Thinking about when the anaphora leaves and returns in Klink’s poems encouraged them to think about rhetorical movement in their own poems, an attention that bore out in their subsequent poems over the semester.

As a poetic device and as a teaching device, the instances and uses of anaphora seem inexhaustible, just like Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Ask your students to note anaphora in everyday speech and advertisements. Ask them to strip anaphora away from a poem that uses it heavily, and see what’s left. Ask your students to look at the patterns of the world around them—how do they respond to music that has a chorus? That doesn’t? Ask them to look at formal poetry, and consider how pantoums, ghazals, and villanelles use repetition. How does that repetition compare to anaphora? How much anaphora is enough? How much is too much? How will we know unless we try?

Originally Published: August 27th, 2013

Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (2012), winner of the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow (2013), from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison's Creative Writing Institute; and winner of the “Discovery”/Boston...

  1. August 31, 2013
     Sohini Basak

    I wanted to add Wislawa Szymborska's poem "Possibilities" to the list. The last lines of the poem reads "I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility/
    that existence has its own reason for being." This sums up the usefulness of trying out what might seem an old practice or redundant articulation or plain seemingly unoriginal repetition or extending sentences without really adding to the idea it conveys or what I'm doing right now or here I'll stop and let you read the entire poem instead or it's repetitive as well or don't tell me i didn't warn you

    by Wislawa Szymborska

    "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."

  2. September 7, 2013

    This was an amazingly detailed and well-written piece with such fantastic examples. I was just talking with my husband yesterday about how students do feel that poetry is some secret-code only to be deciphered by some intellectual elite and how sad I thought it was that this is the state of affairs since poetry is indeed for us all, and should open the heart to the myriad of human emotions that we all share! Poetry should be a source of communication and connection, not something perceived so avant garde that one needs a "de-coder ring." Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece which really has so many wonderful ideas for how to share, teach, assist and submerge students into the joy of poetry (for all)!

  3. September 11, 2013

    Sohini - thank you for posting this poem. I've never read Szymborska before and now I'll be heading to the library to see what I can find. Great article, great comment, and a wonderful poem. It's a good day already... :)

  4. September 13, 2013
     Maria Snyman

    Absolutely loved this article! Most inspiring! Very
    encouraging too!

  5. September 14, 2013

    This is just what I needed for poetry workshops I am preparing for several middle-school classes. I've thought of several ways I can involve them in anaphora exercises. Thank you.

  6. April 25, 2014
     Barbara Blackcinder

    I'm amazed and thrilled by this post. All the examples of ways to use Anaphora were so clear. Though a poor poet, I almost wish I were a teacher to use your techniques to teach and encourage poetry students. How could they not learn and enjoy thoroughly??