“Show Don’t Tell” —Writers Workshop mantra
We nearly always assume showing, or impressionism, is bound to produce finer poetry than telling.
However—and in spite of Poe’s admonition against the didactic—we would be wrong.
Telling has 3 distinct advantages over impressionism.
1) Speech more clearly and forcefully conveys ideas.
2) Speech is more dramatic, since the dramatic arts rely heavily on speech.
3) Speech better represents within poetry’s medium, as impressionistic description more properly belongs to the visual arts while speech more properly belongs to the temporal arts.
Ambiguity, as the 20th century critics of high-brow persuasion emphasized, is a great aid to poetry.
Ambiguity can also be its death.
The vast majority of intelligent poems, passionate poems, poems written by skilled poets that perish, perish due to ambiguity.
A series of words in the impressionistic mode can have literally millions of possible meanings, multiplying with each added line; an added word can hint at whole worlds—such is the nature of language. The poet who sees this ambiguity as the power of a conquering army surely overestimates—-even completely mischaracterizes—the process.
The significance of poetry which is not impressionistic, but uses direct speech, instead, such as this: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is significant precisely because it contains no ambiguity—there can be no mistaking the poem’s intent: Shall [I compare thee to] a [summer’s day]?
Impressionistically, we can say, “but who is the I?” and “who is the thee?”
But the import of the speech’s meaning, as delivered by Shakespeare, is equivalent to the I/thou relationship unfolding in the poem.
The poem’s characters (in their “being”) are literally the poem itself and explain the act and the intent of the poem: as we all remember, in Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet #18, the tool of comparison (metaphor, which Aristotle mistakenly calls the key to poetry) fails, as the lover attempts to describe or copy the beloved, and instead “this” (the poem, the speech) gives “life to thee.”
This is made easier by the fact that the poet-genius and the poem’s speaker are one and the same (another advantage to “speech poetry”) whereas with impressionistic poetry, the descriptions are produced by an artist who is removed.
Thus, impressionistic poetry is more estranged from itself.
Think of impressionist and imagist Chinese poetry composed by mid-millenia Chinese bureaucrats—wouldn’t government officials who pass poetry exams as part of the hiring process, be more likely to be poets of estrangement and ambiguity?
The enlightened poets—such as Shakespeare and Pope, Renaissance-inspired poets who freed themselves with nature-observed science from Aristotle’s rules—are not imagists (like the craven Ezra Pound), but speakers.
The “show, don’t tell” mantra of the 20th century Writers Workshop got it wrong.
Better to tell.