The power of William Beyer‘s poem “The Trap” comes as much from what he doesn’t put on the page as from what he does. He uses wonderfully evocative language to describe a fox escaped from the old man’s trap:
“. . . He must have ripped his foot
From the cold steel.
I saw him early this morning,
Dragging his hurt leg,
Bleeding a path across the gold wheat,
Whining with the pain;
His eyes like cracked marbles.”
More than that, it’s a story of a man who does what he must to protect his livestock, but doesn’t much like it.
Thinking something grave for a long moment,
He stared out of the bright window.
“He won’t last long with that leg,” he said.
The old man turned his head
To see if his wife was listening. . .
. . .”Guess I’ll ride into the back field, first thing.
Some mighty big corn back there this year.
Mighty big corn.”
It’s also a story of a long marriage and the understanding that comes of it.
His wife looked up from her work,
Smiled almost secretly to herself,
And finished packing the ripe berries
Into the pale crust.
She knows her husband’s trip to the back field has nothing to do with the corn, and everything to do with him hoping to end the fox’s suffering, but none of that is stated explicitly.
This poem is a great example of what can be accomplished through inference. A writer has to be careful, though, that the implication is clear. The more abstract the words, the greater the risk the reader won’t see what the writer intended. The writer’s eternal challenge is to get what’s in her head down on the page, but how that’s done is quite variable.
Sometimes it’s a question of genre. In writing, my inclination is to be terse, to imply the emotions as Beyer does here, but over the years I’ve learned that in romance I’ve got to be more explicit in my descriptions. Too much subtlety isn’t rewarded.
That’s why this poem is so interesting. It shows how you can say something clearly without saying it at all.