Show, Don’t Tell, Concerning “Cancer”

I offer this poem, “Cancer,”  as a contrast to the poem from the first lecture, “I Have Dreamed a Hundred Whispers.” In my mid-thirties, I did what many people do. As I became a parent, I returned to the memories of my own parents to figure out who I was and what I had experienced. This poem is part of a series called “My Mother, My Father, My Wife, My Son.” To my mind, this poem is infinitely better than the poem from high school.

I wrote this poems in circumstances similar to this class. Several poet friends and I met on Saturday mornings to help each other write better poems. On this morning, one of the poets read a poem by Pablo Neruda, I think. Then following the example of the poem, he gave us the assignment: “write a poem shocking or bold first line.” This is always good advice. For me, this poem is also a memory of a photograph of my mother on her last Christmas. She died less than a month later. So while my friends worked on their poem with their strong first lines, I worked on mine. I wrote most of it in the twenty or thirty minutes allotted to writing; then we read what we wrote to each other and offered support and advice. I don’t remember how much I edited the poem afterward, but I know I did edit it. I pushed it toward the sonnet form (ten beats a line and fourteen lines) without making it adhere at all strictly to the form (some lines too long, some too short, and only thirteen lines). Over the years, I have played with the form fairly often. The sonnet is a special form. The lines are long enough to get some momentum and bulk, and the number of lines makes it a good sizeable paragraph. You can say a lot in a sonnet, but not too much: it is only one paragraph (stanza). I took out a description of the carpet. I had repeated the word “dull.” I took it out of one place and left it in the line with the words “small,” “pale,” “fall,” and “petals.” Now I notice that I repeat “small” later on. And I repeat “waits.” Should I change one of them?

The ending comes from thinking about some neighbors I know my mother enjoyed. The man was a hunter, and during dove season, he would invite us over for barbecues. I think it was the fact that dove season is fall/winter. This, of course, is the season of death. And the dove is the symbol of the holy ghost, or spirit, that leaves the body upon death.

So why is this a better poem? First, it is about my mother, not about me. Although in many poems I write a great deal about MY feelings and MY self, I think it is true that poets write better when focused outside of themselves, even if the poet is serving as a kind of lens that the reader sees through. For instance, love poetry is better, as a general rule, when it is about the beloved, rather than about the poet. Write about the beloved’s hands, not your heart.

This is a golden rule of contemporary writing: SHOW; DON’T TELL. The idea is to allow the reader to see the reality and then feel the feelings. Don’t tell the reader the feelings. We must trust the details, the images, to provoke a feeling in the reader. We must search for and seize the detail that speaks to the reader. The truth in this poem is in wheelchair, the skinny tree, the old housecoat, the hair, the ornament, the dove, the footsteps.

Still this poem breaks a second golden rule: WRITE WITH ACTION VERBS. I use the linking verb (non-action) “is” a good deal for my mother, and the weak action verb “waiting.” But I would defend that choice (am I correct in doing so) because she is inactive, she barely “is” at this point. I think that the relative inaction supports the theme of just waiting for death to come. The mood is heavy and still. It was a horrible Christmas.

Lecture Assignment: Write a poem based on a photograph. Don’t say you are looking at a photograph. Pull the details out of the photograph and put them into the poem. Make up other details that seem to help with the overall effect.

Alternate Assignment: Begin a poem with a startling first line image. Then just follow along with the implications of that line.

Alternate Assignment: Write a sonnet, but don’t rhyme. The lines should be about ten beats (iambic pentameter) and there should be about fourteen lines. If you wish, follow the Italian model and break the sonnet after the first eight lines, which detail a problem of some kind. Then resolve the problem in the last six lines.

From Text and Commentary, Mandala Publications, 1993.