I was at a bad poetry reading—the kind of reading where the architectural details of the room are more interesting than the poems themselves. I focused on keeping the “politely interested” look fixed to my face. But my concentration was broken when one of the poets intoned, “the tulips were yellow as the sun.”
I don’t need to tell you, dear reader, that this is a cliché. The purpose of poetry is to see things in a new way, not to repeat childish clichés and tired imagery. But not only was the image uninteresting, it was incorrect. The Sun is a yellow dwarf star, but rarely appears to be the color of a tulip. In fact, most of us look at it directly only when it is shrouded in haze and has taken on a dark orange glow.
I don’t mean to shame this poet. We’ve all written boring lines and come to obvious conclusions. It’s part of the writing process! But this is where revision becomes important. Look for places where your writing relies on other people’s phrases. I don’t mean plagiarism, but rather descriptions that are encoded in our language. Some examples are a cozy village, a feisty heroine, sleeping like the dead, being cool as a cucumber, lost in the weeds, coming down the pipeline, time heals all wounds. Clichés have their place in the language, but not in literature.
I told an undergraduate intro to poetry class about my bad poetry reading, where the tulip was yellow as the sun.
“Tell me something about the sun,” I said.
“It’s a star,” one student said.
“What’s it made out of?”
“Helium?” a student ventured.
“What color is helium?” I asked.
“I think it’s odorless and colorless,” she responded.
“What color is the sun?”
“How often do you look at that the sun?”
“Hopefully not very often.”
“Exactly. The sun is made up of colorless gases and we can’t look at it straight on. It is hot and dense enough that nuclear fusion occurs at its core. The Parker Solar Probe is heading there now, where it will come as close as anything can to ‘touch’ the gaseous sun. All of those things are more interesting than the fact that the tulip was yellow as the sun.” The class agreed. Sometimes it’s good for students to have something to superior about.
Don’t beat yourself up (cliche) for writing a cliche. Instead, think about how to make the image more specific. A cliche is an opportunity to make your writing more interesting. Do you need some inspiration? Here is a poem by Margaret Atwood (please ignore the crap line spacing):
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
(Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)