My biggest critique of contemporary poetry is that many writers sacrifice clarity for originality, creating lines and sometimes whole poems that simply don’t make sense. This critique is usually countered by the argument, “Well, it’s a poem,” as if that’s a mic-drop observation worthy of explaining the mess of contrasting images and convoluted diction. I’m all for art that forces the audience to rise to the occasion rather than art that panders or speaks down to readers and viewers, but a well-used or re-imagined cliché accomplishes this better than phrases or language that alienate and confuse readers in an effort to appear original. And don’t misconstrue this with writing to specific readers because even those directed poems need to make sense to those readers or else they become art for art’s sake.
This is not to say that I want to write or support cliché poems, instead I mean that clichés can be used as effective techniques for creating a cultural or linguistic common ground for a poem’s speaker to share with the audience, providing a base of understanding. Including cliché’s can also be effective in debunking or re-examining certain norms, expectations, and stereotypes that are taken for granted in society. They are a literally tool that is often overlooked for fear that writing with clichés will turn off publishers and editors.
In thinking about the use of cliché in my work, “Eat Your Heart Out, Kid” sticks out as an example:
Eat Your Heart Out, Kid
I want to die happy.
Hear that symphony of angels
my Driver’s-Ed teacher believes in.
I want to waltz my way through
those pearly gates, give Pete a high-five
or say some speakeasy password
because this is The Great Beyond, baby.
Scientists believe there’s a chemical
ensuring death happens this way.
These visions of heaven people see
and come back from and write books about
are hallucinations triggered by our brains
helping us accept our own passing,
making dying easier.
And why shouldn’t it be?
Living isn’t simple, so why not
let dying be smooth? Let’s ease our way out.
Sit back and relax. Who cares
if the trumpets aren’t really there?
We can hear them
striking up a familiar tune.
The final lines, “We can hear them / striking up a familiar tune” is full of noir influence, in fact much of the language and imagery of this poem plays on this noir cliché that is well embedded in the American conscious. I included these clichés to give a poem about death, a complex and difficult subject, a foothold for readers to enter into the poem and establish a relationship with the speaker. This trust between reader and speaker is important if the reader is going to follow the internal logic of the poem and accept the poem’s conclusion.
Poets shouldn’t be afraid of the cliché when they’re stuck on what to write. Poetry is a historied art form, full of amazing phrases and tropes that can always be refreshed and revisited in interesting ways by current poets and for current and future readers.