The Audience Learns Part 2 supplement — Cumulative songs and tales

We have seen how repetition draws an audience member’s attention inward, to a place where she can begin to manipulate what she has been given and begin her own creative work.  We’ve also seen how repetition helps an audience absorb work that is full of challenging twists and turns.

Another, related use of repetition is accumulation, wherein the audience memorizes one phrase and then adds on to it.  A famous example of this is the nursery rhyme “This Is the House That Jack Built.”

This is the house that Jack built.

This is the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rat that ate the cheese
That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cat that chased the rat
That ate the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.

The verses get longer and longer, starting at greater distance from Jack’s house. 

This is the horse and the hound and the horn
That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn
That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn
That woke the judge all shaven and shorn
That married the man all tattered and torn
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That chased the rat that ate the cheese
That lay in the house that Jack built.

"The House That Jack Built" is what’s known as a cumulative tale.  (Another example might be Green Eggs and Ham.)  There are also cumulative songs, one of the best known being "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  Cumulative tales and songs keep returning to a simple root image by repeating a lengthening set of details.  Part of the thrill for the audience is discovering the surprising capacity of the human memory.  Also, each recitation of the ever-lengthening refrain allows them to observe what happens to their attention.


Danish poet Inger Christensen.  Image via .

Danish poet Inger Christensen.  Image via

You can see these same principles at work in alphabet, a book-length poem by Danish poet Inger Christensen.  The book proceeds through the letters of the alphabet, and the length of each section follows a pattern know as a Fibonacci sequence, in which each number is the sum of the previous two numbers—0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so forth).

Thus it begins . . .


apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist



bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen



cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum


doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death


and a little later . . . 


given limits exist, streets, oblivion

and grass and gourds and goats and gorse,
eagerness exists, given limits

branches exist, wind lifting them exists,
and the lone drawing made by the branches

of the tree called an oak tree exists,
of the tree called an ash tree, a birch tree,
a cedar tree, the drawing repeated

in the gravel garden path; weeping
exists as well, fireweed and mugwort,
hostages, greylag geese, greylags and their young;

and guns exist, an enigmatic back yard;
overgrown, sere, gemmed just with red currants,
guns exist; in the midst of the lit-up
chemical ghetto guns exist
with their old-fashioned, peaceable precision

guns and wailing women, full as
greedy owls exist; the scene of the crime exists;
the scene of the crime, drowsy, normal, abstract,
bathed in a whitewashed, godforsaken light,
this poisonous, white, crumbling poem

alphabet by Inger Christensen.  Translated by Susanna Nied.


Note here the cumulative feel of the lengthening sections and role played by repetition.  As we encounter the poem’s recursions, we feel we are learning something about the workings of our minds, much as we do when presented with a cumulative tale or song.  Though each section is different, the repeating language, tropes, and sense that the line-length of the sections point back to their predecessors yields a particular form of insight that would be lost without the repetition.  Through the repetition, we discover connections and resonances between disparate elements and enter into the deeper learning of the poem.


Thank you for reading.