Getting There First and Other Teacup Storms

This essay appeared previously at Ithaca Lit
From now on, my head won’t look down to a magazine
Rather, it will contemplate the night
And its bright stars,
And so, no more clichés.
–From Octavio Paz’ ‘No More Clichés’

The drumbeat for ever more inventive poetry is a clichéd refrain that champions newness for newness’ sake. No one wants to be seen loitering around Grecian urns, if it can be avoided. Poetasters instead like to imagine themselves intrepid Ponce de Leons navigating uncharted seas. This pioneering spirit is not restricted to image and subject matter. Like Nietzsche’s Turin horse, language is forever being prodded forward, even when it might be at the end of its enunciatory tether. Mutter, ich bin dumm.

Clichés are the terra firma of the widely received. Call me a dull Thomas, but I’ve learned some really neat things in the land of bread and circuses. Clichés say a lot about how we think. You’d have to be crazy as a loon to discard them outright. Moreover indiscriminate rule-based pruning seems presumptuous in the extreme. Claiming maximum prerogative for the poet, Hart Crane spoke of the ‘logic of metaphor’ being “organically entrenched in pure sensibility”. As clichés are so often built on metaphor and simile, denying their use in all cases trespasses upon the poet’s unfettered access to his own separate but equal logical praxis.

This may be a jurisdictional dispute. English-speakers would never think to impose rules of grammar on Spanish. Who the hell has the right to legislate poetry but poets themselves? Beneath so-called dead language, there’s often a pent-up ghost murmuring a twice-told tale –or is it a dead man unable to tell incriminating tales? Actually it’s both. The thinking is that clichés are too-well-trod; apt perhaps but overused. The aptness fascinates me. I want to know why certain words and phrases acquit our collective cognition like a well-beaten path. Suddenly, as some arbiter never fails to instruct us, we are called to abandon a journey that transported our fathers as though all portentousness has been summarily beaten from the road well-travelled. Surely some ivory tower conspiracy lurks behind this squeeze play?

T.S. Eliot pressed the whole notion of squeezing in poetry when he famously and derisively coined the term “lemon-squeezer school of criticism.” Since then, anyone applying too much pressure to poetry, no matter the utensil, is suspect in my book; maybe in your book too. What are you reading? Speaking of reading books, dilettantes do it all the time (speaking of reading) as the actual reading part can be an arduous task. At the very least, harping on about the proliferation of clichés implies frequency of encounter, a condition attainable only through wide reading. So there is a self-serving predilection buried in the complaint itself.

Indeed writer Kazuo Ishiguro accuses cliché warriors of being armed to the teeth with elitist disdain. Mr. Ishiguro, a Booker Prize winner, is no slouch. So his fondness for repetition probably bears repeating as I am just about to do. Note that the teeth cliché is at my instigation and not his. (Keep your eye-teeth peeled as, a tooth fairy told me, more dental work follows):

I feel that for writers, an obsession with what is elegant or what is a cliché or not a cliché can become very inhibiting….When you write fiction you have to be prepared to adopt the language of everyone that you want to mimic. Prohibitions have behind them a kind of snobbery or fear of being seen as lower middle class.”
–from ‘Kazuo Ishiguro On Clichés’

Clearly bourgeoisie pettiness is fanning false consciousness again. Philip Hensher points his finger too at that striving, sneering ‘someone’ in a recent Telegraph article, “the budding writer has been told that clichés are to be avoided at all cost – “like the plague”, someone once said to [him]…” To all self-appointed, self-contradicting literary mavens, I say a pox on all your plagues. At least to this proud dolt of working class lineage, cliché admonitions already border on cliché, going in one ear and out the other, I believe from right ear to left, as clichés rarely come out of left field. I will not throw the towel in on them categorically. Sometimes my curiosity kills a dead-cat-bounce (a teetering orange tabby formerly known as Invention). Just as often my inquiries spur a formal inquest or foil a premature autopsy: ‘Gendarme, this creature is not quite dead!’

Perhaps clichés are the mark of linguistic failure. Perhaps this is the narrowest of failures. Perhaps it is no failure at all. Christopher Ricks says, “with a true poet, the linguistic concerns are a corollary of a way of looking at life.” A cunning linguist should never be a lapdog to rule-based poetry. To the extent a poem avails hackneyed language, it is almost certainly more than the sum of its hackneyed language anyway.

We should leave it to gifted poets to attempt resurrection on what is widely deemed dead as a doornail. Idioms for example (a form of cliché) can capture a regional flavor the poet is striving to convey. Those who invalidate poetry on the prima facie evidence of clichés are squeezing too hard. There is no kitchen appliance up to the task of poetry or else we would have ceded stanzas to toasters long ago. Someone should be coaxing cliché towards a new lease on life. Heidegger argued that a key responsibility of poets lies in the resuscitation of language. To do this, poets may have to be knee-deep in cliché where the work is hardest.

Cliché possesses no existential weight. Suspend the predations of time and the perceived offense vanishes. In the fullness of time, language’s evocative power hovers like an eternal constant. Frequency of use is a red badge of verbiage. Thus at best, the charge is a flimsy one and rooted in temporalities: we, or a steady succession of we’s, simply wore the language out, through no fault of the latter. There are just too damn many of us for language to bear much novelty for very long. So tread lightly on the best foot forward. The right foot of the Vatican’s Bronze Statue of St. Peter has been worn away from the countless caresses of ardent pilgrims. Should this precipitate an indictment of St. Peter or a rousing affirmation of his ability to move souls? A victim of history, clichéd language is being persecuted, oddly enough, for its efficacy. How unfair.

Thus clichés fall hard on the future. As if onerous debt was not enough, our children inherit a mortgaged language. Early arrivers got a free lunch, whereas late-comers have little choice but to labor under an inherited fatigue. Other mens habits convict us. Some Royal We has deigned that we may applaud, under our breaths, habitually overused language with historical appreciation, but never contemporary usage.

At the end of the day, we find our overlords hopelessly erring on the side of cliché-avoidance. (Ishiguro again: “I find phrases like…‘at the end of the day’ very deep. ‘At the end of the day,’ is full of stoic ruefulness. It’s very close to reflecting the human condition”.) We need not shuffle nervously from foot to foot just because the most comfortable shoes in our closet happen also to be the most worn. Indeed there’s more at work here than dusty old coteries of ‘forward-looking’ professors. Our fetish for the shiny-new, yet another manifestation of consumerism usurping culture, works its own alienating effects on comfortable language. You might say we are being tugged on one end by a well-heeled elite and on the other by the journeyman agony of da feet. Clichés can keep our feet on the ground and our heads out of the clouds, if we would only unlace our style consciousness and avant-garde fixations.

One can easily succumb to dead seriousness on matters such as these. Remember, all that’s required for levity to prevail is for wrist-slitters to sit on their hands and do nothing. Or so we thought. There’s a saying, by now cliché, certainly passé and not everyone’s soufflé, that it takes 43 muscles to frown and only 17 to smile. Thus smiling is easier. Still others say it takes four carets in a row before your cleverness really hits its stride. These formulaic notions should be rejected with the all the strength of our vowels.

Enter Science, that most serious pursuit, to turn urban legend on its head, making every smile a frown. David H. Song, MD, FACS, plastic surgeon and assistant professor at the University of Chicago Hospital, reports that it takes 11 muscles to frown and 12 to smile. Suddenly humor is seriousness without the long face, an uphill slog where a muscle runs through it. We could knit our brows over the sheer precariousness of laughter, but one tiny sprain to the mug, Bub, and guffaws lose their game. It takes a village to raise one peal of laughter, certainly two villagers to lend a joke its ricochet. This makes us all a hop, skip and a jump away from a string of heartbreaking losses, and that’s nothing to snigger at over the garden-wall.

The poet’s prerogative supersedes all critical demarcations. His tongue will not be cowed by cagey admonitions from culture’s stopwatch vultures. How else but in his own quirky voice and with the language that greets him (as much as he, it) can a poet offer anything at all?

Getting There First and Other Teacup Storms