Poetry and its Clichếs

“A word has a power to convey a world of information and to act as a spell upon the feelings, there is no need of sustained fiction, often no room for it”

Atongla Rothrong

Perhaps, no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without a certain un-soundness of mind, if anything which gives so much pleasure ought to be called unsoundness….by poetry we mean the art of employing words in such a manner as to produce an illusion in the imagination, the art of doing by means of words what the painter does by means of colors… truth, indeed, is essential to poetry; but it is the truth of madness. The reasoning is just; but the premises are false. Poetry in brief is a combination of painting and insanity. In the same spirit, with even more authority. 

The whole business of writing is the question of living in that contemporariness. Each generation has to live in that…..what I’m trying to make you understand is that every contemporary writer has to find out what is the inner time-sense of his contemporaries. The writer, or painter, or what not, feels this thing more vibrantly, and they have a passionate need of putting it down; and that is what creativity does.

But, the critical problem of poetic diction and the cliché requires a somewhat more precise handling than that. One of the minor comic figures of our time is the “cliché Expert”, who in an early appearance are made to ‘take the stand’. “In the true notion of the cliché” says a French critic, “incoherence has its place by the side of triteness”. The logic of the situation would suggest that even ingenuity and originality are no sure proofs against the cliché. The highly ingenious periphrases often employed at certain levels of journalism have a cold ring, like echoes, even though we cannot say of what. A popular biography of a famous actor, for instance, yields a reviewer the grounds of patronizing complaint.

One might experiment with the conception that all language is an arsenal of all clichés. Some expressions, like man and tree, being only more ordinary and more solidly established, than some others, like umbrageous, preclusive, fleecy kind. The usual rule of thumb is that a poet should avoid clichés. But a higher rule is that they should be a master of clichés at all levels. The mastery of the cliché may be illustrated sharply, if simply, in a kind of twisted echo phrase which has been called the “cliché extended”.

Nowadays, one may identify a genre of lightly sophisticated magazine poems whose main logic is the slight tilt which they give to a pattern of cliché vocabulary, or the dainty jangle of cross-purposes which they create between intersecting patterns. Since it often happen that most obvious phrase, and those which are used in ordinary conversations, become too familiar to the ear, and contract a kind of meanness by passing the mouths of the vulgar. A poet should take particular care to guard themselves against idiomatic ways of speaking. On the other hand it must also be allowed that there is a majesty and harmony in the language, which greatly contribute to elevate and support the narration. But I must also observe, that this is an advantage grown upon the language since Homers time; for, things are removed from vulgarity by being out of use; and if the words we could find in any present language were equally sonorous or musical in themselves, they would still appear less political and uncommon than those of a dead one, from this only circumstances, of being in every man’s mouth.

So far as any view of poetic origins prevails very explicitly today, it is still likely to be the primivistic. Our large literature in the departments of dialect, folk speech, argot and slang, is one testimony to a primitivistic interest among scholars. And this interest sometimes raises curious problems concerning not only compilation but evaluation to select one instance from the many. A writer in the magazine ‘American Speech” argues that, during World War II, there were two kinds of soldiers slang- a small number of terms really invented by soldiers and truly expressive (shack up, sweat out, latrine rumor) and a much larger number of fake terms invented by newspaper writers, USO workers and entertainers (armored cow for canned milk; scandal sheet for payroll; misery pipe for bugle; hand grenades for hamburgers; tire patches for pancakes).

In the same way, there are two kinds of jazz slang- the genuine expressions of Jazz musicians and fans (tailgate, solid, jam, riff, gutbucket, barrelhouse), and the spurious inventions of publicity agents, master of ceremonies and popular music magazines (God box for organ, skin beater for drummer, syringe for trombone, sliver sucker for clarinetist, doghouse for bass fiddler, gitter or git box for guitar).

The question about the origins of poetic language seems to allude to a language upon which some sort of special poetic virtue has been conferred before it reaches the poet himself. We are forced to conceive poetic language as a kind of pre-poetically potent vocabulary or vigorous mode of expression. At the same time, the history of poetic diction suggests that the main inventors of poetic diction have been professional poets themselves- Spenser, Milton, and Dryden. Who does make up the good new word and phrases- those that add something to our expressive stock and are filled to survive? Do these occur first in works of creative literature or in miscellaneous non-literary places? Did the primitive bard write the best poetic language? And if they did, were they an unusually primitive or an unusually advanced member of his tribe? Is a modern poet an unusually advanced or an unusually primitive member of modern society?

If a dramatic clause be invoked- that is, if we observe that the language of any social class is proper when a writer is representing that class- the enquiry may appear to be translated into something quite different. And indeed, it is true that, the supposed speaker of any poem is always dramatic, and is always to be conceived as some kind of person, and often as a person not learned or poetically skillful. Nevertheless- a direct imitation of the uncouth speaker does run a special risk of lapsing into realistic disorder and insignificance. This may be much like what a modern critic has called the “fallacy of imitative form”, or like what Dryden called “mechanical humor” in the correctly low life imitation. It is possible also to have correctly tedious imitations of high life.

Anybody who has ever tried to collect brilliant or pungent expressions either at cock-tail parties or at dinners along truck routes must have been struck by the prevalence of the brassier kind of clichés and the reiterated simplisms of blasphemy.

The most obvious sense in which the poet is bound to bear the burden of originality is that which relates originality to the social and commercial conditions of success in literature. There is no practical point in repeating the classics, or in repeating their style. Even if some classic had failed to get written on schedule (in its own era) and even if it could be written instead today, the expectancies and demands of publishers and readers preclude the success of the performance. The undergraduate joker who types out selection of the less well-known sonnets of Shakespeare and submit them over his own name to a press or publisher does so in full expectation of being rejected. This massive and immovable fact about markets and readers is one of the groups which support a kind of statement that often proceeds with great authority from the successful literary person. It is the imagination which has taught man the moral values of color, shape, sound and scent. At the beginning of the world, imagination created analogy and metaphor. Imagination dissolves all creation. Remassing and reordering her materials by principles which out of the depths of the human soul, imagination makes a new world, even a new realm of sensory experience. And as imagination has created this world (one may say this, I think even in a religious sense), it is appropriate that the same faculty should govern it.

Is there any such thing as a pernicious work of art? There is. It is one which distorts the patterns of living reality…if a novel or a play is well made, it can be an invitation to nobody to deviate from the law of nature. The first requirement for healthy art is a belief in an ordered whole of experience. I challenge anybody to show me a single work of imagination which satisfies the requirements of beauty and is at the same time pernicious.

The poet who takes his art seriously will come to his task in a spirit of honest self-criticism. He will not flinch at throwing out whatever words are lack-lustre or lack weight or in any way undeserving- though such words have a way of hanging on hard. A good poet will dig up long forgotten treasures of vocabulary and put them into circulation again, brilliantly old fashioned terms which lie hidden in the junk piles of neglect. He will be on the alert to take advantage of the newest creations of shifting usage. His utterance will be urgent and clear, like the spring torrent, he will enrich his mother tongue. At the same time he will cut through stylistic brambles and make smooth and wholesome the paths of meaning; he will be forceful. And all the while. He will make what he is doing look as easy as a play, though it keeps his wit on the rack- as he dances through his roles, now satyr, now boorish.

One touch of nature may make the whole world kin, but two touches of nature will destroy any work of art. If, on the other hand, we regard nature as the recollection of phenomena external to man, people only discover in them what they bring to them. They have no suggestions of their own. Wordsworth went to the lakes, but he was never a lake poet. He found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there. He went moralizing about the district, but his good work was produced when he returned, not to nature but to poetry. Language gains depths and resonance only by being used, and hence some of the most complete and poetically significant uses of words are just those that occur within a poetic tradition. To cite an example- the poetry of Wordsworth, coming as an artistic climax and renewal, rather than rejection, of this tradition, is in a sense a poetry that turns very simply to nature and the human soul- yet, inescapably, it does this through words represented in the line- “Rise, fair day, before the eyes and soul of man”. Wordsworth’s poetry is a sound realization and a deepening of certain nature symbols already available to his age in more or less cliché simplifications. 

It is true that a new mythologism is always associated with any strong mistrust of rhetorical inspection. Expression and symbolism can make a ready enough alliance with the might and ritual. For, all four are theories of the creative imagination, the fiat of the human spirit as deity or as participating in deity. One perhaps will look about for some comprehensive issue, some paradoxical junction, that will catch, if only in a precarious and momentary stasis, the whole of the problem. This seems to appear now a day in the question so often asked or implied, whether a poetic theory should be platonic or Aristotelian.

Something can be learned, something perhaps ultimate, from the most abstract schemes of philosophers. Though I will not urge this in a quarrelsome way against aestheticians of painting or music, poetry is the fine art. And indeed the verbal principle as it works in poetry more pronouncedly than in other arts does at least put a special emphasis on the relation of tension which holds between fine art (especially poetry) and the other arts and between arts in general and the sciences.

It remains that a theory of poetic or fine art must do something yet different. It must keep asserting in various idioms by various stratagems, in accord with the demands of the dialectic of the time, the special character of poetry as a tensional union of making with seeing and saying.

I hope this gives an advanced demonstration of what it means to be a cliché expert.

(The writer is a Morung Express reporter)