Member Rara Avis
Poetry itself is something specific and definable.
You can, of course, be very specific and define poetry in any way you like -- as long as you don't actually expect others to agree with you. There's a few thousand years of attempts out there, and the best minds of this species have so far failed to produce an all-inclusive definition of poetry. It seems no matter the definition, someone can always find a poem that falls outside the definition.
Cliche doesn't fit in poetry because it is an already existing manipulation of language.
Can you name something that isn't an already-existing manipulation of language?
Creativity's nothing without a message
So close. You see to be standing in an open doorway, where much of what you say indicates you clearly see everything on the other side, and I just can't get you to take that final step to articulate what needs to be said. Would you mind terribly a little shove?
Creativity is the vehicle, but understanding is invariably our destination.
The question then becomes whether creativity is the only vehicle available. Can we get from here to there in any other way? To answer that question, at least in part, let's first return to an earlier question. What is the goal of a metaphor and how does it accomplish that goal?
In 1950, Robert Francis published a poem called Catch that uses a very delightful extended metaphor to give us better insight into metaphors (and all of the many other figures of speech available to the poet).
Two boys uncoached are tossing a poem together,
Overhand, underhand, backhand, sleight of hand, every hand,
Teasing with attitudes, latitudes, interludes, altitudes,
High, make him fly off the ground for it, low, make him stoop,
Make him scoop it up, make him as-almost-as-possible miss it,
Fast, let him sting from it, now, now fool him slowly,
Anything, everything tricky, risky, nonchalant,
Anything under the sun to outwit the prosy,
Over the tree and the long sweet cadence down,
Over his head, make him scramble to pick up the meaning,
And now, like a posy, a pretty one plump in his hands.
Imagine if the two boys were standing three feet apart. Not much fun in that game of catch. Imagine if one of the boys insisted on throwing the ball in a direction opposite the other boy. Not much fun there, either. Playing catch, if we are to enjoy it, can be neither too easy nor too hard. Perhaps even more importantly, Francis reminds us, in his first line, that catch is a participatory endeavor, necessarily involving at least two people. Both of the boys are active, not passive, participants.
A metaphor imparts understanding by guiding us from point A to point B by way of passing through the seemingly unrelated point X. I start at A, with no real clue how to move to B because I have an incomplete understanding of what lies at B. Using Francis's example, I don't really understand figurative imagery in a poem. However, I do understand, from fond memories, the pleasure of a challenging game of catch. That game of catch becomes my point X, an unlikely path that ultimately leads to B and a deeper understanding of what lies at B. My reward for making the trip is that intensely satisfying feel, that gratifying sound the speeding ball makes when it meets the glove, and is strangely similar to way the reader's mind clicks when he gets that "pretty one plump in his hands."
A cliché is typically a figure of speech that no longer requires me to pass through point X. I have gone from A to X to B so many times in the past that I no longer need your guidance and can immediately jump to where you indicate I should go. The path is a revisited journey, one I've made countless times, and will never reveal anything I didn't already understand. Just as importantly, I think, the cliché has robbed me of my sense of participation. I look down and find a ball in my glove, with no memory of that satisfying smack as it hit my glove.
Does that mean there is absolutely no room in great literature for cliché? It depends.
My earlier explanation was simplified, because very rarely are we simply going from A to B. Depending on the poem and the goal, we more frequently are going from A to C or N or even all the way to Z. Some journeys are necessarily more complex than others, but that only slightly changes the nature of the journey, because the promised reward still lies at the terminus, regardless of how far away the terminus lies. Even that's too simplified, of course, because a long journey will require small rewards along the way, all leading toward the final reward, but for our purposes here, those can be largely ignored.
As the writer, I see you standing at point A. I want to get you to C, and I'm going to do so by taking you through X. Can X be a cliché? Absolutely not! If it is, there's really no reason for you to make the trip, and there certainly won't be any satisfaction for either of us when you eventually reach C. My promise of a reward is empty and will never be fulfilled.
Before I can get you to X, however, which we all agree can't be a cliché, I first have to move you from A to point B. Now, if B is a very strange place, I might have to take you through Y to get you there. That can be a dangerous diversion, though, especially since B is so close to our ultimate destination of C. I need to get you to B, but that's not really our goal or the purpose of the poem, and the last thing I want to do is confuse or distract you just before we arrive at C. It's always a judgement call, but sometimes the best way to get you from A to B is with a simple cliché. There's no new understanding offered, there's no reward for making you go from A to B, but I'm just about ready to smash that ball into your glove at C anyway.
Go back, now, and read Francis's poem again, this time paying special attention to line eight. "Anything under the sun" is a cliché. It's a vital cliché at this point in the poem, because the author can't afford to confuse more important images by introducing a brand new way to describe this. He very much wants you to slide from A to B without thinking about it, because C is already speeding towards your outstretched glove. If he used a creative, original image for something obviously NOT pertaining to the real goal of the poem, you would probably miss the ball.
Imagination, creativity, and originality are the spices we add to the meat of a poem, but clearly, too much spice can ruin a meal just as quickly as can too little. If your poem is going from A to G, you probably can't get away with making each of the stops along the way a quick cliché. Your reader will get hungry on an extended journey and you have to feed them along the way. But you can't give them a highly spiced seven-course meal at each stop, either, else they'll have indigestion long before you can get them to the REAL meal awaiting them at G. Where you feed the reader defines the timing and pace of the poem, and will always depend in large part on your goals.
The goal is everything.