Two Linen Handkerchiefs
by Jane Hirshfield

How can you have been dead twelve years
and these still

typing prompt

Current Writing Prompt

This month's model poem is the shortest we have ever used as a writing prompt example for our submissions. Not even 17 syllables, it is shorter than a haiku.

"Two Linen Handkerchiefs"
How can you have been dead twelve years
and these still

The poem asks the reader to complete the thought, as poems often do. No ellipsis, no dash, just broken off.

In listening to a short interview with the poet, I discovered this poem and her explanation of how it came to be.
"The poem is broken off in exactly the way a life is broken off, in exactly the way grief breaks off, takes us beyond any possible capacity for words to speak. And yet it also, short as it is, holds all of our bewilderment in the face of death. How is it that these inanimate handkerchiefs — which did belong to my father and are still in a drawer of mine, and which I did accidentally come across — how can they still be so pristinely ironed and clean and existent when the person who chose them and used them and wore them is gone? ... Some poems have a way of, sometimes quite literally, looking out a window. They change their focus of direction, they change their attention. And by doing that, by glancing for a moment at something else, the field of the poem becomes larger."

Hirshfield is a poet I have used multiple times for prompts and she is a poet I have heard read in person multiple times. She seems to be a very gentle and compassionate soul, and that is often clear in her poetry. She is an ordained lay practitioner of Zen. ("I'm [also] a Universal Life minister, but that was just so I could marry some friends," she says, laughing.)

I think compassion, in a way, is one of the most important things poems do for me, and I trust do for other people. They allow us to feel how shared our fates are. If a person reads this poem when they're inside their own most immediate loss, they immediately — I hope — feel themselves accompanied. Someone else has been here. Someone else has felt what I felt. And, you know, we know this in our minds, but that's very different from being accompanied by the words of a poem, which are not ideas but are experiences."

I don't know if all that can be contained in her two-line poem. And we don't expect you to submit poems that are only two lines. Our call for submissions for the October issue is for poems about things "broken off." You poem might be about a relationship broken off. Maybe your poem will break off at some appropriate point, as Jane's poem does. Maybe it is about an actual object that has a part broken off, or more figuratively, a person with something broken off. What do those two words mean to you?


The deadline for submissions for the next issue is
September 30, 2023
Please refer to our submission guidelines and look at our archive of more than two decades of prompts and poems, and our blog for much more about the prompts and poetry.