Cliche-and-Critique Structure

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:

“The Wants of Man,” by John Quincy Adams

Adams’s poem responds to an idea articulated in Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Hermit.”

“Some blaze the precious beauties of their love…,” by John Davies of Hereford

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.

“A word is dead,” by Emily Dickinson

“Homo Will Not Inherit,” by Mark Doty

Here is some good commentary on Doty’s poem, commentary that, among other things, captures the poem’s turns and transformations.

“Prism,” by Andrea Gibson

“The Fatalist and the Sailorman,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“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.”

“Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), by Javier O. Huerta

“Bright Star,” by John Keats

“What Tiger Said,” by Alvin Lau

“‘Ecosystems are fragile,'” by Vera Leopold

“The Edge is where I want to be,” by Lisa Martinovic

“Thoughts after Ruskin,” by Elma Mitchell

“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).

“[Love],” by Ariana Reines

Fragment 16, by Sappho

“Takeoff,” by Alan Shapiro

Shapiro’s poem critiques the idea of “falling” out of love and replaces it with the idea of rising out of love.  This poem als0 can be read as a reverse emblem or a reverse metaphor-to-meaning poem.

“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.

“We Teach Life, Sir,” by Rafeef Ziadah

Here are some other poems employing this structure:

“Death’s Valley,” by Walt Whitman

And here is the image that inspired Whitman’s critique.

“I Would Like to Describe,” Zbigniew Herbert

“And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name,” by John Ashbery

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:

“Love is not blind,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

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.

“Dulce et Decorum Est,” Wilfred Owen

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.

“They,” by Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon allows the originator of the poem’s initial position (the cliché) the final (terribly ironic) word.

“Because One Is Always Leaving,” by Jason Shinder

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.

“Introduction to Poetry,” by Billy Collins

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.

“The Nightingale,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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).

6 responses

16 07 2010
Bright Star « Structure & Surprise

[…] just added a link to John Keats’s sonnet “Bright Star” to the Cliche-and-Critique Structure page.  A lovely poem–check it […]

3 09 2010
The Quarrelsome Poem « Structure & Surprise

[…] a page on the cliche-and-critique structure on this blog (here) that offers reading supplemental to “The Quarrelsome Poem”; however, the essay in […]

27 08 2011
Add Excitation to Your Recitation: Attend to the Turn « Structure & Surprise

[…] kind of cliche-and-critique poem, Donne’s whole poem is a turn from thinking death is powerful to offer an alternative […]

2 01 2012
“Ecosystems are fragile…” « Structure & Surprise

[…] other things, this strong, scary poem by Vera Leopold is an amazing example of the cliche-and-critique structure, subjecting the opening lines’ platitudes about nature to extreme poetic […]

21 04 2012
Surprised by Syntax: Stanley Fish on the Sentence’s Turns « Structure & Surprise

[…] Interestingly, in his next paragraph Fish mentions Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say, a book I like very much, and a book that I refer to (at one remove: I refer to Graff’s Clueless in Academe, the more theoretical book that clearly gave rise to They Say/I Say) in my essay “The Quarrelsome Poem,” which defines and discusses the cliché-and-critique structure. […]

8 05 2012
Writing a Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem « Structure & Surprise

[…] metaphor-to-meaning poems.  Brittany Gonio’s “My Kind of Poetry” ended up as more of a cliché-and-critique poem.  And I’m frankly not sure what to call Colleen O’Connor’s “Where We Sleep.”  While it […]

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