Repetition & Context

This is my 100th post on this blog.  Happy milestone, blog!

And my content sort of goes along with milestones, or at least perspective shifts.  I’ve always admired writers who can repeat a phrase or an image throughout a piece, and have a fresh impact and a new meaning each time.  Well, I admire writers who pull it off.  When it’s overdone or ineffective, it’s just annoying and feels like the writer is trying too hard.

But I love it when the context alters or colors the meaning of a repetition.  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is one fine example, particularly in Slaughterhouse 5, with the phrase, “So it goes,” with its often-depressing, sometimes-funny, frequently-both-at-the-same-time effects.  Chuck Palahniuk employs repeat phrases with transformational meanings in every book I’ve read by him, good examples being Invisible Monsters and Lullabye, as well as his best-known Fight Club.

It’s a technique often used in song lyrics, with the words of the chorus shifting tone based around the context of each verse, but the absolute masters of such lyrical games, in my opinion, are a pop band, actually.  Barenaked Ladies (none of whom are women, incidentally) have used plays on repetition throughout their discography, but the song that first comes to mind for me is Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel, which opens with the words:

Driving home to be with you
The highway’s dividing, the city’s in view
As usual, I’m almost on time
You’re the last thing that’s on my mind

As song lyrics go, this is also a telling and subtle characterization of a narrator and his attitude about his relationship, by the way.  Anyway, the rest of the song details his subsequent death on the highway, and after a few hints here and there within the death scene regarding things unsaid, the song closes with a multiple repetition of the line “You’re the last thing on my mind.”  And it means something completely different now.  I love it.  We’ve gone from simple self-absorbancy to existential finality in less than 3 minutes.  Beautiful.

Anyway, it’s a weapon to wield carefully, and probably only after enough training that you won’t hurt yourself with it, but when it works, it’s dynamite.

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