Repetition and the Transient Self

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by Ella Bartlett, Writing Fellow ’19

I watched this Spoken Word performance by Phil Kaye recently, but I first discovered it back in middle school. Watching it now and remembering how it affected me when I watched it 6 years ago was a meta-exercise for me. The poem itself is about repetition: how when you experience the same thing in two different points in your life (even if that is milliseconds later, like a repeated word), the experience changes.

Phil Kaye addresses his parent’s divorce:

“My mother taught me this trick: if you repeat something over and over again it loses its meaning. This became my favorite game, it made the sting of words evaporate–separation separation separation–see? Nothing.”

For Phil Kaye, repetition of this very heavy word made it more bearable for him, because, colloquially, it took away the punch. The word itself did not change, just his experience of it. I wonder what the word means to him, as a poet, now, 8 years after he wrote this poem. He– a listener/reader, the one who is experiencing the word— has changed states, ever so slightly, and that is what makes the meaning different.

In The Writer’s’ Process, we read Roland Barthes, who wrote about the dynamic between the author and the reader. He argues, “[The reader] is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (from Death of the Author, 1977). The author is dead, the words simply exist on the page, and the meaning arises from the reader.

When thinking about repetition, then, what does it mean for the same reader to experience the same thing over and over again? “Apart/apart/apart/apart” speaks Phil Kaye. To experience the word “apart” right now, and then experience it after three years and loneliness and straddling one’s self between two worlds of two parents—this is where the meaning of repetition comes from.

This is why I am going to make a point to reread books I haven’t read in a long time this summer, to hear poetry now that I haven’t heard since high school or experienced at a time in my life where I know I was a different person than I am now. The self is transient, and because it is, so is the meaning of a work of art.