Novice poets are frequently warned about clichés; sometimes, though, it’s hard to know exactly what the people doing the warning have in mind. Is a cliché the same as an idiom? Is it just a common collocation of words? Can a single word be a cliché?
(In answer to that last question, I’ve posted several times in the past on the subject of “forbidden words” in poetry.)
The thing about clichés is that they mean the writer hasn’t done more than scratch the surface. And for poetry that matters a lot more than for some other types of writing.
Here, for example, using the idiom “scratch the surface” isn’t really a problem as it communicates my intention simply and effectively. If I want to, I can expand on the idea using other phrases, or approaching it from other perspectives, but if all I want is for the reader to understand a point quickly and easily, a cliché or two can actually help.
In a poem, unless it’s used in an entirely new juxtaposition, the same kind of phrase adds no new insight and no new information, so it lacks power: the words aren’t pulling their weight. Further thought and work can usually eliminate these weak phrases, which is why re-drafting and revision is important.
I also do other writing, including some copywriting for travel companies. Frankly, if you want to go on an exotic island holiday, you’d be confused to pick up a brochure that didn’t talk of palm-fringed beaches and sparkling azure waters lapping at white sands.
Although you obviously hope that these descriptions are reasonably accurate, assuming we’re comparing one beautiful exotic island with another, the most important thing you need to know in order to make your choice is about the facilities: the hotel room itself, the number of bars on the beach, the hours the disco is open, whether the wifi is free etc. The description of the beach is important, but it’s probably more important that it aligns with expectations than that it is original.
Years ago, when I was a teenager, one of the popular posters we all had on our bedroom wall was a simple photograph of a tree, I think, and the quotation “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen, and thinking what nobody has thought.” That quote is now all over the internet with the word “discovery” replaced by “genius” or “research”. (There’s a page about it on Quote Investigator.)
I am slightly surprised that no-one seems to have come up with a poetry version:
Poetry is experiencing what everybody else has experienced and feeling what nobody else has felt.
Although I suppose it’s not just feeling something different, it’s expressing it effectively in a different way.
(It’s also true that poetry can consist in other things as well – at the moment I’m only looking at one subset of poetry.)
Anyway, what started me off on this track was the post I made yesterday which had the title getting down to work. At the time that I posted it, I hadn’t seen Theresa May announcing her intention to form a government. I was slightly surprised then, to watch the video and hear her closing phrase: “Now let’s get to work.”
It’s not the first time this has happened: In the 2014 post winter sunshine, I was actually writing the post at the very time the Queen was giving her Christmas Day speech with very much the same message of looking for the bright spots in life.
Of course this is because this blog is as full of clichés, platitudes and trite phrases as a political speech. (Even today’s photo was chosen as a visual pun: we’re talking of unoriginal ideas – old chestnuts – and the picture is chestnut blossom.)
But it’s worth remembering that clichés aren’t just the actual words you write, they are a way of thinking – a lazy and simplistic way – which should be recognised not just by poets.