W.S. Merwin's lovely, understated poem (read it here) has lessons for everyone, even copywriters.
1. Set up the feeling immediately.
Many great ads, as well as marketing copywriting, rely on emotion. Merwin's poem demonstrates the effect of setting that emotional stage immediately so that the feeling pervades the entire piece. At the end of the first line we're already in it: sadness and nostalgia and loss. "Now there is no one alive" opens a wasteland of grief.
While grief is probably not our emotion of choice for marketing and advertising, the concept's the same. Proctor & Gamble set up the feeling immediately in their best "Thank You, Mom" commercials, opening on a note of tenderness with the first few images and notes of background music. Both the voice itself and the script set the stage immediately in this surprisingly touching Walmart commercial: "When I was born, the doctors said…"
Harley Davidson did it differently in this print ad:
2. It's all relative.
We don't need to know how old the poem's speaker is to understand how long ago he first saw the tree. "Most of my life ago" is a sweetly clever way to demonstrate the period of time in question without resorting to clichéd phrasing such as "when I was a boy" or an awkward and unfitting numeral. It's also a gorgeous turn of phrase, with a nice rhythm and both alliteration and assonance.
3. Show, don't tell: use evocative words rather than naming that which you're discussing.
The speaker of the poem never says he's sad; the words "death" and "grief" don't appear in the poem. Yet the feeling and the subject matter are tangible. Instead of coming right out and saying it, Merwin instead sprinkles in other words that evoke his meaning. For example:
- "dry grass" implies "dead grass"
- "your shade," the double meaning of which conveys "your ghost" as well as "your shadow"
In addition to clearly conveying a general emotion, these words serve to connect the
reader with his or her own specific memories or feelings.
4. Leave off the last line.
This is a hard lesson to learn, but it can make good writing great. It's hard to learn to trust yourself, and the reader, enough to stop bludgeoning the reader over the head with your point. Let it be divined.
Merwin doesn't say, "and now you're gone and I'll never see anything the same way again."* He doesn't have to. The use of past tense, especially in the last line, drives it home, but we know from the title of the poem that the tree is dead or gone—an elegy is a funeral song or poem written for the dead.
A lot of great ad writers know this trick, like this one from Adobe, but it's equally important whether you're writing the next Clio winner or copy for a grocery mailer. Telling people they should "buy now" is never as effective as making them think it themselves.