Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Poetic Device? (Maybe You)

cow

Handle with care. We’ve all seen the sticker on packages of fragile goods. We should see it on packages of poetic devices, too. Like salt, a little goes a long way.

Thing is, some writers shy away from the simplest of devices completely. Take repetition. I know of one poet who uses Word, highlights her poems, then types in words to make sure she hasn’t inadvertently used any twice—at least in her free verse poems.

But wait. What if you have reason to use a word twice, or thrice, or more? What if it has a role in the poem’s point or mood? Wouldn’t you want it repeated under those circumstances? And isn’t it for you, the poet, to decide?

Well, yes. If handled with care. Let’s look at an example in the form of Hayden Carruth’s poem below. Unfasten your seat belt, though. You’re going to a country road in Vermont late at night and there’s not a lot of traffic.

 

The Cows at Night
Hayden Carruth

The moon was like a full cup tonight,
too heavy, and sank in the mist
soon after dark, leaving for light

faint stars and the silver leaves
of milkweed beside the road,
gleaming before my car.

Yet I like driving at night
in summer and in Vermont:
the brown road through the mist

of mountain-dark, among farms
so quiet, and the roadside willows
opening out where I saw

the cows. Always a shock
to remember them there, those
great breathings close in the dark.

I stopped, and took my flashlight
to the pasture fence. They turned
to me where they lay, sad

and beautiful faces in the dark,
and I counted them — forty
near and far in the pasture,

turning to me, sad and beautiful
like girls very long ago
who were innocent, and sad

because they were innocent,
and beautiful because they were
sad. I switched off my light.

But I did not want to go,
not yet, nor knew what to do
if I should stay, for how

in that great darkness could I explain
anything, anything at all.
I stood by the fence. And then

very gently it began to rain.

 

Without counting, what words seem to come at you the most? And what is their overall effect?

The speaker seems to have a Robert Frost moment here, one where he comes across something that evokes a mood, one he isn’t quite ready to leave (“Whose pasture this is, I think I know,” and all that.) No, not yet.

Carruth even hazards a one-line stanza at the finish. This after eleven tercets. Some poets avoid that like the plague as well. Too gimmicky, they say.

But for me, in this poem, it works. The poem slows down, mellows, invites us in until we’re standing by that fence with the speaker. Heck. We aren’t even tallying why we feel this way, but if we did, we’d be less suspicious of the repetition of certain words. When handled with care, I mean.

For those keeping count, the tally looks like so:

dark = 5 times (includes “darkness”)

sad = 4 times

light = 3 times (includes “flashlight”)

beautiful = 3

innocent = 2 (in consecutive lines, yet)

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