Poetic Technique: Anaphora
PostedSeptember 02, 2004
The term "anaphora" comes from the Greek for "a carrying up or back," and refers to a type of parallelism created when successive phrases or lines begin with the same words, often resembling a litany. The repetition can be as simple as a single word or as long as an entire phrase. As one of the world’s oldest poetic techniques, anaphora is used in much of the world’s religious and devotional poetry, including numerous Biblical Psalms.
Elizabethan and Romantic poets were masters of anaphora, as evident in the writings of William Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, and Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare frequently used anaphora, in both his plays and poems. For example, in Sonnet No. 66, he begins ten lines with the word "and":
"Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm'd in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac'd,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac'd,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly--doctor-like--controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall'd simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir'd with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone."
Not only can anaphora create a driving rhythm by the recurrence of the same sound, it can also intensify the emotion of the poem. Grief is deepened in Lord Alfred Tennyson's "Tears, Idle Tears" by the repetition of "the days that are no more" at the close of each stanza, in a variation of anaphora called epistrophe, where the echo comes at the end of the phrase instead of the start.
Allen Ginsberg's Howl, Walt Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," Section V of "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot, and "From a Litany" by Mark Strand are all excellent examples of how modern writers have found inventive ways to use anaphora. Joe Brainard used anaphora to recalling his Oklahoma youth in his book-length poem "I Remember " by starting each phrase with "I remember." For example:
"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."
Brainard’s technique was so effective that Kenneth Koch adapted it for teaching children how to write poetry, and the method continues to be popular with writing teachers for students of any age.