Considering Poetic Refrain


This in-class activity helps students to explore how poetic refrain as a formal device contributes to a poem’s meaning.  This activity may be used for any poems which contain refrains, or for other closed-form poems, such as the sestina or villanelle, which rely on the repetition of words or sentences. 


1)  Students will most likely be familiar with the use of refrain in songs, so have them think about the chorus in one of their favorite songs and ask them what they believe this chorus contributes to the song.  Next, inquire whether they believe their answers could apply to refrains that occur in poetry, too.  In other words, is refrain a purely musical device in a poem, or does it do more?  By asking them these questions, you will both remind the students of poetry’s oral heritage and set the stage for a discussion of how refrain produces meaning in poems.  For this class period, you may want to assign John Hollander’s chapter “Breaking in Song:  Some Notes on Refrain,” from his book Melodious Guile:  Fictive Pattern in Poetic Language (1988).  Hollander not only comments on the distinctions between musical and poetic refrain, but also conveys two main points:  that modern poetic refrain accumulates meaning each time it appears in a poem, and that refrain often calls attention to themes of time and memory, by the way it makes the reader recall earlier instances of the repeated word/line/stanza.  If you don’t want to assign the whole article, you might give the students a handout with the following two excerpts from that text (I did this for my ENLT 201M class, and it worked well, I think):

“Poetic refrain . . . starts out by troping the literalness of the repetition, by raising a central parabolic question for all textual refrain:  ‘Does repeating something at intervals make it more important, or less so?’  Does statistical overdetermination—the criterion of redundancy-as-predictability—apply to such repetitions, or rather the interpreter’s concept of overdetermination as implying an increased weight of meaning? . . .  [A]s we know, the ultimate story of modern, poetic refrain is, ‘What is it to mean this time around?’” (Hollander 133).

“Refrains, then, can time a poem, tolling its strophic hours in the tongue of bells that may be wholly foreign to the noises of the stanzas’ daily life.  And poetic refrains can enact tropes as well as schemes of time and memory . . . .  Thus we again observe that refrains are, and have, memories—of their prior strophes or stretches of text, of their own preoccurrences, and of their own genealogies in earlier texts as well” (Hollander 138).

In addition, if you are using a handbook of literary terms for your class, such as The Bedford Glossary of Literary and Critical Terms or The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, good keywords to have your students look up to prepare for this class activity are refrain, repetition, incremental refrain (in which the refrain changes slightly each time it appears in the poem), and terminal refrain (refrains which occur only at the ends of stanzas). 

2)  After this initial discussion, ask the students to turn to a particular poem you’ve assigned that day which includes refrain or repetition.  (You might use Tennyson’s “Mariana” or “The Lady of Shalott,” William Blake’s “The Tyger,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina,” or Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”)  Divide the class into several groups, and ask the students to discuss with their group members how they believe the poetic refrain functions in the poem.  Ask them to come up with a “story” for the repeated word, line, or stanza (whichever is appropriate for that poem), detailing how the repeated unit changes in meaning over the course of the poem.  Ask them to consider the following:  does the repeated unit change in meaning dramatically, or does it undergo a subtle shift in meaning?  Does the repeated unit correspond to or diverge from the tone of the rest of the poem?

3)  After your students have had suitable group time, reunite as a whole class and ask each group to report its “story” about the repeated unit.  How do the stories compare or contrast?  In the resulting discussion, you will be able to ask the groups to defend their ideas, and hopefully as a class you will develop together an understanding of how refrain/repetition works in that particular poem.  This activity is good, I think, for a class that emphasizes formal techniques (such as ENLT 201M), in which you will be continually reinforcing the connection between form and content in texts, and, specifically, the way that poetic form generates meaning.