The Buried Wisdom and Poetry in Time-Honored Clichés

Cliché: a trite, stereotyped expression . . . that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact. . . .
                                           --Webster's Dictionary.

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 rock.

     "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 pyramids?

     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.

     "Parameters," "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.


John Rechy
Los Angeles, California

1999-2006 John Rechy
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