• On Repetition As a Powerful
    Literary Tool

    Geraldine Woods Considers Poets, Polemicists, and a Classic Mid-Century American Novel

    But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

    –Jack Kerouac, On the Road


    How many real or would-​be rebels have made Jack Kerouac’s words their anthem? I’ve known many, and my guess is that you have, too. The sentence above appears in On the Road, a fictionalized version of several trips Kerouac took with his friends, during which the travelers fight and reconcile, meet and discard sexual partners, drink and take drugs, and discuss every topic intensely. In short, they do what Kerouac says the mad ones do. Kerouac employs repetition in this sentence for the same reason many other authors do: to emphasize and unite ideas.

    Usually, when I see this sentence on a poster or embroidered on a flag (and, yes, I’ve seen it in both spots), only the middle appears. The common version begins after because and stops after roman candles. That’s fitting, because once the fireworks end, aspiring rebels become bored, and boredom is the last thing Jack Kerouac represents in the public imagination. Instead, he’s the hero who embarks on a journey of adventure and self-​discovery, the rebel who hates the conformity of the 1950s, the best of the mad ones who burn, burn, burn with creative fire.

    The complete version of the sentence adds nuance to this image. Kerouac’s narrator (called Sal Paradise in the novel and a stand-​in for Kerouac) separates himself from the mad ones. They are the ones who dance down the streets like dingledodies. (Don’t look for dingledodies in a standard dictionary. Kerouac coined the word.) Sal shambled after. Shamble is “walk awkwardly or unsteadily,” a gait common in the fast-​growing teen years. And what is adolescence if not a nest for rebellion? The mad ones may be the only people for Sal, but in his own estimation, he stands apart. Did Kerouac know that he was describing Sal (and therefore himself) as a writer? Sal, who shambled after, was observing. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life, he says.

    The legend is that Kerouac wrote On the Road in a three-​week burst, typing on a continuous “scroll” he’d made by taping long sheets of paper to each other. In those precomputer days, he would have had to pause at the end of each page to insert a new sheet into the typewriter, and he didn’t want to break the flow of creative energy even for a moment. Or so he said. In fact, he’d worked on an initial draft for years before the three-​week typing spree began, and he spent several more years editing. The final version differs little from the scroll, but Kerouac was a writer, not a force of nature. Thought and care went into On the Road.

    Now to the first repetition:

    mad ones

    mad to live

    mad to talk

    mad to be saved

    Mad means “insane, delusional” or “angry, violent.” It also applies to infatuation; if you’re mad about or mad for something, you think of little else. The word may also be used as an intensifier: mad afraid, for example, conveys extreme fear. By repeating mad, Kerouac links the three activities to the group he designates as the mad ones: to live, to talk, to be saved. The first two imply independence. Barring outside interference, the mad ones control how to live and to talk. But the third, to be saved, implies dependency. Grammatically, it’s a passive verb, with the subject receiving, not performing, the action. The salvation the mad ones seek must come from someone or something else. Viewed in that light, the road trips sound like desperate searches.

    Impossibility joins desperation in the next portion of the sentence:

    desirous of everything at the same time

    the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing

    As the Rolling Stones put it a couple of decades later, you can’t always get what you want, and everything at the same time is a nonstarter. Even discounting the yawn reference (is there anyone who never yawns?), everyone says a commonplace thing sometimes. And Kerouac, the observer whose alter ego shambled after his friends, knows it.

    Now to the second repetition: burn, burn, burn. The verb refers to fire, of course, but figuratively it’s often used for passion. A hint of violence lies within burn, just as it does within mad. Kerouac’s narrator is attracted to fireworks that light up the sky, but the moment of glory is fleeting. As everyone goes Awww! at the blue centerlight, the firework burns out.

    It’s mad to think you can have it all, do nothing normal, and go out in a blaze of glory that will amaze those around you. There’s more than a hint of anger—​of being mad—​here, too. The world isn’t what Sal Paradise (or Jack Kerouac) wants it to be, nor can he be saved by going on the road.

    Kerouac’s sentence doesn’t need repetition to convey the basic idea. Written this way:

    But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the ones who are mad to live, to talk, to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

    the content remains the same, but not the tone. By inserting extra mads and burns, Kerouac’s sentence attains the passion he admires.


    Bob Dylan said of On the Road, “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.” Many of Dylan’s songs echo Kerouac’s themes. Some, like this line from “I Shall Be Released,” employ repetition:

    Any day now, any day now,

    I shall be released.

    On the surface, the words come from someone in jail who’s resentful of those who imprisoned him. The prisoner hears a man protesting innocence and weeping. The repeated phrase, any day now, any day now, expresses both a desire for freedom and an attempt to comfort. This is how a parent speaks to an impatient child, with repeated words that offer hope. The song’s meaning goes deeper than a prisoner’s lament, however. Anyone yearning to escape life’s burdens—​to die—​might say the same words to stave off despair.

    A different Dylan, Dylan Thomas, chose a strict poetic form for “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” The poem is a villanelle, which requires two refrains (repeated lines) in specific places. But Thomas goes beyond the requirements of the form by embedding repetition within one refrain:

    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Thomas claimed that the poem was about his father’s growing blindness, but most readers see “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” as a poem about death. Perhaps Thomas himself might have been blind to the references to death he embedded in the poem (“at their end,” “last wave,” “grieved,” “grave men,” and so forth). Either way, Thomas wields repetition like a hammer. Rage, rage is pure emotion, not logic. Had the poet’s father attempted to rage against either blindness or death, he would not have succeeded. Little wonder the poem sounds like a scream of rage.

    Ani DiFranco, in her song “Back Back Back,” also contemplates the nature of rage and its consequences:

    Back back back in the back of your mind

    Are you learning an angry language?

    DiFranco addresses a nameless boy, telling him about “nursing homes” where “old old old people” are “scowling away at nothing.” Nurturing a negative emotion makes it grow and intensify, she explains. If the boy wants a “comfortable chair” to sit on “in the middle of yourself,” he must “practice happiness” before it’s too late to change.

    DiFranco’s repetition reaches into the unconscious. A single back might refer to an unexpressed thought, but four backs in a nine-​word line go further. The boy learning an angry language may not be aware of what’s happening back back back in the back of his mind, but it’s happening nonetheless. The song also brings in a spiritual dimension, whatever is in back back back in the back of existence. DiFranco pleads with the boy to “renovate” his “soul” because he’s “gonna be housebound there” someday.

    Another sort of reckoning comes after war. As long as there have been soldiers, there have been veterans struggling to make sense of their experience. Repetition is an appropriate tool for this task: A single strike seldom determines the outcome of a battle, nor can one insight bring peace of mind. In Bloods, Wallace Terry’s oral history of African Americans who served in Vietnam, Harold “Lightbulb” Bryant explains that after returning home he spoke with many chaplains and preachers, asking for “a satisfactory explanation of what happened overseas.” And every year he reads the Bible, “cover to cover,” “looking for the explanation.” But, he explains:

    I can’t find it. I can’t find it.

    The impact of that line—​technically two sentences but inseparable in meaning—​is stunning, as much a product of Bryant’s desperation as Terry’s art. Oral historians always deal with the false starts, backtracks, and repetition that clutter human speech. In most circumstances, though, an oral historian edits the narrative to represent what’s been said, but more cleanly and concisely. Terry’s decision to include this repetition is a wise one, laying bare Bryant’s fruitless search for meaning.

    Also voiceless is the woman Frederick Douglass refers to in his autobiography:

    She was nevertheless left a slave—​a slave for life—​a slave in the hands of strangers; and in their hands she saw her children, her grandchildren, and her great-​grandchildren, divided, like so many sheep, without being gratified with the small privilege of a single word, as to their or her own destiny.

    Three times Douglass writes slave, first simply and then adding words to be sure that the reader understands the horror of her state: a slave for life and a slave in the hands of strangers. He also repeats children, extending the word through generations, from the mother to her great-​grandchildren. She can protect no one, including herself. Each repetition is a step on the path to more agony.

    Now, some comedy, specifically the famous “dead parrot” sketch by the comedy troupe Monty Python. A pet-​shop clerk insists that the parrot a customer just bought is “resting.” The customer rants for several minutes. This sentence is one of the best:

    He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!

    No word repeats, but the meaning does. Each statement is a euphemism for death, including the last sentence: “THIS IS AN EX-​PARROT!” By saying the same thing in different ways, the writer shows that there is no way to convince the clerk that the customer has a legitimate complaint.


    You don’t always have to dig into a text to see the effects of repetition. Staying on the surface—​mostly—​are these sentences. The repeated words may cause a smile, elicit a surge of pride, or accomplish other goals:


    In times like these, it is helpful to remember that there have always been times like these.

    –Paul Harvey (radio commentator)


    A hundred times have I thought New York is a catastrophe, and fifty times: It is a beautiful catastrophe.

    –​Le Corbusier, When Cathedrals Were White


    . . . 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. . . .

    –Winston Churchill


    If instead, you had started reviewing your Amazon purchases, built a reputation as a reliable reviewer, secured an invite to the Vine program, kept your head down, filed your assignments and avoided the occasional purges of reviewers, your take-​home total might today exceed that number [the amount a cash investment in Amazon would have netted], although in somewhat less liquid form: five vacuums here; 14 hard drives there; some laptops and cellphones’ Bluetooth speakers, and headphones, and headsets, and, well, pretty much anything with Bluetooth, so much Bluetooth, mouthful after mouthful of blue teeth.

    –John Herman, “Free Stuff, But It Comes at a Price”


    Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to because they want to do it.

    –Dwight D. Eisenhower (president of the United States, 1953–​61)


    You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will
    more willingly part withal:
    except my life, except my life, except my life.

    –​Shakespeare, Hamlet

    For the Writer
    No one wants to read a great two-​page essay that’s ten pages long. (Trust me on this: I’ve graded thousands of them.) The writers quoted in this chapter use repetition wisely. One principle to keep in mind as you experiment with repetition: repeat yourself only when you know why you’re doing so.

    Full Circle
    Experiment with beginning and ending a sentence with the same word, with, of course, one or two others in the middle. For example, here’s why you should put your cash into a bank account instead of under the mattress:

    Money grows money.

    If you’re stuck, one of these words may spark an idea: friends, enemies, poverty, wealth, my boss/teacher/parent (select one), summer.

    To . . . ​To
    This one is a variation of “Full Circle.” Select an infinitive (to plus a verb). Begin and end a sentence with one, adding your own words of wisdom to the middle. For instance:

    To have a life, don’t waste time planning to have a life.

    You may disagree with the sentiment. No matter! Just try the pattern. A few infinitives to get you going:

    to be successful, to dance, to ensure, to end, to advance, to change

    Now try the to exercise with a noun—​a person, place, or thing. Here’s one:

    To Mary, the perfect present was what Edward gave to everyone but to Mary.

    I don’t know the relationship between Mary and Edward, who are both characters I’ve just now made up. But wouldn’t it be fun to explore? In fact, once you’ve written your own “to . . . ​to” sentence, fashion a scene around it. Who knows, you may have just begun a novel.

    Think of a sentence that’s a staircase, with the edge of each step formed by a repeated word or phrase. The actual steps—​where you place your foot—​are made from added words. What’s important here is to climb, to take the reader with you to a conclusion that has more significance than the words preceding it. Here’s an example:

    After the house shuddered, after the cracks split the street in half, after the chimney teetered like a child’s tower of blocks and landed on what had been my lawn, the warning siren blew.

    Notice that each “step” is slightly longer than the one before, but the “landing” is short and simple. In this example, length creates the climb, but you can also climb by raising the significance level of each step. You might move from the first glance to the date to meet-​the-​parents night to . . . ​well, you know where this staircase leads. Because everyone is familiar with this particular climb, your challenge is to find an original path.

    The staircase sentence is also good for argument. Think of phrases beginning with “for this reason” that lead to an inescapable conclusion. One more variation is accusation: he has . . . ​or she has . . . ​are good beginnings for a multipart indictment.

    Do you talk to yourself, silently or otherwise? Most people do, especially when their confidence level ebbs or when they’re trying to come to terms with the unexpected. In these situations, repetition mirrors how people process reality. One self-​affirmation or explanation is seldom enough.

    Create a character who needs a pep talk or a reality check. Toss a phrase representing the character’s thoughts in the middle of an account of the situation, and then repeat the phrase. In this sentence, George has a job interview:

    “Good tie, best suit, hand-​sewn briefcase, impeccable résumé—​they’ll hire me, they’ll hire me,” George muttered as he left the house.

    Are you as ambitious as George? If so, expand the sentence into a story.


    25 great sentences, geraldine woods

    Reprinted from 25 Great Sentences and How They Got That Way by Geraldine Woods. Copyright (c) 2020 by Geraldine Woods. Used with permission of the publisher W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Geraldine Woods
    Geraldine Woods has taught English at every level from fifth grade through Advanced Placement, most recently at the Horace Mann School. She is the author of numerous nonfiction books for adults and children, including 25 Great Sentences. She lives in New York City.

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