Often the story of a poem is focused on a moment in time or an image that sparks a memory and a set of feelings that the speaker of the poem releases and resolves in the space of the poem. Or tone of voice and the monologue of the speaker tells the story.
And the fact that I only realized that a poem needs to tell a story came crashing down on me the other day. I suddenly realized why some of my poems work and some do not. The ones I'm struggling with drift and meander without telling a full story. Oh, there are some images perhaps or an interesting observation here and there but that's not enough.
An example here will probably help. Here's a short poem that illustrates the idea.
And while there is no smoke or smell of soot
the leaves still drop like cinders
and make the grass beneath the trees
The wind cannot squelch the flames, nor can the rain.
Instead they only fan the fire, igniting entire groves.
And once the flames die out,
a gray-brown ash descends
on the skeletal remains.
The trees now chatter in the wind speaking in code
waiting like giant hands
to catch whatever they can.
I wrote the poem when I saw some very vibrant colors on some maple trees one autumn. The red and oranges of the leaves made the trees appear to be on fire so I decided to use that as a metaphor and extend the metaphor in the second stanza but treating the brown leaves that fall to the ground as cinders from the fire and by imagining that the wind spreads the color change -- the fire -- somehow.
But notice that the story starts with the trees on fire and concludes when the fire is out and the trees are bare. The third stanza is necessary to complete the story because without it all you have is an image of trees with bright leaves. Big deal. It leaves questions: what happened to the trees? And the leaves?
The poem doesn't focus on the leaves after they have lost their leaves but clearly there has been a shift in time from the second to third stanza and that passage of time help to tell the reader that fire is over and now bare trees chatter in the wind as their branches collide.
I have other examples of poems telling stories but they are long and not easily provided for a blog post, so I encourage any poets out there to go read the poetry of Wordsworth, Keats, Browning, Shakespeare, and others and see how the masters tell stories with their poems.