Repetition, Rhetoric, Dr. Seuss and Dr. King

Most writers who take their prose seriously have a few favorite rhetorical devices. When these are used well, they contribute to what is loosely referred to as style. When used poorly, they . . . well, I try not to think about that.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you probably recognize that I tend to heavily favor two such devices, alliteration and repetition. (It’s actually only one device, since alliteration is a form of repetition.)

Blatant, obvious, excessive repetition–at least in written form (rather than a speech)–is really only appropriate for a children’s book. Since I’ve been reading lots of children’s books over the past few years (two per night is the current average, though my daughter only let’s me choose one of the titles), I’ve come to really appreciate a writer who is not only a master of the children’s story, but a brilliant practitioner of repetition: Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Seuss Geisel).

One of my favorite examples of Seussian repetition, probably among his most subtle examples, appears in And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. The good doctor there writes:

“Unless there’s something I can fix up,
There’ll be an awful traffic mix-up!

It takes Police to do the trick,
To guide them through where traffic’s thick–
It takes Police to do the trick.”

Another fine example shows up in that perennial favorite graduation gift, Oh the Places You’ll Go!:

“But on you will go
though the weather be foul,
On you will go
though your enemies prowl.
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl.
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.”

Perhaps the most famous, obsessive, blatant and brilliant example of Seussian repetition is found in Green Eggs And Ham:

“I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I will not eat them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them ANYWHERE!”

Lest you think this is all child’s play, repetition was a device of choice for a man who was unquestionably among the most compelling American rhetoricians of the last (or any) century, Dr. Martin Luther King. Even if many of us cannot recite from memory all of the details of Dr. King’s “dream,” his use of repetition has helped that speech and his message remain central in the (post) modern American consciousness. He said:

“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

I have a couple of further thoughts. As I said, repetition in texts intended to be read, not heard, must be handled with kid gloves. If  you incorporate Seussian repetition into a brief (or a blog post meant for adults), readers will think: (1) you’re an idiot, (2) you’re making fun of them, or (3) both. Because I value the opinions of both judges and blog readers, I take great care to be judicious with my repetition. Like any rhetorical device, its potency recedes with overuse.

Even in a speech, there is a real danger, if you get too cute with repetition, that your audience will think: (1) you’re an idiot, or (2) you’re an idiot who thinks he’s MLK.

Judiciously used, however, repetition in a writing or a speech can add impact, reinforce your message and make it memorable.

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