Sometimes, I read a poem that is everything I want a poem to be. The poem below, by Philip Larkin, is just such a poem:
An April Sunday brings the snow, Making the blossom on the plum trees green, Not white. An hour or two, and it will go. Strange that I spend that hour moving between Cupboard and cupboard, shifting the store Of jam you made of fruit from these same trees: Five loads—a hundred pounds or more— More than enough for all next summer’s teas, Which now you will not sit and eat. Behind the glass, under the cellophane, Remains your final summer—sweet And meaningless, and not to come again.
There are many things I love about this poem. There is a simplicity and immediacy to the imagery, yet it carries such deep feeling. The events happen as seasons are changing, hinting at the transition in the poet’s life. The snow fades quickly (like our lives); he spends that time rearranging jams made by his wife (presumably) who, like the snow, has passed. “Behind the glass, under the cellophane” evokes his feeling of separation, while describing her final summer as “sweet / And meaningless” brings home the grief underlying the whole poem.
One reason this poem is so effective is because of the way Larkin tells the story. The key to the whole poem—his wife’s death—is held to the end. It seems he’s telling a rather mundane story about moving jam as winter is changing to spring. When he reveals that the jam was made by his late wife, the meaning rushes through all the preceding imagery. It’s like wind hitting a waiting sail. The gust of surprise carries the reader right into Larkin’s emotional current.
Best of all, the poem is short—twelve lines, three stanzas. Rather than exhaust us with a tragic saga, Larkin leaves lots of energy to feel with him. To me, the best poems distill beauty into a delicious concentrate…like the juice you might use to make jam 😉