Not too long ago, in the days before computer technology took over, if you wanted to print something you had to produce a printing plate (forme), made up of individual letters.
This is what it looked like.
Assembling these took a great deal of time. If you were going to publish a book, it was a serious investment, and, once the print run had ended these formes were broken down to the individual components so they could be used again.
But what if the book was a success and you wanted to publish more editions? Easy, you’d make casts of the assembled plates. These casts were called clichés, an onomatopoeic word describing the clink of the metal press as they were being produced; this is from where we derive the modern use of this word. A plate from which a print could be reproduced endlessly and without any variety came to describe a phrase or opinion that is overused and shows a lack of original thought.
[As an aside, I find it interesting to note that these casts were also called stereotypes, which is from where we derive the modern usage of that word – an image endlessly perpetuated without change.]
So, an overused phrase that we’ve heard time and time again. Let’s keep the image of the cast in mind when thinking about clichés and why we should avoid them. But why are clichés so bad?
This is a good question, and answering it leads me to answer something about editing and this course in general – about why these rules and laws in poetry and writing exist in the first place.
As a writer, there’s a fundamental question you need to ask yourself: are you writing for yourself or are you writing for an audience?
Some people do write for themselves and there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. If you are writing for yourself you don’t need to follow any rules. You can do whatever pleases you.
If, however, you are writing for an audience, then you have to keep them in mind. Ultimately, there is only one rule you really need to follow:
KEEP THE READER READING.
All the other rules are only about making that one thing happen. You can break any rule you like – but beware. Unless you’re doing it for the right reasons, in a manner which improves the writing, your readers may not thank you for it.
Specifically, with poetry, what are we trying to do? I’m with Ralph Waldo Emerson on this one:
Genius is the activity which repairs the decays of things, whether wholly or partly of a material and finite kind. […] So when the soul of the poet has come to ripeness of thought, she detaches and sends away from it its poems or songs, — a fearless, sleepless, deathless progeny, which is not exposed to the accidents of the weary kingdom of time: a fearless, vivacious offspring, clad with wings (such was the virtue of the soul out of which they came), which carry them fast and far, and infix them irrecoverably into the hearts of men.
In poetry we generally seek to encapsulate a solitary theme, idea, or event in a concentrated and beautified form, immortalising and preserving it for eternity. We seek to explore this theme’s individual nature and peculiarities, its absurdity and ironies. Using a cliché is exactly the opposite of that. It doesn’t reflect the individual nature of anything. It’s weak, lazy writing, often caused by a real lack of development and exploration by the writer into the theme.
Using a cliché is an admission of defeat. It is exactly like using a cast of work written by someone else, instead of looking for the best words we could be using. Whenever we see a cliché in our or anyone else’s writing we should hear the clink of metal ring in our ears like an alarm.
So what do we do when we find we’ve written a cliché?
Let’s look at a clichéd line and how we can resolve it.
The sky is as black as night
and we fight the good fight.
I should point out, the only real way to recognise clichés is to read as much as you can. Then if you hear the metal clink of familiarity, you’ve probably hit on one. Black as night and fight the good fight are clichéd phrases that clink particularly loudly and will be familiar to most readers.
Let’s rewrite them and make the poem stronger.
The sky is now an inky bruise.
We’ll draw, and serve our blood with cause.
Here we’ve simply exchanged the cliché for images that say the same thing but aren’t entirely unoriginal.
As well as this, we can also try rewriting the clichés themselves.
The heavens are as black as fright.
We’ll not cower from this bad fight.
With the first line, we’ve kept the rhyming structure of the original cliché, but changed the wording into something new.
In the second line, we’ve stated the cliché in reverse.
Doing this really adds, because as well as being more original, it gives the reader the cliché as an intertextual joke.
Of course there is the odd time you want to use a cliché for ironic or other effects:
Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.
As I’ve said, the rules are there to keep your writing reader-focussed. There will always be times you can ignore them, like I will now by giving this clichéd piece of writing advice: first, learn the rules, then learn how to break them.
For many of us, our first experience of grown up poetry is when we’re first handed some to read in secondary school.
I think things have improved on this point recently, but for the longest time teachers didn’t think twice about handing students pieces written years ago using antique language. I think this might be responsible for two of the most common problems I’ve seen in the work of developing poets.
First of all, it’s given some poets the idea that poetry should be complicated, hard to understand in need of deciphering. This may be slightly true if we’re talking about complex tropes and figurative imagery, which often need to be reflected upon as they open in the mind like the petals of a flower, but should never be true of the language itself.
If a reader of poetry tells you they don’t understand a part of your poem then the problem is with the writing. In this case there’s little else to say. But, to show you that poets haven’t found the need to sound all 16th century for a long time, here are some examples of truly exceptional poems, dating all the way back to the early 1800s.
Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Dancers: (During A Great Battle, 1916) – Edith Sitwell
An Irish Airman foresees his Death – W. B. Yeats
This Be The Verse – Philip Larkin
Five Yellow Roses – Matthew Sweeney
But the main reason I think novice poets start to use antique language is because they haven’t actually read any modern poetry and, in their ignorance, believe that’s how poems should be written.
It’s an artificial way of making your poem sound elevated – another way of employing a contrived poetic voice (a subject we’ll be returning to in later sessions). We should remember, we’re writing for a modern audience and should be using a modern vernacular.
Yes, there are times we might want to use antique language in a comical or ironic way or as an actual theme for a poem. Just be aware that there’s a good chance you’ll alienate your reader.
Next time will be a special post.
I’ll be taking the session to answer your questions about poetry and poetry editing. If there’s anything you’d like answered, chat to me on Discord or leave a question in the comments below.
Before you go, please take a moment to give me a follow. It’s a great way you can help support the series and the blog. If you have any comments or questions about this lesson, or just want to say hello, feel free to post a comment below.
For now, go write!