Thursday, March 20, 2008

Avoiding Clichés - Martin

If you’ve spent any time hearing writers talk about writing, you’ve heard them say that writers need to avoid clichés. Why? Why does it matter?

Consider the role and purpose of figurative language. Poets, and other communicators, use similes and metaphors to help us see what they are saying. In describing a basketball player, John Updike wrote, “His hands were like wild birds.” John B. Lee speaks of a snowflake, from his boyhood memories, “in my palm disappearing / like a cool nickel / spent of candy”.

Many expressions that we would call clichés were once fresh ways of communicating an idea or image. When someone, for the first time ever, described snow that covers the ground as a blanket, I suspect hearers were surprised and delighted by the aptness of the phrase; it made them see clearly the way the snow covered the ground. Unfortunately familiar phrases wear down and lose their sharpness, like a pair of scissors that your kids have used for whittling. Often Biblical phrases can become cliché if we’re not careful; we need to restate ideas using fresh language so that people’s listening doesn’t settle into that mode they use when they think they already know what you’re going to say. When someone these days speaks of a blanket of snow, you merely picture snow — no blanket image comes to mind; not a disaster for day to day conversation, but not especially effective.

What’s worse in writing is when we use whole phrases that have lost their meaning: “every dog has his day”, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, “the grass is always greener on the other side”.... These phrases have become unexciting and predictable through overuse, and in reality communicate less than a simple worn-out metaphor. Good writers can, however, still take such clichés and turn them on their heads for good purpose. T-Bone Burnett, in one song, says the neighbourhood children “didn’t know any better / And they didn’t know any worse.” In a poem about my wife’s skill as a baker I say, “The way to a man’s stomach is through his heart”.

Biblical phrases, ripped from their context, can bring colour to what is being said, and cause a reader to reconsider the original passage. In Madeline L’Engle’s poem “The Parrot”, the bird says, “I, who live by mimicry, / have been remade / in the image of man.” Similarly when Hannah Main-van der Kamp speaks of a huge log lost on its way down river she says:

“At 300 feet, a Douglas fir is wealth
laid up in the heavens. But here in the lost timber graveyard,
it begrudges nothing, makes no effort
to add even a cubit to its stature.”

These poems makes us think about both the contemporary scene, and the mystery behind the familiar biblical phrase.

D.S. Martin is Music Critic for Christian Week; his poetry chapbook So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed is available at

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