Buried Wisdom and Poetry in Time-Honored Clichés
a trite, stereotyped expression . . . that has lost
originality, ingenuity, and impact. . . .
Now a few words in defense of the much maligned cliché.
Unexplored, it is justifiably to be banished. Investigated,
slandered clichés yield sagacious observations,
evocative imagery, hidden drama, touches of poetry,
even haunting mystery. That is true only of time-honored
clichés. Today's clichés--television creates
one in a day--yield banal, illogical observations.
Surely admiration for
acuity greeted the first utterance of what we now label
"clichés"--they became clichés
by adhering to no less than Alexander Pope's exhortation
to writers to convey "what oft was thought but
ne'er so well expressed." Consider "a stitch
in time saves nine"--a serious warning studiously
delivered. A stitch in time saves two, three; then why
nine? Because of attention to rhyme.
"The straw that broke
the camel's back"! A mini-epic there. The noble
camel marches haughtily along a palm-fringed desert,
the load on its hump poised to allow dignified strides.
A merchant adds baggage. The camel sniffs. Will its
gait be compromised? A wicked child adds . . . a straw!
Not the straw but the indignity of someone adding a
straw to its back toppled the camel. Even Sisyphus might
have collapsed outraged if a gnat had landed on his
"Every cloud has
a silver lining"--the flirtation between a rain-darkened
cloud and a coy white sun producing a dazzling band
of silver that arouses hope! . . . "Out of the
clear blue"--an impeccable sky rent by-- What?
Say, a dark hawk, wings challenging the calmed wind.
. . . "The face of an angel." Ah! . . . "Cold
as a witch's heart" (with variations)--a gorgeous
witch enticing a handsome knight, who, probably, is
not, himself, "pure as the driven snow." "Hot
as hell"--sinuous flames raising double temperatures.
. . . "Still waters run deep" indeed, and
note the ominous silence. And what tantalizing mystery
lies behind the crack that if stepped on will break
a mother's back?
A cliché may be
given new life. "Fidgety as a cat on a hot tin
roof" evokes Tennessee Williams's itchy Maggie
in a slip attempting to arouse an impassive Brick. Was
no less a stylist than Henry James paying homage to
the famous timely stitches when in The Turn of the Screw
he dwells on a pair of gloves that "had required
three stitches and that had received them--with a publicity
perhaps not edifying"?
William Faulkner rescued
a regional cliché--a fact undiscovered by critics
delirious to locate arcane meanings in his title Light
in August. The Southern phrase refers to the month during
which a pregnant woman will give birth. Did Faulkner
have a healthy respect for noble clichés? In
the movie Land of the Pharaohs, which lists him as one
of its script-writers, Joan Collins as Nefertiti shivers,
"I feel as if--what is that old saying?--someone
just walked over my grave." Was the author indicating
that the chilling adage was old even in the time of
Modern times produce vapid,
inexact clichés. "A point in time"--how
located within a constant flow? "Ten percent chance
of rain"--rain falling over a tenth of a territory?
"If and when"? If "when" occurs,
there is no "if." If "if" remains
steadfast, there will be no "when." Even correctly
stated--"if or when"--where is the poetry?
. . . Reporters thrust victims of violence into the
"wrong place at the wrong time." Place and
time cancel each other. Adjusted--"wrong place
at the right time," "right place at the wrong
time"--the phrase lacks bouquet.
"media," "agenda," "bottom
line"--poetry forbidden! Allow "hopefully"
to replace "I hope that--"? Then, "Hopefully
it will rain tomorrow" is robbed of its yearning,
the wish that tomorrow rain may fall in a manner that
will arouse hope, like the promise of spring.
Ideally the investigation
of clichés will guide us to a careful scrutiny
of the untapped potential in all language. While we
await that welcome time, we may turn for supportive
wisdom within disparaged clichés: A stitch in
time does save nine; but if, before the metaphoric stitch
is taken, one's admirable intention to save nine is
ambushed by something coming out of the blue--even something
as wondrous but unsettling as the face of an angel--so
that within the resultant cauldron of confusion one
feels at once hot as hell and as cold as if someone
had walked over one's grave, or even as cold as a witch's
heart--then one can look for guidance in other tried
and true admonitions: Acknowledging that a figurative
straw may have broken one's back, one may cling to the
knowledge that every cloud has a silver lining and that
all's well that ends well.
Los Angeles, California