Thursday, May 17, 2007

The war on cliche-cliche

Here is the opening of Christopher Ricks's essay on "Cliche" in State of the Language (1980), a fat volume with many surprising authors (Enoch Powell! Angela Carter! Randolph Quirk! Something for everyone!) that I bought purely for the pleasure of this quote:

The only way to speak of a cliche is with a cliche. So even the best writers against cliches are awkwardly placed. When Eric Partridge amassed his Dictionary of Cliches in 1940 (1978 saw its fifth edition), his introduction had no choice but to use the usual cliches for cliches. Yet what, as a metaphor, could be more hackneyed than hackneyed, more outworn than outworn, more tattered than tattered? Is there any point left to - or in or on - saying of a cliche that its "original point has been blunted"? Hasn't this too become blunted? A cliche is "a phrase 'on tap' as it were" - but, as it is, is Partridge's "as it were" anything more than a cool pretence that when, for his purposes, he uses the cliche on tap it's oh so different from the usual bad habit of having those two words on tap? His indictment of "fly-blown phrases" has no buzz of insect wings, no weight of carrion.

Even George Orwell (whom William Empson, with an audacious compacting of cliches, called the eagle eye with the flat feet) - even Orwell had to use the cliche-cliches (hackneyed, outworn), and could say, "There is a long list of fly-blown metaphors which could be similarly got rid of if people would interest themselves in the job," without apparently being interested himself in whether fly-blown wasn't itself one of those metaphors which could be got rid of.

Ricks goes on to argue that writers can make intelligent, meaning-reviving use of cliche, quoting examples from Geoffrey Hill and, inevitably, Bob Dylan. "Cliches invite you not to think - but you may always decline the invitation, and what could better invite a thinking man to think?" I can't think of a better invitation, if you regularly wax sarcastic about writing, to think harder about the terms you use to do it.

[State of the Language, edited by Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks, California, 1980. You want this one, not the disappointing Faber-published sequel dated 1990. I bought my copy from the revived Skoob, now buried under the Brunswick Centre. Presumably a more prominent space would detract from the parade of expensive chain stores that make good, in a bad way, on the centre's claim to be "a high street for Bloomsbury". No matter: the basement shop has a decent amount of space, the lighting's good enough that you don't much miss the windows, the range of books is as wonderful as ever and there's now an official Skoob Glob. And they have a second copy of State of the Language (1980), if you're interested...]

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