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.

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

Advice

ADVICE

Think buckshot:
Not the rifle,
but the musket.

Ear-horn of
powder, arm-
deep in black

soot. Think
flint lock
and flash pan.

Muzzle blast.
Hollow point.
Don’t paint

the rounds,
don’t ready
the bayonet.

No aim
is necessary;
nothing is true.

Think percussion
cap. Any metal
as shrapnel.

Any spark as
lightning;
be bottled.

Funny on Paper

As someone who isn’t very funny — I have a good sense of humor and laugh often, but lack the social skills to tell a good joke — I’m always amazed at how easy it is to be funny on stage (at least when the situation doesn’t demand it).  I was at a poetry reading Monday night, and found myself telling a story about my mother watching a clip of me on YouTube.  Of course, I embellished a bit to maximize the entertainment value, as humans are wont to do, mingling in my wife’s common critique in a way she’ll probably call Freudian, but the gist is true.  I said something like this:

I did a reading a few weeks ago, that the host filmed and put up on YouTube.  My mom still has dial-up, so couldn’t watch it at home, and when she tried to watch it at her office, she realized her computer didn’t have any speakers.  So, like any loving mother, she watched the whole poetry reading with no sound.  For 30 minutes.   Needless to say, I now have a full list of all my nervous ticks and poor postures.  So if you see me putting my free hand in a pocket or oddly leaning to one side, smack me with a ruler or something.

Did you just laugh out loud?   The 40 or so people in the audience did.  It’s definitely an amusing story, worthy of a affectionate smile at least, but I bet very few people reading this let out a soft snort, let alone a chuckle loud enough that an office-mate had to look up over the cubicle wall.   And it’s not like the 40-or-so people at Village Books on Monday were freaks with a hair-trigger funnybone.  Laughter is infectious — it’s evolutionarily encoded, a still-useful tribal bonding mechanism from the caveman days.

A few years ago Megan and I went to see Mary Oliver in Santa Barbara.  Aside from the National Poetry Slam, it’s still the largest literary audience I’ve ever been a part of — almost 1,000 in attendance.  Mary read her poems of simple nature and grace, and in between each one, no matter what she said, the audience would laugh.   It got to the point where she seemed to be testing how low the comedic bar could go, how little it would take, until finally she gave up and said, “For some reason everything I say is funny.”   The audience laughed.

A poetry reading might be the easiest place in the world to become  a comedian.  Mary wasn’t even trying to be funny, in fact, she seemed slightly horrified.  There’s something unique, I think, that happens at a poetry reading, a perfect storm of haha.  Poetry is the most empathetic of all mediums — a poet speaks and manipulates your own inner voice; she uses you as the canvas.  I think when we encounter a poet on stage, we relate so much that the experience becomes slightly uncomfortable — and for many that translates into a nervous giggle, which then spreads through the crowd like an instantaneous meme.

Moreover, poems themselves are fundamentally funny — in one of my favorite essays on poetry, Kay Ryan points out that “Ha!” and “Ah!” are really manifestations of the same thing.  They’re both spontaneous reactions to emotional/psychological surprise — an “impossible pang,” as she puts it.  As poets, we’re often hoping for those quiet awe-struck gasps, a trickle of soft “Ahs” at a the end or in the middle of a poem.  But I think that reaction is so close to it’s sibling that we just as often get the “Ha!” instead.  The audience doesn’t really know what to do, but we know we feel something strange bubbling up from our gut.  And so we laugh.

The effect is like a hurricane forming — an empathetic unease in relation to the poet depresses the room; all that moisture swirls and condenses around the kernel of surprise that’s fundamental to poetry, and then rapidly expands over the warm waters of an infectious laugh track.  Is that analogy ridiculous enough to be funny?

Anyway, a poet walks on stage to a comic’s dream — the audience is primed to laugh, almost desperate to release that communal, emotional energy.

And I haven’t even gotten to the fact yet that most of comedy is in the timing, and all those non-verbal cues that can’t be expressed on paper.  My story above was probably more funny for the look on my face, and the pause before the slightly deadpan semi-punch line, “For 30 minutes.”  On paper you don’t get the pause, unless I add some white space, but white space would also take the attention away from the scene and remind you that you’re reading something on paper.  And even then you’d miss the goofy look on my face.

My favorite comedian is probably George Carlin.  I love his bit on religion, about the invisible man in the sky who has a special place for you full of fire and misery where you’ll scream ceaselessly for all eternity — “but he loves you!”  I can fall out of my chair laughing at that on his HBO special.  Even reading the transcript makes me chuckle now, and I can hear it in his voice, with his well-timed, pious, one-legged bow.

But here’s the transcript of a bit I’m not familiar with — similar topic, but to me just words on a page (don’t watch the YouTube clip at that link until after you read some of the text:

Here is my problem with the ten commandments — why exactly are there 10?

You simply do not need ten. The list of ten commandments was artificially and deliberately inflated to get it up to ten. Here’s what happened:

About 5,000 years ago a bunch of religious and political hustlers got together to try to figure out how to control people and keep them in line. They knew people were basically stupid and would believe anything they were told, so they announced that God had given them some commandments, up on a mountain, when no one was around.

Well let me ask you this — when they were making this shit up, why did they pick 10? Why not 9 or 11? I’ll tell you why — because 10 sound official. Ten sounds important! Ten is the basis for the decimal system, it’s a decade, it’s a psychologically satisfying number (the top ten, the ten most wanted, the ten best dressed). So having ten commandments was really a marketing decision!

Read that to yourself, without doing an internal George Carlin impersonation, and it’s kind of funny — more funny than my anecdote above — but I’m not laughing out loud.  Not even close.

The point here is obvious, and you knew it before you started reading this post:  Being funny on paper is a hell of a lot harder than being funny on stage.  Let alone being funny on stage at a poetry venue that’s primed for laughter.

In fact, being funny on paper might be the hardest thing a poet can ever try to do.

And to make matters worse, poets are tricked into a false sense of their own comedic ability by an always-encouraging audience.

The summer issue of Rattle is going to feature a tribute to humor, and so far this seems to be the most difficult tribute yet.  Three weeks before the deadline we have 14 poems slated to appear, with our target somewhere in the 20s.  I think we’ll make it, but only because of an unprecedented volume of humor-related submissions.  Recent tributes have all been fairly restrictive — you had to be an African American, or a sonneteer, or a rancher, and so on.  This is the first special section we’ve had in years that’s actually open to anybody — any poet in the world can take a shot at being funny.  And thank god for that, because we really need the volume, with such a low success rate.

So how do funny poems actually work?  Well, the same way serious poems work — there’s just, I think, less room for error:

  1. An authentic voice, with a nuanced sense of rhythm and diction, lets a reader hear the “George Carlin” in their head.
  2. Using line breaks to manipulate pacing and provide a sense of timing.
  3. A strong narrative to make the scene engrossing.
  4. Startling images, surprising juxtapositions and turns of phrase — that’s what a punch line really is, and on paper you have to get it perfect.

That’s the problem with humor on the page — every element has to be perfect.  Because, the opposite of what hapepns on stage, the situation is working entirely against the poet.  We read alone, in the comfort of our own chair, with the expectation that the work should be compelling.  There’s no nervous laughter and no echo-chamber to amplify it.  No voice, no timing, no exaggerated facial expressions or pantomimes.

It’s just words on a page, and the poet’s ability to manipulate the way you experience them.  Which makes me really appreciate the poets who manage to consistently pull it off, the Parkers and Collinses of the world.

If you’d like to try your hand at being funny on the page, the deadline for submissions is February 1st.  Go here for more info.

The Democratization of Literature

If you look at the Greek plays, they’re really good. And there’s just a handful of them. Well, how good would they be if there were 2,500 of them? But that’s the future looking back at us. Anything you can think of, there’s going to be millions of them. Just the sheer number of things will devalue them. I don’t care whether it’s art, literature, poetry or drama, whatever. The sheer volume of it will wash it out. I mean, if you had thousands of Greek plays to read, would they be that good? I don’t think so.
–Cormac McCarthy in
The Wall Street Journal

I love people who think this way, furturists who ponder and project, and maybe that’s why I love Cormac McCarthy’s fiction (that and his beautifully bare prose).  The interview is full of this kind of speculation and well-worth a read, but it’s as bleak as you’d imagine from the guy who wrote The Road and Blood Meridian, and I think he’s wrong about the effects of volume on art.  Like most members of an old guard bemoaning change, he fails to see that change as transformed through the lens of the paradigm shift that comes with it.

The same kind of talk abounds about the media, as the old giants slowly die.  I’ve had long talks with a friend of mine who’s worried about the effects of social networking and Wikipedia — if there’s no authority to fact-check, no New York Times or Encyclopedia Britannica, how will future generations ever know what’s true?  My response is always the same: Past generations only thought they knew what was true, which is much more dangerous, much less accurate, than being perpetually skeptical.  When Walter Cronkite tells you it’s true, it’s true, and few bother to dig deeper.  As news itself becomes increasingly independent, where there was once one reporter, “there’s going to be millions of them.”  The truth becomes a collective truth, and a collective is almost impossible to corrupt.  If one report lies, you can fact-check it yourself against a million other reports, and the lie won’t stand for long.  I see the future of news as a combination of Indymedia and Wikipedia — user-generated news, edited continuously, vetted by the users themselves. Maybe that’s already starting with Google Wave, but it’s still too new to really know how it’s going to work.

The democratization of media.  It looks like a big mess now, but so did democracy to the monarchs of Europe.  Let the people rule themselves, with no king to oversee the big picture!?  My god, what chaos!  And there is chaos — but out of that chaos emerges incorruptible order.  The Wisdom of Crowds, the flocking of birds, fuzzy logic, quantum computers.  If there’s a theme to the scientific of the last 30 years, it might be that chaos is a harnessable power.  But the domino of political democracy, and the relative peace and prosperity it brings, has been showing us that for two centuries.

McCarthy’s fears about the future of literature are the same as the loyalists in Europe, or those who worry about the effects of social media.  As with so many things, the paradigm is shifting from an authoritarian model to a democratic model.  No longer will the editors and publisher and critics be the ones telling us what’s good.  With a million novels being published every year, no critic or award committee will ever be able to read them all.  He assumes that, with no ruling agency to tell us what’s worth reading, we’ll all read different books — no one work will be able to reverberate across a culture, because the sheer volume of all those books will turn them into white nose, the whole cancelling out all individual parts. With no unifying literature, the will be no “literature,” just a million people, reading a million different things.

What he fails to see is the power of “we.”  Under the old model of publishing, individual readers can be seen as mostly discrete units — word of mouth is important, but it was always one mouth to one ear, one reader at a time.  It’s easy to see how at that speed of communication, a large volume of information quickly overwhelms the system.  But what he doesn’t see is that we’re no longer one mouth to one ear — we’re one mouth to a million ears, and all those ears have mouths that are talking.  If you watch birds flock or bees swarm or fish in a school, there is no leader, but the groups still move as a group, and get where they need to go.  And they make decisions more quickly and effectively than they would with a single leader and a chain of command, because every individual has the power to temporarily be a leader.

We can already see readers flocking on Rattle.com.  The most popular poems are read by 100 times as many people as the average poem.  And if you read the poems on that list, they’re all good poems — not the best 15 I’d pick out of the thousands we’ve published, but the top 15 we’d pick, and who’s to say my opinion is better than a collective of 40,000 others?  It’s not.

There are often times when I’m at an event and have to pick one poem from Rattle to share — for a long time I just picked one of my favorites, Li-Young Lee’s “Seven Happy Endings,” for example.  Recently, though, I’ve started using one of the collective choices.  My best sales pitch at a book fair is to simply get someone walking by to read Brett Myhren’s “Telemarketer.”  It was always a poem I liked, but I had no idea that it was a poem that would resonate so readily with so many people, until the people themselves told me.  And they were right.

So I’m very optimistic about the democratization of literature.  I want forever more people writing poetry, reading poetry, submitting poetry, posting poetry on their blogs, starting poetry magazines in their living rooms.  It’s going to be messy for sure, and we’ll have to beware the mediocrity of the middle — but I’m convinced that in the end, literature will be more vital for it.  It’s time to topple the ivory tower.