In these islands, our daily speech groans under the weight of proverbs and quotations. We’re laden with idioms, sayings and epigrams so well-worn as to be part of our daily language – ancient proverbs from the Bible, lines from Shakespeare, memes from Facebook. The best ones chew over the wisdom of the ages and spit it out as a memorable nugget of useful advice.
Pick one and run with it. If you can’t think of any right now, start listening out for them – they bubble up everywhere. Once bitten, twice shy. Be careful what you wish for. A fool and his money are soon parted. Many hands make light work. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. If you get stuck, look here or here – or travel further to borrow the sayings of another culture. Even if we don’t know the proverb we might be able to deduce it from the poem.
If you don’t fancy the proverbial, then start from a famous quotation - Burke’s ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ or the Dalai Lama’s ‘Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.’ Remember or invent a story to illustrate it in practice.
Don’t rely too heavily on the phrase itself. It is the spark for your piece, not the punchline. You needn’t include the saying at all; it could be the title, or an epigraph. Take liberties with it – this is a great exercise in trusting your reader, who knows the language just as well as you do. Don’t labour the point. You might even go off on a flight of fancy – the gift horse speaks to complain of people always looking in its mouth, the tired sage mashes up all the proverbs into one.
Many of our time-worn idioms come from Shakespeare, the Bible or poetic sources, and it can be tempting to follow them into a sing-song rhyme or ballad style. Try to resist that – use the proverb as the grit in your oyster shell, and make the pearl your own way. If you do include the phrase in the poem, try to avoid making it the last line. By their nature, proverbs are punchy. They can sound like a gong announcing the moral of the story, or the homespun moral at the end of Little House on the Prairie.
And we wouldn’t want that.