Pain and Repetition

                                     What does the poem mean?
                                                  I have been hurt.
                                     Your pain is beside the point; it lies there on the edge of the text.
                                                 How do I prove it if not in the way I read, in the way I speak?
                                     But the text…
                                                 I have been wounded. I wind the poem around my wounding. Freud talks about
                                     repeating the unpleasant thing, and so I repeat: I have been (hurt).

In her lecture, “Portraits and Repetition,” Gertrude Stein claims “there is no such thing as repetition”:

Is there repetition or is there insistence. I am inclined to believe that there is no such thing as repetition.  And really how can there be… there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis. [1]

By discarding “repetition” and opting instead for the term “insistence,” I take Stein to mean that pure maintenance, at least in language, is impossible: with every repetition also comes a development. Because articulations of language unfold through time, it is impossible to repeat a word without evoking the trace of its previous articulation. According to Stein, the addition of this trace, the word being haunted by its past use, changes its tone. The word’s emphasis shifts; its affect accretes.

Let us turn to perhaps Stein’s most famous line of poetry: “Rose is a rose is a rose,” [2] often misquoted as “a rose is a rose is a rose.” The first indefinite article is not present in the original poem and its inclusion changes the meaning. With the “a” the sentence seems to say what you see is what you get, a rose is just a rose, only a rose, nothing more, nor will it be. In this context, repetition becomes as sort of mechanical echolalia resulting in semantic exhaustion, inviting the listener to focus on the pure sensation of the phonemes while emptying “rose” of its meaning. Repetition becomes a way out of the pressure to mean. However, this reading is not supported by Stein’s description of repetition in her essay. There she implies that repetition is additive rather than subtractive—words gain, rather than lose, something—that is, new emphasis—each time they are repeated.  

Faithfully quoted, “Rose is a rose is a rose,” with its lack of article encourages us to think of this as a statement about the nature of definition. Uppercase “Rose”—the word “Rose”—is comprised of many articulations of lower-case “roses.” The concept of the rose is an accretion of all its particular occurrences. As if to say, this rose and that rose, and even that rose over there combine to become the concept of ROSE. We can also read the repetition as an accretion of admiration; the speaker insists on the rose, on its importance. She doesn’t need a new word to describe it, she only needs to repeat the word, and in so doing  shifts the emphasis (as Stein might say) in order to track her intensification of feeling.  The repetition of rose builds towards an outburst of admiration rather than emptying the word of its signification. The line that directly follows “Rose is a rose is a rose” supports this reading: after sufficient iteration, the poem declares, “Loveliness extreme.” Hence, “rose” becomes more significant with each repetition, lovelier. The rose’s rosiness is not emptied out but added to—it is overflowing.

As a means of shifting emphasis, let us insist on returning to Stein’s essay on repetition before continuing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she restates herself:

Then we have insistence insistence that in its emphasis can never be repeating, because insistence is always alive and if it is alive it is never saying anything in the same way because emphasis can never be the same not even when it is most the same that is when it has been taught.

    How do you like what you have. [3]

Notice the volta between the first and second sentences. Stein’s insistences flow in a long winding sentence—the words proliferate themselves, endlessly unspooling until they don’t. Stein interrupts the music of her repetition with the terse, full-stopped, “How do you like what you have.” If the first sentence is intoxicating and perhaps confusing, the next is sobering and frank, intense in its containment. The syntax is interrogative, but the ending period refuses a question’s openness. I don’t sense that what I have can or will expand, I have what I have. How do I like it? Let’s really consider this question. What do we have?  Stein asks—what are your resources, and do you like them? Are they energizing, do they bring you pleasure? Perhaps the poet has pain (I do), but she also has language—that is her resource.

Language is neither exhaustible nor unlimited—our vocabularies are not endless, even if the combinations they afford are infinite. And, our language is of course evolving and being constantly remade by the countless and various flurries of conversations, epistles, academic conferences, Twitter diatribes, essays, poems, radio shows, etc (à ∞) that make up language’s day-to-day doing. Every poet is, to borrow a term from Lévi-Strauss, a bricoleur—she uses the materials at hand. As a function of our vocabularies being shared by a community of speakers and existing at a particular point in history, these materials are never entirely our own. This can be a source of comfort—shared language can make us feel like a part of a community, part of a tradition—but it can also be oppressive. The language that is ready at hand is itself no stranger to pain: it is the language of empire, of patriarchal, heterosexist domination, of systematic racism, and of capitalist objectification. These histories haunt our language, just as Stein’s first articulation of “rose” haunts her second and third roses (even if we choose to see her haunting as more joyous). Writing in English necessitates wrangling with these specters; this is what insistence does. Language is an endlessly renewable resource, but an imperfect one—it doesn’t burn clean.

Poet Harryette Mullen is intimately acquainted with insistence’s freighted dynamics. In the preface to her book Recyclopedia, Mullen writes: “If the encyclopedia collects general knowledge, the recyclopedia salvages and finds imaginative uses for knowledge. That’s what poetry does when it remakes and renews words, images, and ideas, transforming surplus cultural information into something unexpected.” [4] By her own admission, then, Mullen is invested in poetry’s transformative force. She is explicit about Stein’s influence on her own work, and she even acknowledges that “Trimmings,” the first section of Recyclopedia, is a reimagining of the “Objects” section of Stein’s prose poem collection, Tender Buttons. But like any act of recycling,  Mullen’s project is not a perfect repetition of Stein’s (how could it be?), but rather a development: Mullen writes, “my own prose poems depart from [Stein’s] cryptic code to recycle and reconfigure language from a public sphere that include mass media and political discourse as well as literature and folklore.” [5]

Mullen’s work pushes the line between maintenance and disruption to ultimately ask what can be recovered and recycled in the space of a poem. Specifically, I argue she employs repetition to communicate a pain that may not be explicitly speakable or narrowly legible within the confines of the language at hand. I am not the first to analyze Mullen’s transformative use of repetition. In her book Renegade Poetics, poet and scholar Evie Shockley considers the complexities of the relationship between Mullen’s poetics and her identity as an African-American poet writing in English. Shockley argues that Mullen uses repetition to both highlight and critique the English language’s “seemingly inescapable racist baggage” in Mullen’s poem “Denigration.” [6] Something similar happens in the following poem from “Trimmings”:

Of a girl, in white, between the lines, in the spaces where nothing is written. Her starched petticoats, giving him the slip. Loose lips, a telltale spot, where she was kissed, and told. Who would believe her, lying still between the sheets. The pillow cases, the dirty laundry laundered. Pillow talk-show on a leather couch, slips in and out of dreams. Without permission, slips out the door. A name adores a Freudian slip. [7]

The tensions in this poem circulate around a girl’s impossible task of proving a sexual violation in the absence of concrete evidence. She is in pain; how does she prove it? The sex act left a spot of blood (“a telltale spot”) on something, but all evidence has since been laundered away. Lacking this material substantiation, the experience becomes, according to the hegemonic logic embedded in this language, merely the stuff of dreams; the violation inhabits the space “where nothing is written.”

Where does the pain reside, how do we recover it? How do we communicate when language in its tradition threatens to erase our experience? Mullen does not shy away from this difficulty. Indeed, initially, the poem enacts patriarchal discourse’s remaking of survivors’ testimonies into counts against their own credibility by doubling the word “lying.” This slippage implies that whenever a woman lies down for sex she relinquishes the power of narrating the truth of her experience—she is assumed to be both prone and prone to lying, someone who tells tales. Sexual “looseness,” begets “looseness” with the truth: the phrase, “loose lips,” evokes both spreading gossip with the mouth and spreading one’s legs to reveal supple labia, or so claim the powers that have long arbitrated sexual trauma. But the poem’s reproduction of an oppressive discourse soon becomes an indictment against that very discourse’s foundational erasure. With a nod to Freud and a leather couch, the poem charges psychoanalysis with telling women what they have experienced—“who would believe her” the poem asks. Does she tell? Or was she told? The line “where she was kissed, and told” resists clarifying this question; instead, the girl is left slipping between being the subject and the object of the telling.  

You say you are hurt? Prove it. This poem answers this challenge with repetition, conjuring the very “evidence” needed even as the language the poem uses threatens to erase it. Although untitled, the poems in “Trimmings” each take a specific piece of clothing or accessory for their focus, playfully punning on the garment’s name and pushing it through a cycle of iteration to reveal the semantic possibilities of its sonic texture. For instance, the language of this poem circulates around the slip, that is, the undergarment:  it repeats the word “slip” four times (five, if you let “slip” emerge from a spoken elision in “loose lips”). However, “slip” never denotes the garment in question, that is, the stained slip that would carry the “telltale spot” that might serve as incriminating evidence. Each use of the word instead refers to the action of slipping away, a fugitive movement which the girl herself was unable to complete. The slip as garment itself, then, slips away. As the slips accrue in the poem, the material slip becomes more glaringly absent and the language’s slippages noticeably louder. By repeating “slip,” the poem stresses the girl’s inability to escape the strictures of very language available to her as she attempts to tell her truth; that is, it makes her erasure present. Even if the language of the poem undermines her pain’s authority—it is insufficient to speak for itself, it must produce evidence, call witnesses, etc—the insistence on the slip gestures to the pain elided by the poem, the story beneath the story, that persists “between the lines.” In the reigning discourse, every assertion she makes will only be twisted and made into evidence of her supposed prevarication. Still, within the poem, language recovers this girl’s experience through repetition’s misbehavior, its insistence on accruing, its rejection of reduction. Even if her slip is not available as evidence, the linguistic slippage brought out through repetition saves her from easy legibility, and therefore, simple condemnation. Her pain becomes an inescapable remainder, at least in the space of this poem. What does the poem mean? I have been hurt.

Works Cited

[1] Gertrude Stein, “Portraits and Repetition,” in Writings, 1932-1946 (New York: Library of America, 1998), 288.

[2] Gertrude Stein, “Sacred Emily,” in Writings, 1903-1932 (New York: Library of America, 1998), 387–96.

[3] Stein, “Portraits and Repetition,” 290-291.

[4] Harryette Romell Mullen, Recyclopedia (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006), vii.

[5] Mullen, Recyclopedia, x.

[6] Evie Shockley, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), 15.

[7] Mullen, Recycopedia, 18.


Kelly Hoffer (she/her) earned an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her book manuscript Undershore was a finalist for the 2020 National Poetry Series and a semifinalist for Tupelo Press's 2020 Berkshire Prize. Her poems have appeared in Yalobusha Review, BathHouse Journal, Radar Poetry, Prelude online, The Bennington Review, and the inaugural issue of Second Factory from Ugly Duckling Presse, among others. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Literatures in English at Cornell University. Learn more at : https://www.kellyrosehoffer.com.