POETRY BREAK | Mississippi Poet Laureate Catherine Pierce

Poetry Break
Catherine Pierce
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Don’t trash that cliché; build poetry that transforms it

A few weeks ago I was on the phone with a friend who’d recovered from a nasty stomach bug. “I was sick as a dog,” he said. As he spoke, I looked at my own dog, lounging on the couch in a patch of sun, contented and lazy, looking not at all like a creature dealing with any difficulties whatsoever.

I knew what my friend meant, of course, when he used that expression to describe what he’d been feeling, just as I know what it means when my husband tells me he accidentally let the cat out of the bag, or when my sister tells me she’d rather not burn that bridge, or when my neighbor tells me about the customer who jumped down her throat this morning. But as I watched my dog yawn and stretch, I was struck, not for the first time, by how inaccurate and sometimes just plain confusing so many of our commonly used expressions really are.

One bit of advice writers often get is to avoid clichés. I agree with this advice, and give it often to my students. Clichés, those very familiar phrases or expressions we toss around without much thought, tend to make writing less interesting and less precise. Yet one thing I love about poetry is that its rules were made to be broken (See? A cliché!). If you can find a fresh and exciting way to do something in a poem, then give it a try, no matter what the rules are.

This Month’s Poetry Break: Building on Cliché

First, choose a common expression that strikes you as interesting: don’t count your chickens before they hatch, a rolling stone gathers no moss, it’s raining cats and dogs, look before you leap…the possibilities are numerous (and if you’re stuck, a quick Google search for “common expressions” or “common idioms” will turn up a bunch).

Now, instead of writing away from cliché, try writing toward it. What happens when you really dive into whatever silly expression you’ve chosen? What if you keep it going, add to it, push it further, or even reverse it? What if you follow it where it leads you? This experiment might turn out comic or serious, straightforward or utterly absurd—and whatever you make it, great! The idea is to take something familiar and make it new. Let your poem’s title include the expression. You might write one longer poem or try your hand at a series of short ones. Most importantly, have fun with this. This exercise is about play and exploration—which any poet will tell you are some of the most important elements of writing.

Example 1:

I Burned That Bridge
As in, I bought some lighter fluid,
doused the support beams, tossed the match.
I watched the whole thing
go up in flames.

Example 2:

She and Her Sister Are Like Two Peas in a Pod
Cramped together always
into a small, airless space.
Assumed to be identical,
Longing, each night, to be alone
in a softer, endless dark,
stretching roots deep
into the rich soil. 

See what you can discover when you take the time to examine a familiar expression. Where will it lead you? What will you make? Enjoy the exploration. Write your life. 

Catherine Pierce is the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and the author of four books of poems, most recently Danger Days. She co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. 


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