Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Museum of Cliches

Recently I read through this article that targets what it considers are "cliches that should be banned from use,"
and it reminded me of a handout I made for the English classes I precepted, based on an Annie Dillard quote we read from an essay by Alexander Chee, "Annie Dillard and the Writing Life." He talked about his days as her non ficiton writing student, and listed off many of her concrete rules for strengthening language.

One of my favorites that I haunted my students with throughout the semester, was that one should avoid "the museum of clichés in [the] unconscious." I created a corresponding handout to this effect, affectionately called "The Museum of Cliches." With the Professor Elizabeth's blessing I handed them a triple-columned page, listing as many cliches as I could think of. Elizabeth has used this list in other classes since then, and plans to use it in classes to come. Because the above link only provided 12 phrases, and with an arguable level of overuse, here is the museum I paired together for my students.

The Museum of Clichés
“She is not angry, she threw her clothes out the window. Remember this.”
~Anne Dillard
Think you should word something more creatively?
If you can find your phrase here (and maybe if you can’t), the answer is yes!

A bone to pick
A glimmer of hope
A twinkle in her eye
Ace up her sleeve
Actions speak louder than words
Against the grain
All bets are off
All boils down to
All in a day’s work
All walks of life
An oldie but a goodie
Are a big part of my life
As (fast, loud, etc) as she could
As all get out
As luck would have it
As the day is long
At the end of the day
At the last minute
At the top of her voice
Back against the wall
Bark worse than her bite
Beat around the bush
Been there, done that
Beggars can’t be choosers
Behind her back
Behind the times
Being all ears
Bend over backwards
Bent out of shape
Better safe than sorry
Better than ever
Bite the bullet
Blew a gasket
Bored to tears
Bright and early
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed
Buck/Butt naked
Bump on a log
Bust your chops
Busy as a bee
Buy into
Call it a day
Call the shots
Chewed her out
Chomping at the bit
Clean your clock
Close call
Cool as a cucumber
Costs an arm and a leg
Couch potato
Cute as a button
Dealt a fatal blow
Dig yourself a hole
Dirt cheap
Down on your luck
Drawing a blank
Driving me crazy/up a wall
Easy as pie/taking candy from a baby
Even the odds
Everyday life
Fancy meeting you here
Forever and a day
Get worked up
Give a hoot/damn/crap
Give and Take
Glass half full/empty
Grasping at straws
Guns blazing
Had it up to here
Hang on every word
Hard to swallow
Have high hopes
Have made me who I am today
Have two left feet
Having a short fuse
Hell to pay/freezes over
Hit the hay/road/sack/deck
Hold/bite your tongue
Hook, Line, and Sinker
In the nick of time
In this day and age
In today’s society
Just in time
Just the tip of the iceberg
Keep on ticking
Kick the bucket
Last but not least
Let’s face it
Light as a feather
Like a knife through butter
Like Romeo and Juliet
Like there’s no tomorrow
Lose steam
Lost her marbles
Made her skin crawl
Made my blood boil
Memory like a goldfish
Memory like an elephant
Most people…
Necessary evil
Never a dull moment
No pain, no gain
No place like home
No time like the present
Not exactly rocket science
Now and again
Now and then
On tender hooks
On/In the same page/boat
One hundred and ten percent
One in a million
Push comes to shove
Push your buttons
Put your best foot forward
Raining cats and dogs
Read between the lines
Rhyme or reason
Rubbed me the wrong way
Seeing eye to eye
Since sliced bread
Slow as molasses
Stop on a dime
Stuck out like a sore thumb
Swallowed her pride
Tail between his legs
Take by storm
Take its toll
Tears of joy
The big cheese
The calm before the storm
The fact of the matter
Through thick and thin
Throw a curve ball
Tickles your fancy
To be fair/honest
Twenty four/seven
Twist of fate
Two-way street
Ugly as sin
Until the Bitter end
Until the cows come home
Wake-up call
What on earth
Whole nine yards
Wig out
Winds of change
With all of her heart
Work like a dog
World of trouble/hurt
Worry wart
You snooze, you lose
Young and foolish

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Writers for Writers: Wes McNair's Rules for Poetry Line Breaks

Recently crowned with the title of Maine's Poet Laureate (What some argue is the only good decision made by governor Lepage), and who is also the founder of UMaine Farmington's BFA creative writing program, Wes Mcnair often meets with UMF students in his retired years in a workshop or one-shot lecture format to offer his sage advice.
This semester, Wes visited to discuss his new thinking, among other things, about why and how to select one's poetic line breaks. He eluded to having a longer list, but please enjoy the ten thoughts he shared with us.
For more about Wes McNair, see:

Rules for Line Breaking
1. Break to suggest central action and its unfolding, to create anticipation
Let words stick out of your lines that connect to the poem's heart. Also, let the lines create tension, as professor Jeff Thompson would put it. Make the reader chase you to the next line to find out what fell, or who chased her, or whatever have you.
2. Break for interplay between line and sentence; This is free verse's rhyme & meter equivalent
In other words, as Wes was once advised: The line is Buddha, the sentence is Socrates 
Buddha is content to be were he is, as he is, the way a line, on its own, its simple, perhaps pretty or cryptic, but calm. Socrates is always asking, wanting, and hungry. You follow the entire sentence line to line to find out what, who, or why, jumping from Buddha to Buddha until your questions are answered. When line breaking, be aware of how you answer Socrates's questions effectively, but also create graceful pauses in your lines, to enjoy the moment.  
3. To create a graph of feeling
Playing with jagged margins, or waves, or open space to illustrate a reflection of the poem's feeling. Using shorter lines for riddles and unknowns also plays with what isn't said.
4. Break to emphasize related sounds
Is there a song to your poem? Find the music. See if there is a sense of metronome, or words you can link together at the poem's pauses to create a resonance. This can be done with or without rhyme.  
5. The word at the end of the line is most important.
Use Nouns, verbs, and their describers. All sentences have and, the, or but. They are less important, only connectors. End on the words that need to stand out of the poem, let them linger with the reader on the end of the line before they continue through your poem, or follow them through their day after they put your poem down.
6. Break to show the stresses of meditation
Listen to people around you as they speak. It was Wes Mcnair's observation that people speak in line breaks as well as can write in them. People pause for thought, for continued meditation, at places in their sentences that are their own, and make their voice. He advises to play with this in our poetry.
7. When breaking, be aware of stanza form: Do you use regular, or irregular stanzas?
You'd better know, and have done it on purpose.
8. "Let me learn the rules so I can break them"
In the days of rhyme and meter, rhythm would be broken in choice places in order to bring attention to a message. This rule was not abandoned in the days of free verse. Create a theme, pattern, or message, and then obscure it. Play with capital letters or punctuation at the end of lines in a way that brings focus to a contrary feeling or ironic concept.  
9. Find the second story
It isn't really a secret of the trade that poems about waltzes, or red wheelbarrows, or horses at night, rarely stop at just creating those everyday images. There is always a "second story," or rather, a reason for why the initial object was worth writing about, a discovery that is made along the way.   

Additionally, putting this much though into how one writes their poetry makes you a stronger reader. You will pay more attention to these choices as they are made by other poets, and take this play into consideration when you absorb their work.