It is often said that poems should not include cliches. However, certain poems strategically incorporate cliches to make their meanings. Poems employing the cliche-and-critique structure begin with a cliche (or cliches) then turn to critique that cliche.
These poems exemplify this structure:
Adams’s poem responds to an idea articulated in Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Hermit.”
Davies’s poem opens with a critique of those who write blazons (or “blaze”) and then turns to offer his own way to praise his beloved: unlike the blazon’s typically hyperbolic praise, Davies will praise his beloved with almost wordless wonder.
Here is some good commentary on Doty’s poem, commentary that, among other things, captures the poem’s turns and transformations.
“Those Who Cannot Act,” by Jane Hirshfield (in After: Poems (New York: HarperCollins, 2006):9).
“Those Who Cannot Act” critiques Aeschylus’s statement that “[t]hose who act will suffer, / suffer into truth.”
“They spoke to me of people, of humanity…,” by Fernando Pessoa (in the persona of Alberto Caeiro) (in Fernando Pessoa and Co.: Selected Poems, p. 85).
“Sunflower,” by Alan Shapiro (in Tantalus in Love (New York: Mariner Books, 2005): 82-3).
Shapiro’s poem was inspired by Frank Hunter’s photographs of sunflowers. Here is one.
Here are some other poems employing this structure:
And here is the image that inspired Whitman’s critique.
Ashbery’s poem opens with a single line (“You can’t say it that way any more”) warning readers away from cliche and then turns to offer advice about how to avoid such cliches.
And here are a few poems which are variants on this structure:
The cliche in “Love is not blind” begins right before the poem begins–one must hear someone else saying “Love is blind,” thus inviting the retort of the poem’s speaker. The critique of this poem then takes place in two stages: 1) the octave’s critique, that love in fact is not blind, and 2) the sestet’s deepened thinking about the power of the cliche, the speaker acknowledging the “[m]ore subtle…sovereignty of love,” and wondering why men should “prize it so.” For more information on “Love is not blind,” click here.
Owen’s poem is a reversal of the cliche-and-critique structure, opening with the criticism of a cliche which is only revealed toward the poem’s end: the “old lie” that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.
Sassoon allows the originator of the poem’s initial position (the cliché) the final (terribly ironic) word.
Another reversal of the cliche-and-critique structure, Shinder’s poem ends with the cliched images of passing time that the opening image critiques by surpassing.
Yet another reversal of the cliche-and-critique structure: in the final two stanzas, the students provide the cliched response to (not) engaging a poem that the previous stanzas try to coax those the students away from.
Here, the cliche-and-critique structure is embedded in a larger structure. The cliche Coleridge argues against is the notion that the nightingale’s song is melancholy. Coleridge attempts to supplant this widely accepted cliche with, as he says, “‘a different lore.'”
My essay, called “The Quarrelsome Poem,” on the cliche-and-critique structure appears in Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets, edited by Blas Falconer, Beth Martinelli, and Helena Mesa (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).