One of the strategies I use during the August Poetry Postcard Fest is to write out favorite poems of about that length by other poets. Despite having read and loved short forms — such as Haiku and Tanka — for many years, I still find it amazing that someone can pack so much into only a dozen or so lines.
So here is a poem from Sharon Olds, from her 1983 book, The Dead and the Living:
The Winter After Your Death
(for Katie Sheldon Brennan)
The long bands of mellow light
across the snow
The sun closes her gold fan
and nothing is left but black and white —
the quick steam of my breath, the dead
accurate shapes of the weeds, still, as if
pressed in an album.
Deep in my body my green heart
turns, and thinks of you. Deep in the
pond, under the thick trap
door of ice, the water moves,
the carp hangs like a sun, its scarlet
heart visible in its side.
Sonnet length, but with shorter, irregular lines, this poem accomplishes a great deal. We might notice the sounds of the opening lines, long bands of mellow light, where the n’s get us started and then the l’s fall into place. The o sounds of mellow, snow, narrow, and slowly, and then closes in the next sentence, raise a kind of expectation that sound is important here. If the lines are setting a visual scene, there is also a kind of hush created by these sounds.
If we abstract the moves this poem makes, we’ll notice that the first sentence draws simply and naturally from what is present, a description. It’s a move any one of us can make, just by looking up from the page. Just by looking. (In my writing cabin — a lamp, a ceramic bird with a candle in its belly, cracked coffee cups full of old pens.)
The next sentence shifts into metaphor. The sun is a person, a woman with a gold fan, which she closes now, and then the woman behind the poem is present too, the quick steam of my breath. We get another image, this time a simile, the weeds as if pressed in an album.
And then the images are repeated. Heart is introduced with the poet’s (or persona’s — the supposed person’s) green heart, and the carp’s heart. The sun (and notice how its gold chimes with the other colors in the poem, especially of the carp itself).
If we go back to the title, we can notice how much work it does, as well — “The Winter After Your Death” is a kind of idea or engine behind the poem, but it never has to be stated within the poem, because it’s in the title, expository, not quite necessary to the poem’s effect, but ancillary to it. What I love about this poem, finally, is how it paints a vivid image, like a postcard, and hangs on in my mind’s eye.