Thursday, November 15, 2007

How to Avoid Using Cliches

Lots of writerly advice will tell you that you should avoid clichés in your writing, but very few actually tell you how to do so, or even to recognize what is a cliché. Let's pull back the curtain behind the Great and Powerful Oz, shall we, and reveal the secrets of the mystery school: things that (theoretically) most experienced poets know, but don't bother to set out in an organized manner for beginning poets to learn from. Since clichés are one of those things that virtually every beginning poet (including you and me, at one time) gets mired in, sooner or later, learning how to avoid the pitfalls of cliché up front seems like a practical step to advance one's poetics apprenticeship. Tips and techniques are hardly absolute truths, or rules, however. (I am indebted to Jessica Schneider for reminding me of some opinions I stated on the topic some years ago, but had forgotten about.)

1. The vast majority of clichés in poetry—up to 90 percent or more of clichéd phrases, stock imagery, stereotypes, etc.—arise because of the bad or lazy use of modifiers. You can avoid many clichés simply by freshening up the modifiers, the adjectives, etc. It really can be just that simple.

For example: don't tell me about "dark shadows." Use a fresher modifier. Describe to me "red shadows" or "thin shadows," anything but "dark shadows."

Avoid similes, and use actual metaphors, especially striking metaphors. Don't give me "my love is like a red, red, rose;" give me "my squirrel love scurries up my roots." Most of the time, except perhaps when it's there for purely metrical reasons, the word "like" used in a poem as a simile is a waste of a syllable, and a red flag telegraphing to the reader to be prepared for some kind of comparative imagery. Why warn them? it's doubtful your simile's going to be so shocking that they have to brace themselves in advance.

2. You can also fix a cliché by evoking it without evoking it. How do you do that?

You do it by subverting the cliché, in various ways.

First off, change those modifiers. Pick modifiers that sound close to the originals, but mean something else.

You can also simply reverse the modifiers so that the elements of the cliché have been shuffled around. On some level, the reader will still the cliché in their minds, but the actual words won't be the cliché.

For example, "it was a dark and stormy night" might become "it was a storm and darkening light."

Certain post-Modern poets, such as Charles Bernstein, have run far with this idea of writing poems built on these sorts of deflected or inverted puns. Bernstein has made a whole career of punning clichés onto their heads, to often humourous effect. His is a type of "language poetry" perhaps more friendly to the reader than some others; and it perhaps has its roots in James Joyce's punning, so it also has a pedigree, and is done with conscious intent. Whatever your opinion of the (theoretical) poetics resulting from Bernstein's wordplay, the technique can still get you out of a rut.

Poet Dan Schneider talks about subverting clichés in such a way that the reader suddenly gets the unexpected. In his opinion, which I largely agree with here, a great poet can begin to evoke a cliché then suddenly change direction, even with an apparent non sequitur. in doing so, the cliché that was being set up is still in the reader's mind, even though the poem doesn't actually use it. This is one way is which a poem can develop many layers of meaning: the expected layered with the unexpected.

3. Let's step back for a moment and look at the root question here: What makes a cliché a cliché?

A cliché is some trope or truth in literature that is (or was once) based in reality but through excessive repetition has lost all its power, resonance, and depth, and has become overly-familiar, superficial, and lifeless. That clichés keep getting used is because of the nature of human reality: we all share some very large experiences in life that are archetypal, powerful, unavoidable, and largely too big to really fit into words. We keep trying to fit these experiences into words, by inventing signs and symbols that represent them, even though they cannot encompass them.

Who can really speak of birth, or death? enlightenment, and suffering? Sometimes a few familiar words is all we can manage. We go to a funeral of someone we mutually loved, and all we can choke out is I share your grief. What is unsaid speaks volumes. It's a lifetime of memories to try to fit into some few words.

A cliché is at root a sign that stands in for something else: it is a phrase that tries to evoke emotion or depth by repeating a stock image or phrase. The reason so many clichés become a problem is because, through repetition, such stock signs or phrases have had all the life bleached out of them.

Clichés are at root lazy. They're stereotypes. They stand in for feeling and sense, rather than evoking it.

They're supposed to trigger a Pavlovian response in the reader, make them feel something, because of their familiarity. But in fact the only thing they evoke is the mental flicker of awareness that they've gone by; they do not evoke a moment in the reader wherein the reader is taken all the way into the poem, and feels the experience of the poem as an experience. Clichés in fact prevent that from happening. They in fact stifle genuine emotion, and paper over real feelings by saying something simplistic and ultimately phony.

Don't tell me when you use a cliché that "it's all I could think of!" or "It worked for this great writer, so it should work for me!" Don't tell me that because that's basically an attempt to avoid doing the hard work of thinking up another way—your own way!—for your poem to present a familiar idea without using familiar signs and symbols. Coming up with a new way to write about love and death is indeed challenging; it might be the hardest poem you've ever tried to write—if you give yourself the assignment of writing about it without collapsing back into easy and familiar and comfortable clichés.

While some may argue that clichés have their purpose, and even their benefits, in writing, that's a viewpoint I've never understood. How can one seriously defend stereotypes, superficial symbols and stale metaphor?

Defending clichés is like saying it's okay to be lazy because none of it really matters. Indeed, maybe none of it does matter in the long run. Poetry isn't exactly a life-or-death discipline like oncological surgery.

But there is (or should be) in any artisan, craftsmen, or artist, the impulse to take pride in whatever one is doing, and do the best that one is able to do, on any given day. (The best that one is actually able to do will vary from day to day.) There is the impulse to do the very best that one is able to do; rather than flipping one's hand and sitting back, slacking off, and doing as little as possible. The impulse to always work at the edges of one's ability should always be encouraged, especially in artists: it's the way we grow, as artists.

Always working from within your artistic comfort zone is a sign or laziness, or fear. And those are the same impulses that tempt one to use clichés, rather than listening within for who really wants to speak. Art is work, sometimes effortless, sometimes very hard indeed. Rilke wrote, in The Notebooks of Malte Laurits Brigge, his semi-autobiographical novel: For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things. . . .

Take your work seriously, as an artisan, even if you don't take yourself seriously.

4. Come at the poetic moment, and poetic experience, from a completely different angle. An unexpected angle, even to yourself. Use your primary artistic tool: your imagination.

For example, T.S. Eliot comes at the familiar Christmas/Epiphany story of the birth of Jesus from a completely unexpected direction in his poem, The Journey of the Magi. The poem is narrated by one of the Three Wise Men, the Magi, and talks about their difficult journey, and ends with a meditation on the hardness of life and death. There is not one single bit of dogma or doctrine in this poem; the Christ Child is barely mentioned, except in passing. This is a Christmas poem!? Yes, it is, and a brilliant one.

5. Develop insight into the subject matter you're writing the poem about. That may sound surprising, but that's the word: insight. Do your research. Don't be superficial about it. Learn about your subject in detail.

Here's a possible exercise to try:

If you were to write an article for a newspaper, you'd be required to verify your facts and check your sources for veracity. if you were to write a paper for a classroom assignment, you would be expected to know your subject welll, cite your sources, have a strong and convincing argument, and again, check your facts.

Now try doing that for a poem: Don't include anything in the poem that isn't objectively verifiable. Don't interpret. Don't adorn with ornament. Don't make conclusions. Simply state what you've learned.

Then, as a follow-up exercise, go back and write a new poem on the same subject, without the constraint of reportorial accuracy. Allow yourself to interpret, allow yourself to feel your way into the subject matter, and write about it from the inside. You will find that, having done your research, getting inside the mind of the poem will be much easier.

Don't cheat: do these two poems in that order, and not the reverse.

6. In order to develop insight into poetry, and also learn in the process how to recognize clichés when you encounter them:

Read a lot more poetry than you have so far. Read the great poets. Read the dead poets, both men and women: the reason living people are still reading them, centuries later, is because they still speak to us, and have something to teach us about what it is to be having a human experience.

Don't rush right into "expressing yourself" and expect that your thoughts and ideas will be new and unique and fresh and unknown and original. If there is any sort of "mystery cult" in poetry, it's this idea that a beginning poet doesn't have to go through any kind of apprenticeship or training in poetry; that one can write Great Poetry right out of the bag, without having read or studied much, but only out of one's Naked Soul. Sure, that's remotely possible (Rimbaud being the exemplar people usually hold up—even though he read a lot of poetry, too), but only remotely. Chances are what you thought was your original idea, or original slant on a subject, has been done numerous times before.

This is not a problem. This is no reason for despair. Don't become the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, beating your breast in existential angst, intoning, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. . . . Don't put that much weight on yourself: it's a burden no artist can carry.

It is not a problem! What it is, is the reflection of a problem suffered by most poets, especially those younger in their writing careers: Ignorance. Ignorance is nothing to be proud of, but it's also nothing to be ashamed of—because it's so easily cured.

Ignorance is curable by study, and by working hard at reading. Read voraciously. Read eclectically.

Read, read, read, read, read, then read some more.

Don't read only contemporary poetry. Don't read just what is being published Right Now, or what your friends are writing, or what you can easily discover in one of the online poetry journals or archives. Go down to your local library and dig in. It's going to take some time, so plan on a full month's worth of reading, not just an hour's.

Read a lot of poets you like, but don't slavishly imitate them (except to write études that are sketches like every artist makes to learn from the masters).

Don't read only poets you like. You also can learn things from poets whose poems really turn you off. You're learning what not to do, in those instances.

Read bad poetry: there is no faster way to identify what a cliché is, or what bad writing is. Fortunately, this is the easiest variety of poetry to find, anywhere, anytime.

Don't read just poetry! Read everything. Read lots of non-fiction, prose, stories, and essays. Read everything but poetry. Reading only poetry–especially only reading contemporary poetry—is navel-gazing of the worst sort: it only tells you what you already know.

7. One definition of cliché, mentioned above as being some idea or image that was once based in reality but has been over-used, brings us back to the idea of stock image or phrase. Just as in advertising or marketing, the poet presents you with an image in order to manipulate you into feeling something. Resist being manipulated!

When you have read a lot of poetry, you will recognize a cliché in part because you have seen it already, many times in many times. Thus, a simple definition of what a cliché is clear: a cliché is something you've already seen in a hundred (or more) other poems already. You already know where it's going to go, and what it's supposed to mean. It's as stale as month-old bread. It evokes a yawn.

Having seen it already so many times, allow yourself to become immunized against its effects. Resist being manipulated! The reason many clichés fall flat is precisely because they're so familiar that they just fall lifeless to the floor. Your bored familiarity is actually a useful critical tool: if the poem isn't making you jump up and down, if the poem isn't an experience you are having, right now, then there's a problem—and the problem is often that it's a cliché. If the poem doesn't take you inside itself, so that you feel the poem in your own viscera and cell tissue, then there's a problem. If the poem makes you feel nothing, then the poem is relying on nothing to create nothing. It's already dead.

You can bring it back to life. But you might have to work hard at it. You might have to put some of your own blood into it, to restart its heart. That's what this is all about.

It's all about writing against boredom. This is about writing for life, to give life, to preserve life, to evoke life. It's about refusing to be dead and bored. It's about making art so that you, the artist, feels alive—and chances are, your audience will pick up on that, and feel alive, too.

8. Even certain topics are themselves clichés in poetry: unavoidable, perhaps, because they are part of the human condition, and to write about them is human nature.

But you can avoid being obvious about it. As the saying goes, A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes, and doesn't. A little gentility can go a long way. A little deflection. A little talking around the subject, rather than bluntly and explicitly stating it.

For example, look at Robert Frost's poem Home Burial. The poem takes place in the aftermath: it never explicitly describes the fact of dying, and mentions the character in the poem who has died only obliquely, as part of the dialogue. The poem is about the effects of death upon the living—which after all, is what all death poetry is about, anyway, and all memorial and funeral services. They're for the living; the dead don't care anymore.

Poetry doesn't have to be as explicit as pornography in tis details. Poetry can suggest, and evoke, and be erotic rather than pornographic. Poetry can be a sharp as a well-focused photograph, and as finely-argued as a brilliant essay. But it can also be a luminous envelope rather than a spotlight. It can suggest rather than explain. Some of the worst poetry is pedantic and lecturing; it hectors you into believing something, trying to convince you against your better judgment. Good poetry can seduce and entice, and lead you on. You don't need to use a bludgeon to get your meaning across.

Clichés are bludgeons. They're like throwing bricks. You can learn to dodge the bricks, and this is how.

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Blogger Will said...

Thanks for this. It's always good to find practical advice for poetry when so much (so-called) advice is usually horribly vague. As it happens, I had been trying to get across the pros and cons of cliche use this week. You should put this in a book.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

You're welcome. And thank you!

Interesting you should mention a book. That's been in the back of my mind for this blog all along, since what I post here are more-or-less finished essays that began as rough posts or sketches, but once polished, I post here. That's partly to gather them all in one place so I can look over them, figure out how it all ties together, and so forth.

If anyone wanted to turn this into a book, though, I'd be up for it. It could use some editing for repeated ideas turning up in more than one place.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Shameless said...

Brilliant advice here, Art. I have been an enemy of clichés for years, trying to encourage my journalist friends to drop them in their writing. In broadcast journalism, I admit, there can be a place for the less awful cliché, when time is limited, when a single phrase can get across a general idea in a snappy, direct manner, without having to go through and fill in stuff that is essentially backdrop, context. But in poetry and creative writing, there is little place for a cliché. An entire novel, for me, should be free of them, if the book is to be truly a new experience. We should find pleasure in coming up with the clichés of the future. We could be pioneers! :-)

7:41 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Shameless—

Thanks! My sentiments exactly.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Zen said...

What a great post! I was looking for information on subverting cliches for my schoolwork, and this really helped.

2:31 AM  
Blogger JEestUNautre said...

Thank you so much!I've been studying poetry writing and need to write a good bunch of them really soon for my dissertation. You're right, I've kept hearing about the fact that we should avoid cliches, but they usually don't explain to beginners how to do that:) so thanks again for the excellent advice, it's a good starting point for me

10:38 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Glad you found this useful to you.

Remember, though, that you can't just use advice as a formula, even this kind of advice. The best thing to do is read poetry that turns you on and excites you, and then study those poems to see how they work. That's where most of this advice came from, that kind of reading observation.

10:54 AM  

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