I tried to jog and could not. It was too life-affirming. I rode along with friends to go swimming and found myself paralyzed. I tried music. But why is this music all so affirmative? Has it always been like that? Perhaps a requiem, that glorious German Requiem of Brahams. I have to turn it off. There’s too little brokenness in it. Is there no music that speaks of our terrible brokenness? That’s not what I mean. I mean: is there no music that fits our brokenness? The music that speaks about brokenness is not itself broken. Is there no broken music?
Sometimes I think that happiness is over for me. I look at the photos of the past and immediately comes the thought: that’s when we were still happy. But I can still laugh, so I guess that isn’t quite it. Perhaps what’s over is happiness as the fundamental tone of my existence. Now sorrow is that.
— Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
with deference to Stephen Pressfield
Before she opened eyes, she heard
Alarms — her shouting clock.
She’d set it for her pre-dawn words.
Her dry-mouth-taste: a sock?
The children soon would rise from bunks
And writing time would end
But blank pages await. Tales trunked—
They whispered, “Sleep again.”
Children took out the pep from her —
Cheeses on grills and strings —
She needed energy, for sure,
For their lunch, rides, and… things.
And her mom’s sick in hospice
and needed tender care.
If writing took that drive away,
If mom died today or the next day,
Could writing now be fair?
How the thought, how the mood depressing mind
Required another fix
Her Xanax — hear how it’s calling her —
Hear its spell — it is enthralling her —
Bottle of capsuled licks.
If she Tindered a midnight lover boy
Just to fill in the sex she craved,
The fantasy, would it fill her joy?
Would it birth books critics raved?
She turned on pillow, thought: Well no. Yet
The trouble rivets me:
For I could be a villain
And for I could pillage seas.
A life of crime would irk her friends
Respectable and true.
But Life Drama beside Book Ends…
It seemed easy and lewd.
It wasn’t her fault she was blocked!
She’d had some sexist coaches!
Her profs hated the girls they taught!
(She made up other hoaxes.)
John, her ex, he had hated books.
Hated her love to write.
He wanted her to be a cook,
And a mom, sexy sight.
How he criticized fiction,
Enflamed her family’s doubts —
The aunts who said she needed work ,
The old men, conceiving her twerking,
Loudened grandma’s veiled shouts.
On her bed she then dreamed of hearing “Jo”
Announced before a crowd:
Awards from the same Academies
And the Prized Pulitzers, Emmys,
Heros of hers had wowed.
But she hadn’t received a Hugo yet,
Lying lone on her broken springs.
The writing life is a lonely lot
That can cripple us lonesome things.
If waited, she, a little bit more,
The time to write would come.
She’d rationalized before,
How she had both kids and home.
All this passed in her mind — the snooze alarm
Reminded her to rise
She rose from her unnerving thoughts,
And her norms, doubts, deceptions bought —
Then sat in her chair to write:
“Mister and Misses Dursley
Of Fourteen Privet Drive
Were perfectly happy…”
The pages alive
The keystrokes aflame
She wondered if this, If This,
Could be morning?
She added a by: [her name.]
So reader — writer — when you wake
And writer when you rise,
What resistance begs you nap
And meditate on other crap
You secretly despise?
What resistance keeps you fake?
From joining we who try?
:: 58 poems written at 29 years ::
This year, for the 58 @ 29, I plan to focus on alliterative meter (excepting the ballad above). It’s the meter used by Middle English and Old English poets as well as Latin and Greek poets. Basically all epic poets use some form of alliterative meter and it hasn’t been used in English for a thousand years. I will be pulling from the rules offered in Lewis’ article on The Alliterative Meter:
In the general reaction which has set in against the long reign of foreign, syllabic meters in English, it is a little remarkable that few have yet suggested a return to our own ancient system, the alliterative line…. Alliteration is no more the whole secret of this verse than rhyme is the whole secret of syllabic verse. It has, in addition, a metrical structure, which could stand alone, and which would then be to this system as blank verse is the syllabic….
A few successful specimens of alliterative meter would be an excellent answer to the type of critic (by no means extinct) who accuses the moderns of choosing vers libre because they are not men enough for meter. For if syllabic verse is like carving in wood and verse libre like working with a brush, alliterative meter is like carving in granite.
“Vers Libre” for those who don’t know is Latin for “free verse.” Lewis has, ultimately, offered for my poetry just the kind of reaction I prefer in all of my life: a reaction that is, deep down, orthodoxy. A reaction to dead leaves as radical as the radish itself: radical because it is the living root of the thing.
First you write a novel.
Then the novel writes a novel.
Then the novel writes you.
The next time you use an Internet comment or post to accuse someone of making their own Internet comment or post from out of their own privilege, just remember:
4 Billion people have zero Internet access.
Privilege, like all barriers to virtue, comes in degrees. Deal with the big hurdles first.
Two kinds of people argue with themselves: maniacs and metaphysicists. The maniac argues with himself the way a divorced couple argues: hashing up old arguments that lead nowhere simply because he’s in the habit of doing so. In that endless cycle, he becomes unsure of how he exactly he lost his way. The metaphysicist — the philosopher — the lover of wisdom — argues with himself to gain greater insight, to grow wise by way of passion kind of like the newlywed couple so eager to love one another on their honeymoon, they cannot quite agree on what to do next. I am about to argue with myself. I do so not as a maniac, cycling around ruts in the reasoning. I am about to argue with me out of passion that stems from insight I’ve gained since the last time I wrote about cliché.
Last year, I wrote an article entitled What Cliché Is. It’s a serviceable article that gets at the problem well enough, but I had hoped a response would surface. And a response, of sorts, did surface by Jo Eberhardt: In Defense of Clichés. Ms. Eberhardt is one whom I highly respect, whose company I enjoy, whose deep reflection on the craft has taught me much, and whose recent post on female protagonists got the airtime it deserved. In her piece on clichés, Jo did a grand job showing there’s a time and a place to use cliché — to craft authenticity in dialog, to reveal character, to build story. However, she began with a metaphor that I would like to first deconstruct, then replace, in order to conclude by defending cliché beyond the scope of even her own defense and therefore join her in completely squashing the ignorance of my own original article once and for all.
Ms. Eberhardt called cliché the McDonald’s of language. That metaphor works to her practical purposes — certainly we wouldn’t want readers to subsist on a diet built exclusively out of clichés for the same reason we wouldn’t want them to subsist on hydrogenated soybean fries. However she goes further, using the metaphor to say that a few clichés, like McDonald’s, might satisfy you, but a lot can kill you. It is with this part of the metaphor I now take issue.
When we typically rail against cliché, we talk down to them as if they’re the leftovers, the fast food of our language. We do this because we — myself as the worst of sinners — have been trained to do so and it goes back to the age of the penny dreadfuls (and likely earlier to the minstrels). Once upon a time, the upper and therefore better-educated class ignored “vulgar” literature for the same reason no red-tailed hawk cackles about his domination over honey bees. They simply did not consider it. As the literature of the people grew in popularity, the culture reversed courses and began to rail against it or downright dismiss it. You can see this right up until the present era in the Paris Review’s interview of Evelyn Waugh: the way he claims no one wrote about the working class unless it was “grotesque” or “a pastoral” or “something different… about the criminal class.” In response to this very attitude, Chesterton once said in his Defense of Penny Dreadfuls, “Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity.” He was talking about how boys books, comic books, crappy scifi films will go on selling forever while literature may come and go with the waxing and waning tide of higher literacy.
We might add that poetry is a luxury, cliché is a necessity. I say that as the same poet who wrote The Schematic for Sculpting Language in the 2016 Poet’s Market, wherein I argued that poetry is the birthing and begetting of new language through the mixing of metaphor and the collision of old thoughts. Surely I would prefer we have more poetry for the same reason that I hope my grandfather would live another thousand years. But life is a luxury, living is a necessity. As we must go on living on when people die, so we must go on clichéing when Western (or in Ms. Eberhardt’s case — Eastern) culture exiles poets.
For without cliché, as Ms. Eberhardt herself argues and as I myself argued within the Poet’s Market article, we cannot have poetry for the same reason that without fiction we cannot have literature and the corollary is that without living we cannot have life. Where life is concerned, it takes two living beings — one begetting, one birthing — to create a new life. Life is a luxury, living is a necessity. A barren woman may never have a son, but she’ll have to go on living through the pain of barrenness all the same. Where literature is concerned, it must first be fiction before it can ever aspire to become literature. A hack may never have critical success, but he’ll have to go on writing through the pain of obscurity all the same. And a child may never grow up to read whatever won the booker prize this year or watch whatever won the Academy award, but to say he’ll live without stories is rather ridiculous. And therefore where poetry is concerned, we must start with clichés — they are the building blocks of language and therefore the building blocks of all civil society. To prove it, I now turn to the worst glut of Amazon’s self-publishing arm, the very tip of their very long tail.
The worst, most obscure fictions in the darkest corners of the Kindle marketplace will be critiqued (as opposed to ignored) by the haughtiest critics for their nostalgia. But common men remain nostalgic, for a nostalgic man is merely a regular man who feels things and has the courage to use old words like “sad” or “angry” or “happy” to express the things he feels. (Still referring to Chesterton’s argument here.) Is that evil? Is it evil to use the valiant truisms and clichés we’ve built civil society upon? Unless we use clichés, we do not build society at all. If a work of fiction emerges in which the Supreme Court of its world said, “Murder is wrong” and the readers and characters alike reacted in awe at the originality of the statement, I would gape in terror at that society. If we came across a village out in the bush and witnessed natives stealing from one another for a decade, ruining their chance at an economy and betraying their basic trust in one another, we would be hard-pressed not to utter the cliché, “Thou shalt not steal.” We teach our children that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, that a penny saved is a penny earned, to use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without, and to buy something — anything — for a song because we hope to teach them delayed gratification, investing, frugality, bargaining, and the worth of stuff that money can’t buy. The surest and simple way to do so is to use a cliché or a truism and those truisms, in aggregate, keep cars from crossing the yellow line, keep airplanes in the sky, and keep the majority of any civil society employed. The Pythagorean Theorem, whatever else it is, is a cliché. Advertising agencies understand this so completely that they spend years trying to create new clichés hoping beyond hope that in the morning, you don’t think that the best part of waking up is sex with your wife or reading quietly alone or your first thousand words or walking the dog in the stillness of the morning upon the dew of Sunset Park, but rather that the best part of waking up is putting into your cup a specific — and pathetic — brand of the pre-ground, coffee counterpart to McDonald’s. So you see it is actually the creation of newer, lesser clichés that cause more danger for the startling fact that Folger’s — and their new-yet-catchy cliché — have not been tested by time. Certainly the second and third wave of coffee has rendered that particular cliché largely irrelevant and how? Because they resorted to an older, better cliché: that of harvesting just enough beans from a farmer you know, roasting them in a small and manageable batch, and brewing one cup at a time because it’s all you need for the day. Tastes better too.
In fact, I would argue the main problem with clichés is not that we use them, but that we use cheap imitations of them. Not that we invent them, but that we do not test the ones we invent. And as the scientific method goes (also a cliché), that’s malpractice. In the formal science of rendering cliché, the truest clichés go back the farthest, exposing the derivation of the world — of all that is — and the image of God in the face of man, how he himself is a cheap imitation. They render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s.
For that reason, I would not call cliché the fast food of language but rather its bread and butter. Even with that adjustment, I still agree with the first part of what Ms. Eberhardt said: I would not want you — or anyone — to subsist on a diet exclusively of bread and butter because those with such a diet are either in poverty or in prison. But bread and butter will never kill you. In fact, the one component pulling together most any breakfast at most any diner in New York is bread and butter — toast and margarine, pancakes and butter, waffles and spread. The chief appetizer of any Italian or French restaurant is bread and butter. When I order an Irish stout at The Ginger Man, I will always get brown bread and butter. For the days I’m eating simple in submission to my gluten and lactose intolerances, I still go for rice and ghee. Fat and carbs are the clichés of the culinary world. If you want to know whether I’m having a meal, check to see if there’s bread and butter.
To the same degree, if you want to write anything, clichés are your bread and butter. You may react to them. You may subvert them. You might make them into jokes or character quirks or smash them together to birth new language in a song or use one trope inside the Trojan horse of another, but you cannot start without them for the same reason you cannot create ex nihilo.
cover image by David Goehring
“We are all patriots and rebels, at war with one another and ourselves. And we give each other visions.” — Gary Wills