Monday, May 18, 2009

clichés and metaphors

by Michael Dymmoch

A great teacher once defined poetry for me as the ultimate economy. Anyone who’s read Norman Nathan’s “Betrayal”— Although no blood flows/This pain is too thorough for ill health/And I lie broken… (Though Night Remain, 1970) or Denise Levertov’s “Despair”—It seemed the woman/believed whom she loved heard her,/heard her wailing, observed/the nakedness of her anguish,/ and would not speak. (Relearning the Alphabet, 1970) is aware of the concentrated power of perfectly chosen words. And perfectly crafted metaphors.

Unfortunately, overuse can transform the most brilliant metaphor or simile into a cliché or idiom, useful shorthand in conversation, but literally unintelligible. What—literally—does out of the blue mean? Or bottom line; at the end of the day; or mint condition? Why does cut and dried mean— What does cut and dried mean? (Why can’t the Let them learn English contingent understand how hard it is for adults to learn a language with so many idioms and exceptions to its own rules of grammar?)

Ugly duckling is a cliché we still use because it’s great metaphor—able to leap… (Sorry. Wrong cliché.) The trick is to use clichés consciously, aware that they are clichés, not just pat (and lazy) ways of expressing something. Experienced writers have consistent styles because their word choices and rhythms have become autonomic. But not automatic. Good writers realize that if something sounds just right it may be a cliché, so they may have to invent new metaphors to make their points. (How about the recent vehicular Tourette's for the obscene babble some drivers are driven to utter behind the wheel? It’s a great metaphor. Is it a cliché yet?)

Sometimes we use clichés ironically—saying of photographs, for instance, that tragedy cut them and they were dried by the camera’s eye. And good writers use clichés in dialog—sparingly—all the time. Dialog in great writing is to real conversation as poetry is to prose—economic, with all the ers and ya knows eliminated to avoid boring the reader. (Some writers are tone deaf—they don’t get poetry.) Some writers have never bothered to root clichés out of their prose because clichés are an efficient way to get the idea across without busting your brain to find a new metaphor. Unfortunately, efficient can be as sterile as synopsis. And only acquiring editors and Hollywood producers prefer a synopsis to a fully fleshed-out tale.

That's my take. (Yeah, I know that's a cliche.)

What do you think?


Dana King said...

Cliches used in dialog are an exception: people talk that way. Depending on the cliches used, they can be a good way of defining the character.

Other than that, I look at turns of phrase that came too easily suspiciously. If not a cliche, is it plagiarism? When in doubt, I always play with it, even if I only change part. Half a cliche can be entertaining if the second half isn't what was expected.

Cliche's and forced metaphors can put me off a story quicker then holes in the plot. I'm always willing to let a percieved plot hole work itself out, or to concede I may have missed something. Cliches and weak metaphors are just lazy writing.

Guyot said...

I've always felt cliches aren't in the idea, they're in the execution.