Saturday, January 8, 2011

Poetry Prompt #38 - Clichéd Phrases

There's an old joke about a man who walks out of a theater after seeing Hamlet and says, "I don't know why everyone thinks Hamlet is such a well-written play, it's full of clichés." Of course, phrases from Hamlet such as "in my heart of hearts," in my mind's eye," and "there's the rub" weren't clichés when Shakespeare wrote them. They've become clichés because they've been quoted so extensively.

Webster's defines cliché as "a trite expression or idea" (and trite is defined as "hackneyed or boring from much use; not fresh or original"). In everyday speech, clichés become a kind of verbal shorthand. Clichés, however, require little thought and rarely evoke thought or emotion when they appear in poetry. Readers don't come to poetry looking for what they already know or have heard before. They want fresh content, distinctive perspectives, acute angles – freshness and originality.

Clichés are the worry stone of language: they may have begun sharp and well-defined but have been rubbed smooth by repeated "handling." They are generic, not specific, and poetry requires specifics. 

Clichés often masquerade as similes ("dark as night," "tears like rain," "like a bat out of hell," "pale as a ghost," "fast as lightning"). They may refer to ideas ("a fluffy kitten," "a pounding heart," "sweaty palms"), and some topics invite clichés (i.e., love poems). The caveat is to avoid clichés "like the plague."

For this prompt, we're going to work with clichéd phrases for the purpose of becoming more aware of them in our writing. Click List for a list of  clichés, and click Categories for a list of clichés by category.

Here are some starters:

1. Make a list of of several clichés and then write a poem around them. You might make this a funny poem in which you accent the obvious.

2. Choose a cliché that really annoys or amuses you, and write a poem about it.

3. Choose a cliché to describe a relationship you've had, and use it as the basis for a poem. 

4. Choose a well-worn cliché and re-invent it to create a new meaning; use the new meaning you've created in a poem.

5. Write a poem entirely from clichés.  

He Was Just Another Cliché

To this day, I know that time
heals all wounds (all in due
time) but, needless to say, I
was having the time of my life
when the unexpected happened.

His silence was deafening, so I told
him to cut to the chase. I was scared
out of my mind. The moment lasted
an eternity – it seemed to take
forever – so long that I lost track

of time; I stopped in my tracks.
The long and short of it is this: he
left me faster than greased lightning.
My bubble burst. All that glitters
is not gold, and love is blind.


  1. FYI - An Interesting Book

    The Dictionary of Clichés by James Rogers

  2. This prompt interests me and reminds me of the cliches in John Asbery's poems. There do seem to be many of them, but they seem to be used deliberately, sometimes elegantly. While cliches are pitfalls for most poets, Ashbery turns them into a kind of art.

    Here's what Helen Vendler wrote in "John Ashbery, Toying with Words":

    "Overturning clichés is another familiar Ashberian game: we’re not startled when someone says “King Alfonso of Spain,” but we are when we hear “Alphonse I of Bemidji.” The bane of language, for Ashbery as for Flaubert, is the “received idea” — the idea everyone mouths and takes for granted. Even after the received idea has been overturned (say, by a war), the agents of cliché immediately try to restore it."

    P.S. I don't have and don't really want a Google account to sign in with, so please forgive the "anonymous." My name is James Royer.

  3. Thanks, Bob for the link to The Dictionary of Clichés by James Rogers. I think that's the book Bob Rosenbloom lent me a while ago. Great fun!

  4. Thanks, James Royer for your comment and for the Vendler quote re Ashbery's use of clichés.

    No worries about using "anonymous." Several blog readers didn't want to go the Google route and do exactly what you did. Your comments are always welcome.