On Clichés and Kennings

Writers are often told to avoid clichés or risk the work being criticized as banal. There is a lot of truth to that sentiment. But we must remember that clichés are more than just rehashed creativity. Clichés carry with them entire universes of associated knowledge. Old Norse had a word for this called kennings. Kennings, like clichés, originate from a figure of speech. For example, terms like “the whale’s road” are used in place of “the sea” in their poetry. It was not considered unoriginal or in bad taste to use kennings, in fact, Norse poets tried to find ways to fit as many kennings in a poem as possible. Before humans invented writing, all of our stories, our ‘literature’, was oral.

Oral poets like the Norse understood they had to convey a lot of meaning in the most effective terms so that their culture could survive future generations. After writing took the stage, oral tradition faded out in Western tradition, but the same techniques of story telling remained. This is why epic poems, like Beowulf, are sometimes criticized as being too repetitive. This repetition was leftover from our oral roots and served three major functions: convey large amounts of associated information in a single word or phrase, increase comprehension, and promote memorability.

These are the same reasons why pop songs are criticized for being superficial or lacking creativity and art. Using clichés at a rate of almost one per line, piecing together worlds of associated thought, telling a coherent story that says what the songwriter wants it to say (in other words using the clichés and not letting the cliché use them), and expressing a new experience, is the art of the pop song. Think about all the memories, emotions, and physical reactions that a song can take us through in a mere matter of minutes. Clichés are cliché because they have been so often used that they are part of our art consciousness and therefore their meanings or phrasings can be used to add underlying richness to a piece of writing if done tastefully and subtly.

Anyway, I don’t want to talk your ear off (cliché) so I’ll leave you with a single stanza poem I wrote exploring a couple clichés in my own way. Enjoy!

Red Sky’d Night

We met amongst a red sky’d night
—Two ships close passed by night—
Where’pon our billowed sails recalled
The nature of two sailor’s fall;
Two ships, two ships, meet in flight;
Drop anchor! shipmates love tonight!






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