The Pathways of Clichés

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on February 18, 2014, in the Inlandia Institute‘s weekly column.

In the time it takes to read this sentence, 50 English instructors will write the word “cliché” in red ink in the margins of a student paper. The admonition to “Avoid clichés!” has almost become a cliché—as much a cliché as the word “cliché” itself. And since clichés are meanings that have lost some of their meaning, it might be time for a reminder of what they really mean.

The word “cliché” comes from the 19th century French printing industry. In the days of movable type, each letter or symbol was set on an individual metal block, with each word and sentence painstakingly arranged block by block. To save time, printers would combine commonly used phrases into large blocks called “stereotypes” or “clichés” (presumably after the sound they made being set: cliquer, “to click”). Eventually this expression was used so often to refer to common phrases that it became a word of its own—a word so commonly used that we’ve mostly forgotten its original meaning. Cliché became a cliché.

A cliché is a kind of dead metaphor. It’s a connection between different concepts that has become so prominent in our minds that we no longer have to associate it with those original concepts to understand its meaning. When you hear the word cliché, you don’t think of the French printer or steel slugs of type. It’s not visceral in the least. It just is what it is, and you know what it is. A cliché.

Seen this way, a cliché can be an amazing thing: It’s an original, useful concept that’s hard to imagine ever having lived without. It’s the birth of an individual idea, a new discrete unit of thought that’s become an inherent part of how we see the world, who we are. But there, too, is the rub: Now the concept has already been born,  and it exists as a fully developed thing. There’s nowhere else for it to grow.

In neuroscience, Hebbian theory is summarized as, “Cells that fire together, wire together.” The more often a neural pathway between two concepts is fired, the easier it is for that pathway to fire the next time—which makes it fire more often, which makes it fire more easily, and so on, until that pathway is firing in the same pattern every time, at the drop of a hat, so to speak. The dominance of that pathway becomes a part of the architecture of the brain, and overwhelms the possibility for any new connections between those original concepts. This process is how an entire ant colony can find your puddle of spilled syrup, or how human highways and cities form.

Imagine two towns separated by countless miles of dense jungle. The townsfolk to the west think they’re alone in the universe. Until one day a brave adventurer hacks her way through the vegetation and miraculously discovers the town to the east. A new connection. When she returns home, she tells her friends of the wonders of the town to the east and the amazing sights she encountered along the way. And her friends, being young and adventurous themselves, want to see those wonders, too. They could, of course, hack their own paths east, but why bother, when a path has already been hacked?

As they travel, the larger group, by its very nature, widens the path, their footsteps trampling the earth. The wider path is more enticing, an easier trek, and those who were once disinclined to risk decide it’s worth the journey.

The path becomes wider still, now wide enough for a wagon. A well is dug halfway between the towns, so that the horses have water. The towns begin to trade goods, which means more wagons on the road. An entrepreneur opens an inn next to the well. Now the road is cobblestone. Now pavement. It’s still a scenic drive—look at the waterfalls, the flora, the fauna, but look from the road—which becomes a highway, four lanes, then six, then eight. Eventually the trip is a daily commute that the townsfolk make without a thought, a most convenient connection between east and west, and no one bothers to notice the scenery blurring by—they couldn’t get out and touch it if they wanted to, at the speed the traffic flows. They’re thankful for the road, it takes them efficiently from one town to the other, but they no longer experience the journey. They build a freeway wall. They listen to the radio while they drive. Nothing changes. The road is the road and it works.

Until another adventurer appears, a writer, who says, “Has anyone looked out there north of the road?”

The joy of reading is that we can follow. That we can grab an ax and smell the earth and feel the grass as the writer hacks ahead, stimulating new paths (and maybe, eventually, new clichés) through the jungles of our minds.

Rondel: Skunk


Drink up, boys, tip back your growlers!
Refill’em at the microbrewer!
A hipster’s cred is never truer
than his eco-friendly powers.

Save the trees and fields of flowers
and make the sky a little bluer:
Drink up boys, tip back your growlers!
Refill’em at the microbrewer!

But rinse’em twice and maybe scour
with a steel brush or cloth and skewer—
that old jug’s cleanly as a sewer,
so throw’em down quick before it sours:
Drink up, boys, tip back your growlers!


Note: This poem is for a weekly series of locally inspired topical poems for the Inlandia blog at  For more on the form, and the local story that this was drawn from, visit the blog.

Ghazal: At the Feet of a Dove


for Jeremiah MacKay

A vandalized unveiling: “Only the feet of the dove
are left,” he said, his sigh like the bleat of a dove.

Who could break the brazen brave, hand over heart,
open arm outstretched—when at his feet was a dove?

They mate for life, she said, pigeon husbands and wives
build one nest: Eternal is the seat of the dove.

Oh Yahweh, Allah, Elohim—why must you take
what we offer? What use is the heat of a dove?

Look there, at the edge of the lake! The children hunt but
their hunger is smaller than the meat of a dove.

Fly away, my love, find another branch and rest your wings.
High tide never sounds the defeat of a dove.

Bronze will green, and bullets rust; no metal is stronger
than memory. That’s the sweet of the dove.


Note: This poem is for a weekly series of locally inspired topical poems for the Inlandia blog at  For more on the local story that this was drawn from, visit the blog.

Write Like a Child

I have exactly one academic-style talk that I give, and I’ve given it a few times, because I have exactly one thing that I know well enough and that I think is worth talking about at length. The talk is called “Poetry and the Subconscious,” and it basically riffs off of my favorite quote by Elizabeth Bishop: “The thing we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.”

I go on to weave through a couple dozen quotes from interviews with poets, and make the case that this is what all poets are really doing, regardless of means or motive or intent, or even the style of writing once they get there: They’re using tricks they’ve learned over the years to reach the meditative state the Buddhists call Samadhi—a unified state of mind in which there is no distinction between self and environment, no sense of time or place. Samadhi is becoming attuned to the fundamental interconnectedness of reality. It’s the dissolution of Self, the absorption of one mind into the total oneness of creation. It’s what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi famously calls “Flow” (though I’ve always felt his definition is a bit too restrictive). It’s what athletes call “The Zone.” It’s the source of surprise and wonder at our own spontaneity.

Only when the Self dissolves is the subconscious free to speak—and it’s the subconscious that’s the real artist; it’s the lower, ancient regions of the brain finally having a chance to communicate, after being silenced by the domineering logic of the cerebral cortex in our daily lives. Because the subconscious understands things abstractly and intuitively, and because the neurological pathways are so old—stretching back millions and millions of years—hearing a message from the subconscious a powerful and personal experience. We’re finally hearing deeper selves, in the voice of another.

All art, then, in my opinion, is a bridge of communication between two subconsciouses.

And the way to make art is through this state of “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” where the consciousness fades away. Here’s a quote from one of my favorite books, Zen in the Art of Archery:

The right art is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one, and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.

That “willful will” is exactly what I try to avoid when I’m writing.

The most interesting thing is that this is a practice we all have to re-learn, as artists. Children do it instinctively. Again from Zen:

You must hold the drawn bowstring like a little child holding a proffered finger. It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child doesn’t think: I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing. Completely unself-consciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other, and we would say that it was playing with the things, were it not completely true that the things were playing with the child.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of children as poets. I’ve taught a few classes as a poet-in-the-schools, but any parent, I’m sure, can attest to the amazing powers of a child’s imagination, and the creative ways they invent new words and metaphors. It really does seem, sometimes, like the child isn’t playing with words so much as the words are playing with the child.

Adult writers can learn a lot from children, I think.

And so we’re trying something new at Rattle this year, and asking for submissions of poems written by children, for what we hope to be a stand-alone annual anthology. Unlike most anthologies of “children’s poetry,” this collection will be written entirely by children for adults. I think it’s worth listening to both what they have to say, and how they play at saying it.

If you have a young poet under 15, you can read the guidelines here. They’re pretty simple. The deadline for this year is September 15th.

Cross-posted to the Inlandia Blog

The Science of Poetry: A Prehistoric Telephone Game


Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on May 21, 2013, in the Inlandia Institute‘s weekly column. More from my series on “the science of poetry” will be appearing throughout the year.

“Who reads poetry anymore?” I remember asking as a know-it-all 8th grader.  “And what  is poetry, anyway?  The music and rhythms of language?  What’s the point of that?”  I see the same questions flash through the minds of strangers when I tell them I work as a poetry editor.  But the answer is easy:  Just sit in a circle.

Do you remember the telephone game?   A group of kids sits in a circle.  One whispers a phrase into her neighbor’s ear, and then the neighbor whispers the same phrase into his neighbor’s ear, and so on around the circle, until it returns  to the one who started it—but with all the original details comically confused.

Play it with a random phrase and it always works—the blue house becomes  a black blouse right on cue, and by the end none of it makes sense.

Then find a couplet of poetry to send around the circle, maybe Shel Silverstein, from his poem “Sick”:  “I have the measles and the mumps,/ a gash, a rash and purple bumps.”  The couplet survives whole, almost magically intact.

That’s the point of poetry.  Or at least one of the points.

Try this exercise:  Draw a line.  Label one end 200,000 years ago; label the other 0, for present-day.  This is the timeline of human history, dating back to the earliest appearance of anatomically modern humans within the fossil record.  Along this line have lived 10,000 generations of Homo sapiens, all with the same brain size and bone structure, all with some capacity for complicated thought.  The oldest of them is 100 times older than the Roman empire.  Think about that for a moment.

Now cut the line in half, and place a midpoint at 100,000 years ago.  This is when the FOXP2 gene, believed to be largely responsible for our understanding of grammar, first appeared.   Because this gene must have developed within a relatively stable linguistic environment, this is strong evidence that rudimentary language existed prior to this date.

Cut those halves in half again.  Each of these four new segments represents 50,000 years—the nearest is the dawn of the Upper Paleolithic.  Humans are transitioning from the common hand ax to an array of specialized blade tools for hunting, dressing meat, and working hide.

Cut that line in half, and we arrive at 25,000 years ago, just one-eighth of the timeline backward from today.  This is the period anthropologists call the “cultural explosion,” the sudden emergence of art.  All over the world, and in a relatively short span of time, human enterprise shifted from the entirely utilitarian production of hunting tools to all things ephemeral.  People began adorning themselves with bead and bone jewelry.  They began making musical instruments, and cave paintings, and burying their dead.  This suggests they lived rich social lives, with strong interpersonal relationships and increasingly complicated mythologies.

Cut that line in half again:  12,000 years ago, the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent.

Cut that line in half again: 6,000 years ago, the first proto-writing emerges in the form of pictograms carved into tablets and tortoise shells.  Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform.

Cut that line in half one last time and we arrive at 3,000 years before present, the first appearance of the Phoenician alphabet, and a genuine writing system.

Now step back and look at this timeline.  It’s broken into 64 segments, and in only one of them—in only the most recent 3,000 years—did humans have the ability to fully record their thoughts.  To put it another way, 9,500 generations of human beings were alive in our prehistory, all of them feeling their own forms of love and lust, fearing death and disease and hunger, wondering about their place in the world, pondering the meaning of it all, making gods, offering sacrifices, praying for peace—with no way to pass on that experience but with words .  For so much of our history, the only tradition was the oral tradition.

And the oral tradition is the telephone game:  one generation whispering to the next, and whispering to the next, and whispering to the next, forever down the line.

So how do we save the stories that matter?  The details here might truly be life and death, might mean the difference between finding the herd of aurochs and starvation.  How do we make sure that the blue house doesn’t become a black blouse and ruin the ritual?

Meter.  Rhyme.  Repetition.  Consonance, assonance, inflexion.   All of these tools that poetry is trying to teach us.  This is why  our holy books are written in verse.  It was poetry that saved the things that mattered, before we had prose.