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Cliches ad Lazy-Ass Language

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Clichés are a creative writer's constant enemy because they depend, not on the imagination, but on the tired and familiar. As a result, they make writing that is intellectually imaginative sound bankrupt of originality. They snuff out the spark. Similes and metaphors are the most frequent carriers of this illness: stars sparkle like diamonds in the night; a kiss as gentle as butterfly wings; sweet as honey; school of hard knocks. Sadly, many aspiring writers develop their sensibility for language based on popular song lyrics. [Insert your teacher's lengthy scream here.] A general rule of thumb, then: If you've heard it in a pop song, it's probably a cliché. However, many aspects of writing a poem can stumble into the pitfall of cliché. Here are a few general ways to consider the problem. 

CLICHÉD LANGUAGE

Idiomatic and Abstract Usage
Slang
Turns of speech/expressions
Lazy diction
Unoriginal gimmicks


My Forever Love

I watch you,
like a fly on the wall.
My heart is pounding
when I hear you call.

Your Love makes
me soar, like a bird
that flies in the air.
I need no words

when your love
spreads its wings
and the peace of the dove
to us will sing.


Song Of Solomon, Chapter 2

I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the
sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet
to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.
I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of
the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.
The voice of my beloved! Behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains,
skipping upon the hills.
My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall,
he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.
My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come
away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and
the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape
give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the
stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy
voice, and thy countenance is comely.
Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have
tender grapes.
My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.
Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou
like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.


CLICHÉD SUBJECTS

Love, death, love and death, hyperbole

The Last Kiss
Written by Wayne Cochran in 1962
(Best known version done by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers
Covered by Pearl Jam in 1999)

We were out on a date in my daddy's car
We hadn't driven very far
There in the road, up straight ahead
A car was stalled, the engine was dead
I couldn't stop, so I swerved to the right
I'll never forget the sound that night
The screamin' tires, the bustin' glass
The painful scream that I heard last.

Oh, where oh where can my baby be?
The Lord took her away from me
She's gone to heaven, so I got to be good
So I can see my baby when I leave this world.

When I woke up, the rain was pourin' down
There were people standing all around
Something warm rollin' through my eyes
But somehow I found my baby that night
I lifted her head, she looked at me and said
"Hold me darling just a little while."
I held her close, I kissed her our last kiss
I found the love that I knew I would miss
But now she's gone, even though I hold her tight
I lost my love, my life that night.

Chorus


Moments Of Pleasure by Kate Bush

Some moments that I've had
Some moments of pleasure

I think about us lying
Lying on a beach somewhere
I think about us diving
Diving off a rock, into another moment

The case of George the Wipe
Oh God I can't stop laughing
This sense of humour of mine
It isn't funny at all
Oh but we sit up all night
Talking about it

Just being alive
It can really hurt
And these moments given
Are a gift from time

On a balcony in New York
It's just started to snow
He meets us at the lift
Like Douglas Fairbanks
Waving his walking stick
But he isn't well at all
The buildings of New York
Look just like mountains through the snow

Just being alive
It can really hurt
And these moments given
Are a gift from time
Just let us try
To give these moments back
To those we love
To those who will survive

And I can hear my mother saying
"Every old sock meets an old shoe"
Isn't that a great saying?
"Every old sock meets an old shoe"
Here come the Hills of Time

Hey there Maureen,
Hey there Bubba,
Dancing down the aisle of a plane,
Smurf, playing his guitar refrain,
Hey there Teddy,
Spinning in the chair at Abbey Road,
Hey there Michael,
Do you really love me?
Hey there Bill,
Could you turn the lights up?

CLICHÉD FORMS

Doggerel
Couplets and Quatrains
Exact rhymes
Emphasis on end words or end rhymes
Line breaks: end punctuation.

Be Civil
By David Muir

A daft old woman
Told me a joke,
Thinkin' I was one
Of the herrenvolk.
She thought her joke
Was really great,
But it ain't funny
If it's based on hate.
My skin is white
But my blood is red.

Act like a racist,
I'll wish you dead.
I just don't care
What colour your face is.
I only hate people
On a personal basis.
It really seems
Quite plain to see
We're all enriched
By var-i-et-ee.
All of us humans
Are one big race.
If you can't be civil,
Then shut your face!


Rosa
By Rita Dove
From On a Bus With Rosa Parks 

How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.

That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.

Doing nothing was the doing:
the clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.

How she stood up
when they bent down to retrieve
her purse. That courtesy.

CLICHÉD MESSAGES

You don't know what you've got until it's gone.
Time heals all wounds.
Love is splendiferous thing.
I hate my parents; I hate my parents.
My pet is special to me.


This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag
By Charlie Daniels
. . .
This ain't no rag, it's a flag
Old Glory red, white and blue
The stars and the stripes when it comes to a fight
We can do what we have to do
Our people stand proud
The American crowd is faithful, loyal and tough
We're good as the best and better than the rest
And you're gonna find out soon enough
When you look up in the sky
And you see the eagle fly
You better know he's a heading your way
Cause this ain't no rag it's a flag
And it stands for the USA 

This is the United States of America
The land of the brave and the free
We believe in God and we believe in justice
We believe in liberty
You've been pulling our chain
We should've done something 'bout you a long time ago
But now the flag's flying high and the fur's gonna fly
And soon the whole world's gonna know.


America
By Claude McKay 

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

 

EXERCISE 1


Make a list of ten of your favorite words to say. Put this list away for later.

On a separate sheet of paper, write a list of ten cliches (expressions, turns of phrase, or familiar similes). Take no more than ten minutes.

Once everyone has turned in their lists, they will be redistributed to members of the class. Each person must then rewrite each of the ten phrases on the list in a way that is wholly original but imagistic. Each images be concrete and rely on active verbs and sensory detail. Use no abstractions unless they resolve in similes and other analogies, and avoid depending on descriptors to do the job (i.e., adjectives and adverbs). Strive to use vocabulary that is enjoyable to pronounce; make the new versions as sensual to say as they are to imagine.

Examples:

quiet as a mouse = the quiet of storm-soaked grass in Kansas
hover like flies = orbit each other like two hardboiled eggs on a plate
since time immemorial = since moss first crept into rock and called it home
this room is cold as hell = a room as chill as the sluice of a champagne bucket


Gather into groups of three, and read your lists with the rest of the group. (If you are the original author of the list of ten cliches, do not disclose this until after the exercise is over.) As a group, decide which is the best revision of a cliche from each list; write them down for yourself. Then, break from your groups and write your own poem of 6 - 10 lines that uses all three of those expressions somewhere in the poem. DO NOT MAKE YOUR POEM FORMAL OR RHYMING. Use any of the favorite words you like to say, and incorporate them into your poem where they are appropriate. (Please don't try to write a poem containing all of the words. Make the poem your purpose, not the game.)

EXERCISE 2


Write down five of your favorite words to say, not because you like what they mean, but because you like the sound of them. Be ready to tell the class one of them. (You won't have to justify it.)

E.g.

  1. coccyx
  2. thimble
  3. plique-a-jour
  4. glissando
  5. brux 

Think of several words (that aren't proper nouns) beginning with the following prefixes or letters:

ob-
x-
ag-
super-
lum-
pha-

Write down something that rhymes with each of the following. (You may use more than one word in your answer.)

E.g.: Mexico = sexy toe

laryngitis =
intoxicated =
reconcile =
wisteria =
ballistically =

Convert five of the following cliched analogies into fresh images:

  • to look like death warmed over
  • drink like a sailor, a fish
  • hot as hell
  • as big as a house
  • as blind as a bat
  • as busy as a bee
  • as sharp as a razor
  • as thick as London Fog
  • as thick as thieves
  • go over like a lead balloon
  • avoid like the plague
  • stick out like a sore thumb
  • put him down like a mad dog
  • work like a dog
  • dead as a doornail
  • cry like a baby
  • scream like a girl
  • howl like a wolf
  • dive like a swan


Change, and complete, five (only 5) of the following analogies without using a cliche:

  • dance like a
  • crumple like
  • burst like
  • as simple as
  • wobbling like
  • as angry as
  • as scary as
  • as loud as
  • nag like a
  • prayerful as
  • sweet as
  • bright as
  • smooth as
  • happy as
  • as strange as
  • run like a
  • drive like a
  • kick like a
  • as big as

EXERCISE 3


Write five images, each with a different sensory appeal, inspired by a cliché. You may choose one of the cliches from the resource on this website,
"Cliches."

Create more original and detailed turns of phrase that offer a mood or impression that captures the spirit of the cliché, but not its language or its familiarity. For example:

“delicate as eggshell”

Think of how the senses can be evoked delicately:

  • [sight] fog filigreed with a sumac’s shadowy branches;
  • [touch] a boy’s ribcage, like bisque hands outspread beneath his skin;
  • [taste] the wispy sweet of that first kiss, when the tiramisu is finished;
  • [smell] the day smelled of wheatgrass and exhaustion;
  • [sound] the throttled bleating of lamb, like an infant’s breathy giggle.
Last Updated: 01/23/2016

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