I have always loved John Ashbery’s way with a cliché—especially a slightly seedy one or one that has sneakily entered into universal use. Where others might say “you’re right,” he would come out with “you’re not just whistling Dixie.” If someone ordered red wine with fish, he would say “Have you lost your marbles?”
Ashbery incorporated idiomatic phrases in his poems—sometimes with invisible quote marks around them. After he published his late collection, Quick Question, I began hearing the title phrase everywhere—in conversation, on the subject line of emails, in group discussions.
There’s a difference between a cliché you can turn into poetic gold and a word or phrase that overuse has killed. We have witnessed the death of “iconic,” which is ironic, because we had previously buried “ironic” and before that “iconoclastic.” I find that in reading prose I can’t get past a sentence with “iconic” or “marginal” or a dozen other overused adjectives. On the other hand, I adore “it’s all good,” which you say only when things don’t look all that good, and “it is what it is,” a perfect translation of Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose.”
For next time, I propose taking “Long Story Short”—shorthand for “to make a long story short”—and doing something interesting with it. You may use it as a title, or as a recurring phrase, or break it up and write a poem that includes the words “long,” “story,” and “short.” Efforts of extreme terseness on the order of Hemingway’s six-word masterpiece (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”) are welcome, but there must be other ways to make use of the phrase. Think of what Ring Lardner might do with it.
If this cliché doesn’t float your boat, there must be other once and former idioms that will serve you well at the end of the day. For example, “I could be wrong, of course, but”—which I used twice last week. Does anyone believe you’re sincere when you say “I could be wrong, but …”? Say, come to think of it, we could create a collaborative poem if each of us wrote a six-line stanza concluding with “but I could be wrong.”
Well, there you have it. Two options. Just remember that, in this medium, brevity is the soul of wisdom as well as wit.
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