Sara M. Robinson
In previous columns, I have mentioned the use of clichés and how we should avoid them, at all costs. Or use them at our peril. The same thing could be said of “idioms.” And what are they exactly? Here is a standard definition, according to Webster: (1) the language or dialect of a people, region, class, etc. (2) the usual way in which the words of a language are joined together to express thought (3) An accepted phrase, construction, or expression contrary to the usual patterns of the language or having a meaning different from the literal.
Does that clear it up for us? Well, we need examples. And here are some: “don’t cry over spilled milk”; “that’s a wrap”; “break a leg”; “think outside the box.” I’m sure you can come up with others. Cliches start out as idioms and then become overused. Here’s a recent idiom that drives me nuts: “kick the can down the road.” Often idioms have been used to colorfully illustrate an ordinary action. An example: “Spill the beans,” to mean reveal a secret.
So, why am I talking about this in the context of writing poetry? It’s because I want to save you from using idioms! In your quest for unique poetic language, I want you to stay true to your creative use of words. Please do not use: “Barking up the wrong tree,” in a poetic line when you are describing your grandfather’s favorite coon hound calling out about the treed raccoon, and the furry thing is in another tree.
Try this instead: “My grandfather called and whistled for Sheldon his hound, going deeper into the woods / Sheldon, now fifteen, still had the heart for the chase/ But no longer had the sight or sound for the quarry. // Grandfather didn’t mind as Sheldon was still his favorite and would be until he died. / Which happened that same night and again at the base of the wrong tree.”
We don’t need idioms to help us write imaginative and impactive poetry. Why can’t we simply and with great talent say: My dreams are calling me to give in to sleep and come to the softness of a treasured quilt. Isn’t that much better than “hit the hay”?
Keep looking for new and better ways to express yourself.
Until next time…
Sara M. Robinson, founder of the Lonesome Mountain Pro(s)e Writers’ Workshop, and former Instructor of a course on Contemporary American Poets at UVA-OLLI, was poetry columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and inagural poetry editor for Virginia Literary Journal. She has served as guest lecturer at UVA’s College at Wise, Wise, VA. Her poetry has appeared in various anthologies, including We Grew Wings and Flew (2014), Scratching Against the Fabric (2015), Virginia Writer’s Club Centennial Anthology (2017), Blue Ridge Anthologies and Mizmor Anthology (2018). Journals include: Loch Raven Review, The Virginia Literary Journal, vox poetica, Jimson Weed, Whisky Advocate, and Poetica. She is poet and author of Love Always, Hobby and Jessie (2009), Two Little Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013 Stones for Words (2014), Sometimes the Little Town (2016), a finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2017 Book Award. In 2019, Needville, her poetry about effects of coal mining on SW Virginia was released and in 2020 debuted as play in Charlottesville. Her most recent publication is Simple River (2020, Cyberwit).