Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Truth Is Out There

Memorial Day has just—officially—ended. The in-laws are back at home, having arrived safely in spite of the summer-like heat, winding two-lane roads, and holiday traffic. The dogs—covered in the milky perfume of their puppy shampoo—are nestled into the tiny dens that they’ve made from the folds of our crimson comforter. Michelle is sitting beside them, flipping through a decorating magazine, while the foreboding music of an old X-files episode fills the living room. As for me, I’m in my office, sipping a customary cup of tea while trying to chase images of Craftsman-style furniture from the portion of my mind that’s typically reserved for fantasies like winning the lottery and publishing a novel that Oprah selects for her book club.

In retrospect, this holiday weekend was a pleasant one. Although I felt, at times, as though our seemingly spacious house had shrunk to size of a child’s tree house, I’m glad the in-laws came down. I heard some marvelous stories, helped improve the aesthetics of our front and back yards with the addition (thanks to my mother-in-law) of patio furniture and a number of bright red impatiens, geraniums, and dahlias (thanks to my wife). And now, slowly, the house is becoming a home, and my thought processes are decomposing into cliches.

Or are they? Even if Merriam-Webster offers a solid definition of "cliche" I seriously doubt that definition could help you recognize one of those unsightly blemishes and scrub it out of your writing. Indeed, I think that cliches are bit like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quip about pornography: ". . . I know it when I see it."

Of course, such an eyeball test doesn’t really pass the mustard. It isn't always as easy as pie to recognize a cliche in your own work. Sometimes, of course, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Other times, a second, third, or fourth read of your own work might be needed before you can look at the dastardly little phrase, sigh, and say, "If it'd been a snake, it would've bit me." And sometimes, when push comes to shove, you might need another reader to look over your work and tell you to give it a rest.

In fact, I remember one such class in college. In the Advanced Poetry Workshop, a young woman brought in a poem suffused with the comforting imagery angels—not the terrifying and melancholic sort of angel you find in Rilke. As the class critiqued the poem, the discussion’s tone became a bit more savage than was probably appropriate. Student after student pointed at a line and offered it up as a cliche. This continued for a few minutes, until in the apparent interest in saving time, our professor asked me to list the cliches I found in the poem, and I did. In retrospect, I regret my role in that critiquing session, and I’m amazed that the student in question managed to quell the tears, which—had the poem been my own—certainly would have been welling up in my eyes.

Yet, even now, I’m not sure how such a poem should have been approached. After all, the class was the advanced workshop at our school, so she should have had some experience writing her own verse and taking criticisms of that verse. Plus, I’m not sure what else I could have said about that poem. I like the articles? The typeface is very nice?

I think, honestly, that aside from revealing how cruel I was capable of being, that story demonstrates the emphasis that most readers of poetry (and serious fiction) place on Ezra Pound’s old decree to "make it new." Of course, as a poet, you simply cannot craft a poem that is completely and utterly original. We are, alas, bound by our language, our culture, our time, and the expectations of our present and future readers. A completely original poem would, to my mind, be utter doggerel. Consequently, poetry is a sort of balancing act. You have to create lines that observe Pound’s credo without tumbling off the deep end and inserting an ideogram or two in lieu of language your readers will understand and connect to.

More, writing poetry requires that you know—as much as possible—what has been written. By reading, and reading widely, you’ll develop your own cliche-o-meter, and it will serve you well.

The air conditioner has just gone wacky, and I walked out into the muggy morning to check the damage. The fan has stopped working. Ironically, I suspect it overheated. Tomorrow, I’ll get out my tools, poke around, and in all likelihood, phone someone else to diagnose and make the repairs. Oddly enough, my wife is still awake. She is still embroiled in an episode of the X-Files. And as I think of climbing the steps with her to call it a night, I’m convinced that I could write many, many shiver-inducing stories about alien conspiracies. Of course, I think that might be a tad bit cliche now.


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