What Is the Function of Repetition in Poetry?

Daniel Liden

Repetition is a common component of poetry and may appear as a single word or phrase used throughout a poem or as an entire stanza reused repeatedly. Different poets have used repetition in poetry to achieve many different ends, ranging from emphasizing a particular point to making a poem easier to memorize. It is often used to supplement or even replace some formal components of poetry, such as meter and rhyme, as well. Repetition may also refer to the repetition of specific sounds to produce particular effects, such as alliteration or rhyme. Many poets focus on the sound and rhythm of their poems at least as much as on the meanings, so repetition is a powerful tool because it can be used to manipulate both.

Repetition may be used to emphasize a particular word or phrase in poetry.
Repetition may be used to emphasize a particular word or phrase in poetry.

One of the most common uses of repetition in poetry is emphasizing a particular word or phrase for purposes such as drawing attention to a particular theme or pointing out contrasting uses of a given word. The degree to which repetition is used varies widely. Some poems repeat the same word or phrase in every single line while others repeat it only in a few stanzas or only twice in the entire poem. Repetition can even transcend the bounds of a single poem. Poets often release books of their poetry, and repetition may be used throughout their poems to give a sense of unity and cohesion to the collection.

Poets often release books of their poetry, with repetition used to give a sense of unity and cohesion to the collection.
Poets often release books of their poetry, with repetition used to give a sense of unity and cohesion to the collection.

On a smaller scale, repetition can refer to the repetition of particular sounds. Repeated sounds are used to produce rhymes, which are very common in many different forms of poetry. Some poets choose to favor a certain subset of sounds through an entire poem to create or to avoid a certain effect, often so that form matches meaning. Repetition in poetry about love and comfort, for instance, may involve favoring soft, gentle sounds while avoiding harder or harsher sounds, such as those produced by a hard "k" or "g."

Before physically writing poetry became a widespread practice, important poems were often passed down through oral tradition. Repetition made such poems far easier to memorize, as repeated segments could be used to measure progress through the poem and were, in themselves, easy to memorize. Many early epics and other long poems in particular are characterized by the presence of repeating sections. Repetition in poetry of this form often serves the double purpose of making memorization easier and adding emphasis to important points.

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Discussion Comments


Repetition is a method often used to emphasize and exaggerate key ideas.


@truman12 - Honestly, you might be overthinking it.

The next poem you read that uses repetition, don't just ask what's repeated, but also think about: What changed? Was there a direction or progression suggested by the change? Did it intensify or maybe soften the mood? Was a certain theme emphasized? What do the detail changes suggest about the poet's view of the theme?

Don't ever be afraid to comment about a poem, this kind of response is fine: "I noticed the repetition of X, and it seems to suggest [...] but it's not really clear from the details what the poet intends by it so it maybe wasn't as pleasing to me as it otherwise could have been."


@truman12 - You might want to look up different forms of poetry that demand repetition like ballads or pantoums.

But, a lot of famous poems use this technique for various reasons. It would be easier to list poems that don't use repetition than those that do, I suspect.

If I were you, I would just have a look at a lot of poetry and pick out the ones that you like, that use repetition. Because, in my opinion, while there is some poetry that is almost definitely, objectively bad, there is no objectively good poetry. If the use of repetition detracts from the poem for you, then it's not working. If it adds to the poem, then it is working. "Good" poems are those where it works for a lot of people.


My favorite purpose of repetition in a poem is when the poet starts off with the line meaning one thing and somehow manages to change or enhance that meaning throughout the poem.

It is only rarely done right, but when it is, it's really splendid. Wordsworth is a master of this I think.

He often seems to just be writing something very light and pastoral but if you pay attention his poems are often quite cynical underneath.


Can anyone recommend some poems that are good examples of repetition used effectively? I am aware of what repetition in poetry looks like and how it is supposed to work, but I'm not sure I could spot when it is working well or detracting from the poetry.


There was a while when I was writing a lot of very repetitive poetry. Often I would write a line and then repeat the line over and over with minor variations. I would change a word or two or change the order of words.

The results were pretty hit or miss. There are a few poems from that time that I love and still perform at open mics. But there are others that were just disasters, the kind of stuff that should be used to build a fire.

My work has changed a lot since then but I still use repetition in different ways. I like to think that I am more restrained these days. I can't say that my work is better, but I am better at reigning in the weak parts. Often writing good poetry is just a mater of removing the bad parts.


Repetition can go both ways in a poem. Sometimes it can be used to incredible effect and other times it serves only to repeat bad ideas.

I think for any aspiring poet to gauge the success of their efforts they have to read their poetry out loud. Repetition has a strong sonic effect. It is the repetition of sounds just as much as meanings.

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