Wednesday, July 14, 2010

show don't tell

Howdy gang, in my last blog I talked about ‘abstracts’ being ‘tell’ not ‘show’, let me talk about showing not telling. It’s likely a cliché to say show don’t tell, but maybe we all need to be reminded of it. If someone came into the room and said, “There’s a dinosaur outside,” maybe we’d believe them, maybe not, but if we looked out the window and saw a dinosaur, we’d believe. It’s better to show because it makes the reader experience the image, immediately, which in poetry is what you want.

The place where most people tell not show is when dealing with emotions (back to the abstracts). Saying, “I loved the sunset.” is telling but, “the afterglow of the sun kissed the clouds” is showing. The idea is to use an image to show the emotion that allows the reader to also experience the emotion.

Showing invites understanding, telling communicates facts. There may be times you want to just give facts, an essay, a political advertisement, but in poetry, keep those few, and only to the trivial. The main idea of the poem, the overall metaphor must be showed. In the idea that poetry is supposed to be terse, look closely at those trivial facts. Are they necessary to the poem? Likely not. Trust the reader to understand the trivia. Ex: I don’t need to explain I’m looking in a pet store, if I show my attachment to a kitten inside the glass.

Also, don’t show by using adjectives. If you must use an adjective, make it fresh. Ex: Dylan Thomas didn’t say, “slumbering, sleepy, silent, motionless horses.” He said, “the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields.” He called the horses statues to indicate they weren’t moving, and his adjective, ‘anthracite’ indicated how silent, how dark, how glossy, how full of energy. Wasn’t his description better? Adjective tend to close off the image, where fresh language and active verbs tend to open it up.

Show by your choice of details. It helps to show by using more than one sense. Ex: “He stunk, he mumbled and one wheel on his shopping cart wobbled.” I invoked three senses, but I still told. Well, maybe the shopping part was showing, but it could be shown fresher.

The problem with showing not telling is that many times, showing becomes wordier. Poetry does not want wordier. I never said writing poetry wasn’t work. It is work and hard work. The work in this case comes from showing and not letting it become wordier. Let’s see if I can do this. “The cart yanked the rotten-eggs odor left and the man murmured, ‘aliens control me.’” Close, one extra word, but I hope the image is clearer.

When I said ‘political advertisement’ earlier, don’t get the idea, you can’t write political poetry. Please do. I don’t think we have enough political poets. Think of the South American poets. They represented the people against repressive governments, that’s why most were evicted from their countries. An American political poet I respect the most is Adrienne Rich. Find and read some of her poems. She shows her feelings on her subjects. She doesn’t tell us what those feelings are.

If when you write poetry, if you think ‘concrete images’ you will naturally show not tell. The work comes from the effort to make the image fresh. Telling allows the reader to say, ‘so what.’ Showing them may enlighten them.

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