“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.



  1. Laura said,

    November 29, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    It seems to me very presumptuous of you to say anything about what is supposedly “the workshop’s mantra” when 1) you persistently provide only one source to support this claim and 2) you’ve apparently never attended a workshop yourself.

    Also, no writer I know ever asserted that you should ALWAYS show. I’ve already mentioned the crucial role exposition plays in fiction, so I won’t repeat myself. If, however, you’re taking “show don’t tell” that literally, you’re misunderstanding what fiction writing teachers actually promote.

    The weak writer tends toward telling; you see it all the time in beginning fiction writers. Thus, there’s little need encourage people to “tell”; it’s the default narrative style for most beginners.

    Dialogue is scenic, and scene–so crucial to fiction–SHOWS. You could instead summarize the scene and tell, through summary, what happened, but few readers I know take pleasure in reading such prose.

    And fiction isn’t the best way to present an IDEA; the essay, in which the writer can make an argument, is better suited to that. In fact, I resent it when characters are used as props to convey the author’s ideology or world few because I feel manipulated by fiction that’s actually thinly veiled persuasion

    Why be so black and white about it? Why are you making it a competition between one or the other being “better”? If you’re writing scenes, you need to slow down and SHOW; it you’re moving the story forward six months, you need to tell through exposition.

    And your reference to periods can’t be characterized so simplistically with respect to style; each period contained trends and counter-trends.

    Are you saying it’s “[b]etter to tell” because you think it’s a good way to provoke responses, or do you really think so categorically about a subject as complex and nuanced as the art of fiction?

    Because I see little to gain by approaching the subject that reductively.

    • J. Powers said,

      December 3, 2013 at 2:51 pm

      This crit seems right on to me. It’s almost always a category error to take a pedagogical exhortation and treat it as a basic theoretical axiom. (Historians do this with the propositions found in rhetorical handbooks all the time, treating advice to students as basic tenets of the discipline.)

      That said, I find Tom’s defense of the value of telling quite compelling. I just don’t see that it could or should trump showing. The deft writer knows when to use which.

    • J. Powers said,

      December 3, 2013 at 3:10 pm


      I think you’re giving the notion of “ideas” short shrift here. Rasmussen’s poem, for example, is obviously about death. Doesn’t that qualify it as a work about ideas? Some ideas can be explained with propositions, certainly, but others need narrative (plot) and figurative language. Isn’t literature–being by definition a product of language–inherently abstract, and so about ideas?

  2. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    November 29, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    If a poem contains no visual imagery, it just won’t work for me. Isn’t that the reason why you said that you did NOT like the poem Mary Szybist wrote? Didn’t you feel it was just too abstract towards the end of her poem? By the way, wasn’t that Szybist’s first poetry book? Don’t you think it would be better to save that kind of criticism for someone who has published more work? I didn’t think the poem was bad at all. I do think that she needed to get rid of the last two or three sentences. I realize that you were being facetious about not knowing if her poem was religious or not, because it’s not like you were raised on the Indian sub continent. I took a Milton class once with an Indian man, and the poor guy said that he felt like he was “Lost in Paradise.”

    Hey, I just saw that she published another book ten years ago, which is surprising because she looks about twelve.

  3. Laura said,

    November 30, 2013 at 3:36 am

    She does look young!

    Re. the Show Don’t Tell non-Mantra: I never heard it once during my four years at Arkansas or during James Alan McPherson’s workshop at Iowa; it’s advice more often used in undergrad workshops, it seems. And it’s directed at FICTION. Most poetry isn’t narrative poetry (though I’ve read some very good narrative poetry), and I don’t expect it to be. I never once heard it used by anyone in reference to poetry workshops.

    Yes, strong visual images are pretty much a must for me in poetry, Diane. I didn’t think her poem was overall bad either, but I agree about the ending. The idea it expresses isn’t entirely clear to me, though, even after a few readings.

    Was it good enough to win this award? I can’t answer that because I have almost no idea what it was competing against this year.

    That’s a great line from the Indian Man regarding his response to Milton!

    • dawelch said,

      November 30, 2013 at 4:24 am

      One of the National Book Award poetry finalists was Matt Rasmussen, who in this poem shows as well as tells:

      • Laura said,

        November 30, 2013 at 4:44 am

        Oh, I like this! Thanks for the link, dawelch. I’d like to see more of his work now.

        Yes, poems CAN show, and those are the poems–those that contain strong imagery–that I’m most drawn to. And by that, I don’t mean that poems need to be imagist but just that the imagery is an important component for me, regardless of the subgenre to which a poem belongs.

      • thomasbrady said,

        November 30, 2013 at 3:57 pm


        Thanks for that poem link. “The hole is nothing except for what surrounds it,” the opening of the poem, conveys a very strong idea. It says something. It’s a brilliant piece of philosophy—the hole is “nothing,” it contains neither telling nor showing. It is unfathomable. But the philosophy at least is not. Again, ‘telling’ triumphs over ‘showing.’ We cannot ‘see’ the hole—in as much as it is “nothing,” but we can tell ourselves something about what it means. The rest of the poem does a lot of ‘showing’ and though it does an excellent job of conveying an overwhelming, highly subjective experience with physical details, this is what fails for me and what finally makes it a wasted effort for me. I don’t want the specific, subjective horror of the actual experience. I find it self-indulgent, in poor taste, and it does nothing to dignify the memory of the poor suicide; nor does it give any insight into what caused the suicide. Poets are afraid to tell, it seems, so much has the ‘show don’t tell’ been knocked into our heads. I agree we can do both, but the pendulum swings way towards ‘show’ these days.

        • Laura Runyan said,

          November 30, 2013 at 5:45 pm

          I don’t need to know the “reason” for the suicide, Tom. That’s not what the poem was about. And what’s the poet supposed to do, appeal to simplistic Freudian explanations? Often, in “real life,” we never know the “cause” of a suicide, no matter how much we speculate; it could be neurological, and beyond that, it could have been prompted by an external event or influenced by no event at all. The poet himself might not know. In any case, those details are unnecessary here.

          You’re a Poe fan yet you’re referring to this as “self-indulgent”? (Self-indulgence is a common complaint against Poe, and one I share.) And the vague reference to its being in “poor taste” says nothing specific in the way of criticism.

          Is there any poetry beside that written by Poe and the Romantics that you LIKE? (I’m guessing that the answer is, “Not much.”)

          • J. Powers said,

            December 3, 2013 at 2:57 pm

            What Tom likes in general has only tangentially to do with whether or not his criticism illuminates this issue in general and this poem in particular. I thought his criticism of Szybist’s poem, for example, extremely engaging, though I did not agree on every point.

          • J. Powers said,

            December 3, 2013 at 3:24 pm


            Any work of letters that has a plot serves to “explain” the actions of the characters it comprises. Rasmussen’s poem–which I think is quite good–cannot help but invite speculation as to the suicide’s motivations. To dismiss such speculation as Freudian slights not only Freud’s very illuminating ideas, but also the important and inevitable questions raised by an act like suicide.

            I think that Tom, as is his habit, overstates his case. His criticism, however, still cuts pretty deep. Rasmussen dwells on the initial shock experienced by the persona upon seeing his brother’s body. The questions about why haunt the scene, but the persona never addresses them. The poet need not address them facilely. You’re creating a false all-or-nothing choice here: ignore the intellectually intransigent stuff or gloss it with an undergrad oversimplification of Freudian notions.

            I might ask this about Rasmussen’s poem: what does it _teach_ the reader? It’s lovely, but why should I bother to remember it at all–to say nothing of memorizing it? Does it illuminate the realities of death and suicide? Shouldn’t it strive to?

        • dawelch said,

          November 30, 2013 at 6:35 pm

          Tom, I think you’ll agree this poem balances show and tell (all the more poetically in that the subject is physically unseen):

          Would you mind giving some exposition on how Shelley’s poem succeeds where Szybist’s and Rasmussen’s poems do not?

          • Laura Runyan said,

            November 30, 2013 at 10:15 pm

            Good question, dawelch! I was thinking the same.

  4. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    November 30, 2013 at 3:55 am

    Laura, I heard it from David Bottoms all the time in his Poetry workshop.

    You are probably too young to have gone to school with Frank Stanford, right? He didn’t graduate from the program but he attended classes there.

    • Laura said,

      November 30, 2013 at 4:33 am

      I was post-Tom Franklin, Diane, so I was at Arkansas quite awhile after Stanford, but I heard the stories while I was there! What a strange and sad ending for what I’m told was a very good poet. I haven’t read his work, but it sounds like he was already on his way. I remember that in the New Yorker profile of Lucinda Williams (1999, I think), the writer made mention of that incident because she’d written a song about it–“Pineola,” on “Sweet Old World.” I saw a photo of him while I was there. Good looking guy, if the photo’s any indication. Although, from what I understand, his emotional vulnerabilities were known, it sounds like his death came as one hell of shock to people associated with the program at that time.

      Wow, I just looked him up and found a Wikipedia entry on him. It says that since his death, he’s become a cult figure. Well, death will do that sometimes. It would have been better if he could have continued on as a respected poet.

      Thanks for mentioning him.

      It’s an interesting Wikipedia entry, but I’d never seen it before this evening:

      Donald Justice came to Arkansas for a week as a visiting poet during my second year there (I think it was my second year). He’d had a student who’d committed suicide and whose work Justice felt very highly of, and he read a few of those poems at the end of his own reading. He got the poet published after the latter’s death.

      Again, it would have been better had the poet gone on to write more poetry.

      • Diane Roberts Powell said,

        November 30, 2013 at 4:44 am

        Yes, he was very handsome. You simply have to read The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You.

        • Laura said,

          November 30, 2013 at 4:49 am

          I will, Diane. I’d been meaning to read him since I was there (late ’90s, early 2000s). Were you a poetry student in the program?

          • Diane Roberts Powell said,

            November 30, 2013 at 4:55 am

            No, I’m just a huge fan of his work.

            • Laura said,

              November 30, 2013 at 5:12 am

              Well, you’re one more argument for me to read him, Diane! It’s something I’d put off because of one thing or another. Maybe over the holidays I can finally do it!

      • Dan Tessitore said,

        November 30, 2013 at 3:48 pm

        The Battlefield… is book-length (if memory serves). And while it’s quite good, if you want to “dip in” first, try The Singing Knives or the Selected that UA Press did.

        • Laura Runyan said,

          November 30, 2013 at 7:41 pm

          Thanks for the recommendation, Dan! I’ll try to get my hands on some of his work over the holidays. A friend of mine is on the staff of the university library here in Ames (Iowa), and I’m sure he can get hold of either of those for me.

    • Diane Roberts Powell said,

      November 30, 2013 at 8:54 pm

      What I meant to say was, David Bottoms used to say “show don’t tell” constantly in his poetry workshops. He also HATED rhyme, and would pitch a fit if a line even had internal rhymes in it. He screamed and hollered quite a bit in there and really put on quite a show. He made one girl take the word dappled out of her poem, when describing a pony, because he said that people don’t use that word anymore.

      • Laura Runyan said,

        November 30, 2013 at 9:37 pm

        Wow. He sounds like a bit of a tyrant. (Or a lot of one?) Where did you study under him, Diane?

        Many of the poets at Arkansas while I was there did formalism, though they also wrote non-formalist poetry. I think they saw the former as good training. I can’t imagine a poetry teacher FORBIDDING rhyme. Weird. But the co-founder of Arkansas’s program was Donald Justice’s student at Iowa’s MFA program (that would have been in the early ’60s, I think), so it was natural that some of that would have been carried over into Arkansas’s program.

        When we did the Writer’s in the School program at Arkansas, we steered the kids away from rhyme because kids will destroy everything else about the line just to get something to rhyme. We focused instead on their using all of their senses (and yes, we therefore focused on imagery, which I think is a good introduction to poetry and one that those who keep writing it can keep with them). So many of the poets in the program, though, liked to play around with form.

        Were you guys all traumatized by the end of Bottom’s workshop, or did you reach a point where you could sort of blow it off? I think I would’ve been a nervous wreck!

        • Diane Roberts Powell said,

          November 30, 2013 at 9:53 pm

          He nearly, or literally, just about drove me to a nervous breakdown. I had a major blow-out with him. And of course, he used his charm to weasel his way out of it and turn the whole thing around on me, and managed to turn a lot of people against me.

          He seemed to find it all quite amusing. But you know the old saying: you’re kidding when I’m laughing. He has a lot of good ideas. It’s too bad he feels the need to be so obnoxious.

          • Laura Runyan said,

            November 30, 2013 at 10:14 pm

            I’m so glad I didn’t have to face anything like that in workshop (the one faculty member I was exceedingly uncomfortable with wasn’t one I had to deal with in class). That sounds like an UTTER nightmare, Diane! And I know from observation that this sort of thing has happened in other programs. I heard more than once from writers that they learned a great deal from Frank Conroy at Iowa (hell, I’ve quoted him myself based on what they told me because his advice was, to my way of thinking, so sound). He could also intimidate, though, and a friend of mine said that when he was at Iowa, it wasn’t unheard of for a student to storm out of workshop, obscenities trailing down the hallway behind the person.

            I think the atmosphere might be calmer there now, though don’t want to quote me on that; that could be a misperception on my part.

            No student should have to go through that. I think it’s tolerated more in arts programs because of stereotypes about artists and artistic temperaments, etc.. But the arts also involve DISCIPLINE. It’s hard enough without any temperamental faculty to add to the stress!

            Conroy probably taught a selective undergraduate workshop there now and again. I’d be curious to know how those went!

            • Diane Roberts Powell said,

              November 30, 2013 at 10:43 pm

              One of the other students wrote a nasty poem about me and turned it in the last day of class. Bottoms went over and over the poem line by line for like an hour. I sat there steaming. I had already stormed out of the classroom one time (sans the cursing, although I did slam the door hard enough to rattle all of the building’s windows, I imagine.)
              I left and brought my husband back with me (previously). Of course, he changed his tune. It was all a misunderstanding, blah blah, blah. So I just sat there and glared at him while he carried on with his shenanigans (on the last day of class.) After that last day of class was over he ran after me, grabbed my arm and made me promise not to tell my husband before he would let me go! I just wanted to get the hell away from him because I was just about to break down sobbing.

              When the hell that was his class was over, I called him and asked him why he hated me so much. He said, “Diane I don’t hate you. I have very strong feelings about you and your work. Please, don’t stop writing.”

              He broke my heart.

              • Laura Runyan said,

                November 30, 2013 at 11:03 pm

                Oh, god, he sounds REALLY unstable, Diane. And he may very well have thought highly of your work but was too temperamental to express that in a halfway normal way. How unprofessional, to have focused on that poem in front of the class. And how scummy of the student to write it and turn it IN! I don’t think anything like that happened while I was at Arkansas. I mean, it was no bed or roses–the environment could be too competitive, and the comments by students to other students and behind their backs, unnecessarily snarky at times (though not all the student participated in that kind of thing)–but I can’t imagine someone turning in a poem like that for workshop. Bottoms had to have been creating an extremely unhealthy atmosphere in class for that student to even THINK of submitting something like that.

                How shameful. That sort of thing shouldn’t be tolerated in an academic department, regardless of the discipline. I’m so sorry you had to endure anything like that. As I said, similar things have happened elsewhere, but there’s no excuse for this sort of conduct in a writing workshop. No excuse at all.

                • Diane Roberts Powell said,

                  November 30, 2013 at 11:18 pm

                  I don’t think that he was at all unstable. He seemed to be able to turn his behavior off and on. He would never have acted that way in front of his colleagues, his superiors, or neighbors. He seemed to be really enamored with James Dickey, who had a reputation for bad behavior (both inside and outside of the classroom.) But Dickey was a raging alcoholic, although a very good writer. Dickey’s classroom antics are certainly ones I wouldn’t wish to emulate.

                  • Laura Runyan said,

                    December 1, 2013 at 12:31 am

                    If he Bottoms was that calculating, then it’s even less excusable. I think that’s deplorable on his part, Diane. I would have been a wreck by the end of a semester like that.

                    Did you ever read Christopher Dickey’s “Summer of Deliverance”? It was in the New Yorker, summer of’ ’99, I think. Wonderful piece. The younger Dickey was an extra on the film version of the novel, and his father–well, let’s just say that the latter was becoming less welcome on the set, even though the actors were thrilled at first to have him there. It should be in the New Yorker archives. Christopher clearly inherited a good dose of his father’s talent but (fortunately for him) not the vices.

  5. Laura said,

    November 30, 2013 at 4:10 am

    After a fair amount of searching, I found this site, which I’d come across a few years ago. I don’t know the author of this post, but she or he does a good job of capturing, with examples, what happen to be my own thoughts about Poe.

    On the plus side: Poe’s imagination (which, again, is the BASIS of fiction writing).

    On the minus side: Much of Poe’s prose (forgive the rhyme).

    • thomasbrady said,

      November 30, 2013 at 3:17 pm

      The writer of that little piece is not thinking for himself. You see, this is the way Letters works—it is like Plato’s “Ion”—a strong magnet attracts a string of smaller ones. The guy gives it away when he quotes Harold Bloom, the verbose non-poet who, taking his cue from Huxley, Eliot, Krutch, Winters, James, Twain, Whitman, and Emerson, published a smear piece against Poe (all the while championing Emerson) in the NY Review of Books Oct. 11 1984. In his NYR review Bloom quotes from the same work “The Black Cat” to condemn Poe’s entire prose output. Just like Bloom, this magnetized rock is happy to base his entire point on one paragraph from Poe’s work. A nice paragraph, too. We are informed that a genius must use one adjective always, even if the two adjectives selected enhance each other sound-wise: “unselfish, self-sacrificing,” to embellish the theme. As a reader, I am easily bored and distracted by authors who feed me detail after detail: I feel Poe gets it: he gives me prose approaching poetry and hurries on with the story & gets to the point at the same time. I love that. I could trace with more significance the ‘magnet chain’ of the Poe haters but I don’t have time or space here. It has much to do with anti-American Civil War politics, in fact, and also Emerson and his friendship with Eliot’s grandfather but we’ll have to leave that for another time.

      • Laura Runyan said,

        November 30, 2013 at 5:34 pm

        Tom, just because you disagree with the author’s position doesn’t mean he’s “not thinking for himself.” How about avoiding drawing baseless conclusions about what’s going on in his mind (which you cannot possibly know apart from the words he wrote) and instead making an argument for why you think what many of us regard as flaws in Poe’s writing aren’t actually flaws?

        Even many of Poe’s defenders acknowledge that his prose style contains a number of weaknesses.

        And I couldn’t care less that Harold Bloom was a “non-poet” or “verbose” (he’s certainly not verbose compared to the worst of Poe!). Not all poets and fiction writers are good critics, and some of the best critics don’t write poetry or fiction. Again, why not respond to the argument itself? I’ve both agreed and disagreed with Bloom, and whether or not he writes poetry is irrelevant to my responses to his claims.

        For a great many of us, word choice MATTERS. Too often for me, Poe missed the mark in that regard. As I said earlier, his flaws don’t place him among the worst of famous American writers, but they do, for me, prevent him from competing against the very best, which makes a comparison of Poe to Shakespeare an astonishingly leap, to say the least.

        Poe’s most avid fans remind me a little of 9/11 Truthers. Like the latter, they’re dismissive of, or outright hostile toward, even the most fair-minded questioning of the central idea they embrace. How about a little perspective? I first heard “America’s Shakespeare” several years ago, and its over-the-topness still makes me shake my head in disbelief. It also comes across to me as more of a public relations or marketing ploy than a serious critique.

        • Laura Runyan said,

          November 30, 2013 at 8:51 pm

          In response to Noochinator mentioning the Poe Exhibit in NYC on the Mary Szybist post (multiple threads are going), I wrote the following (with one sentence edited):

          “I wish I could, Noochinator. I’m not as dismissive of Poe as I might sound in some of my posts, but when I hear comparisons to Shakespeare, I automatically switch into devil’s-advocate mode. I can list several things I admire about Poe’s work: his ability to create atmosphere, his knack for using his own neuroses to tap into the collective fears humans in general try to suppress, his choice of imagery, his pacing at its best… Consistent quality in his prose just doesn’t happen to be something I see as one of his great virtues (in other words, I don’t regard his prose as consistently good).

          “I have a project I need to finish and not a lot of funds at the moment to travel from Iowa to New York. I bet it’s a great exhibit. I wish I could “beam up” for a day. (Besides, I love New York.) You’ll have to fill us in if you make it there!”

          I’ll add this, since I’ve been thinking about it off and on this afternoon:

          I’m not an automatic snob about genre fiction (well, I am when it comes to contemporary romance novels, but…) By definition, though, genre fiction is to a large extent formulaic; certain conventions have to be adhered to, and even Poe more or less adhered to his formula (some will dispute that he was the sole inventor of one of his genres, the detective novel, and of course, Gothic fiction had earlier roots, but he did fiction a service by presenting it in a short form). We’ve seen hybrids since then, including what could be called the “literary mystery,” which can bend the conventions much more.

          The problem for me is that reading formula stories, no matter how good they are, gets old for me pretty fast. And I don’t much care for surprise endings; within certain genres, you know those endings are probably coming, and after a while, they fail to surprise as much as they’re supposed to.

          Also, while I don’t dislike message-oriented fiction across the board, more often than not, I feel manipulated by it.

          But there’s no formula for “literary” fiction–except that they’re formula-averse AND that you’ll very rarely encounter the surprise ending in them (such endings are appropriate in Poe but feel like cheap tricks in the character-driven novel).

          The range in structure, tone, setting, style of language, and period vary substantially from one literary novel to the next. As a result, that’s the novel or short story I prefer to read; I prefer the complexity in character development in these novels and the questions they raise–yes, the ambiguity.

          For me, Poe’s fiction can never compete with those qualities.

          Obviously, for others, it’s just the opposite.

          Those are differences in literary preference that can’t be overcome through a discussion that’s limited to various writers’ prose techniques.

        • J. Powers said,

          December 3, 2013 at 4:33 pm


          The accusation about not thinking for himself is not “baseless.” It is based upon the evidence the writer adduces in support of his position. As far as I can see, the piece in question simply recycles some opinions offered by others. To be fair, the piece seems pretty humble in its ambition, simply sketching the framework that critics have already worked out for evaluating Poe’s importance. Nothing wrong with that, but it hardly qualifies as thinking for oneself.

          I think it matters that Bloom is a non-poet. Not that a non-practitioner can’t have important ideas, but doesn’t it constrain (by which I do not mean diminish) his authority that he doesn’t practice the art himself?

          I’d like you to identify the minority for whom word choice does not matter. How about we talk about Poe’s actual diction, instead of simply implying that he doesn’t care about it. I find Poe’s diction impeccable, though like many modern readers I often find his habit of paraphrasis fatiguing. Our critic picks on Poe’s use of the adjective “sagacious” in reference to dogs. He notes that it means “insightful and wise,” which is supposed to make it a ridiculous qualifier for a dog. I think our critic has spent little time with dogs if he does not find some them obviously more intelligent and more sensitive than others. The word “sagacious” descends from Latin “sapere,” relating it sapience–wisdom and taste. The French use the word “sage” as a synonym for “good,” as when they tell a child, “Soi sage”–“Be good.”

          “Sagacious” is an _interesting_ adjective to apply to a dog, suggesting a kind of anthropomorphic discernment and sense of propriety. Growing up I had a dog like this; I would not hesitate to characterize her as sagacious, though I know that it would probably make me sound as though I were “obsessed with [my] thesaurus.” Our culture’s literary taste runs to the straightforward, the untrammeled, the limpid. These are all virtues. In connection with these, we are impatient with nuance, uncertainty, and indeed anything that makes reading a dilatory rather than an expedient exercise. In this connection, note that our critic describes his experience of reading Poe as “plowing.” Hard work that renders the earth cultivable. The implication is that reading should be easy, delivering–to turn the metaphor back upon our critic–the value (by which I mean whatever the reader hopes to get out of his reading–a message, an idea, inspiration, bragging rights, whatever) of the text to reader like a prepackaged meal.Certainly there are questions of personal preference at stake here, but also in play is an underlying attitude about what writing and reading are for. Are they practices that cultivate the soul (plowing), or are they nourishment for one’s own projects (consuming). (I have opposed these starkly for the purposes of argument. Neither is absolutely good or bad, and I know very well that they are inseparable.)

          Shakespeare’s reputation is difficult to understand. I admire much of what I’ve read of his. I suspect much of it comes down to the fact that he produced many excellent texts that were and have remained, despite the vicissitudes of taste, highly teachable. Is he so much better than Milton, Spencer, Browning, Bishop, and Marley? Or is he merely more digestible (which is certainly a virtue, but should it the decisive virtue)?

  6. drew said,

    November 30, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    “Better to tell” –
    Amen, brother. Better yet to shout it from the rooftops!

    Personally I like message-oriented versification. I feel that impressionistic image-oriented word painting combined with abstract cryptic obfuscation makes for boring poetry. That’s why so many people are turned off by poetry before they even get out of high school.

    Just a layman’s opinion…

    • Laura Runyan said,

      November 30, 2013 at 6:57 pm

      Imagery isn’t inherently “abstract,” “cryptic” OR “obfuscation,” which I hate. In fact, at its best, it’s quite concrete. Jeez, I guess they’re teaching the wrong kind of image-oriented poetry in a lot of high schools! I apparently lucked out at mine. (Maybe the odds are better in honors English?)

      I don’t like being preached to via poetry or fiction, and “messages” are often too simplistic. Put it in a bumper sticker.

      Tom misrepresents what goes on in workshops (we had no “mantras”), so I wish he’d withhold judgment about an phenomenon he’s never witnessed.

      • drew said,

        November 30, 2013 at 7:06 pm

        What you say is very interesting.
        I am a poetic freak in that I am completely message -oriented. Not that I want to read bumper stickers – but I look for preaching and targeted mockery in poetry. I am burned-out on “innovative” word-crafting. It makes me want to go read a Hallmark card…

        Not sure if Tom is misrepresenting or not – but a lot of what is said here @ Scarriet rings true to me poetically.

        • Laura Runyan said,

          November 30, 2013 at 7:33 pm

          Well, as someone who took a graduate workshop at Iowa (a non-degreed workshop except for those who were in the MFA program and taking it in the summer), did a four-year MFA at Arkansas, and took workshops at the Taos Summer Writers’ conference under instructors who teach in MFA programs (John Dufresne and Elizabeth Stucky-French–the former got his MFA at Arkansas, the latter, at Iowa), I can say with some authority that he’s got it wrong. He keeps repeating that “show don’t tell” is the “mantra of the workshop,” but I didn’t hear that statement made even one time at Iowa or Arkansas. It’s really advice aimed at undergraduates, who often go into undergrad workshops summarizing whole scenes instead of doing them SCENICALLY (scenes and dialogue are extremely important components of most fiction). The common default of the beginning fiction writer is to explain everything, It takes some talent, and effort, to SHOW; not everyone can provide that kind of detail.

          By the way, I hate experimentation for experimentation’s sake, I don’t know how Jorie Graham became the big deal she did. (Her earlier work is better.) But there’s a whole lot of poetry between the badly innovated and the message-driven.

      • J. Powers said,

        December 3, 2013 at 3:48 pm


        Insofar as imagery depends upon figurative language, it most certainly _is_ abstract (as all language is). A metaphor is basically a deliberate category error, which I think means that it is often potentially quite cryptic and obfuscatory (what the heck does “the apple of my eye” really mean?).

        It’s perhaps confusing to oppose imagery and message. The former sounds literary and the latter mercenary. I thought the issue here was not the “message” of a poem, but rather the technique of just telling the reader what’s going on. (I keep thinking of Austen’s novels, which are full of epistolary narrative–light on description and figurative language, but full of plot details.) The technique of telling has only the most negligible connection to message-driven fiction. Certainly fiction of, say, Ayn Rand seems to have been conceived as a vector for the delivery of “ideas” and “messages.” But it succeeds as fiction (and in many places it surprisingly does succeed) when it simply tells a story.

  7. thomasbrady said,

    December 1, 2013 at 1:07 am


    So what do they teach in Workshops? I know you enjoyed your Workshop experience because you avoided “theory.” I know you have a certain dislike for genre fiction and formula. With this dislike is a certain dislike for Poe. You like psychological realism and you don’t think literary fiction in most instances is autobiographical. You think much of it is invented.

    Let’s take the documentary as a comparable medium. What, in your opinion, makes for a good documentary, and how does this relate to a good piece of fiction?

    • dawelch said,

      December 1, 2013 at 1:50 am

      Tom, focusing on Poetry, can you provide a Critical comparison of a contemporary poem and a poem by Poe or Shelley?


      • dawelch said,

        December 1, 2013 at 1:52 am

        Or better, compare a representative Modernist poem by Eliot with a poem by Poe.

    • Laura Runyan said,

      December 1, 2013 at 2:38 am

      Oh, I didn’t always enjoy it. The criticism could be brutal. My first year was the best; people ahead of me made a lot of supportive comments, but it was a very competitive environment.

      The lit crit theory I know is from what I read on my own (which was a fair amount) because I wanted to know what all this jargon was about. Based on what I read, I decided there was no way I was going to subject myself to writing papers in that vein, which I regarded as largely nonsense (and still do). I got my philosophy from the analytic tradition, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. At least you do standard ARGUMENTS in that kind of philosophy, and logic isn’t regarded as “phallocentric.”

      There are no simple “rules” for art, Tom. And really, would anyone need even a year, let alone two, three, or four, in an MFA program just to hear “Show don’t tell” over and over? Besides, some people could hear it a thousand times and never “get” it. I never saw anyone like that in workshop, though; their writing samples would have demonstrated that they were already far beyond the basics.

      I can’t come up with a few sentences that describe what makes for a good documentary film (plus, I’m working on a project tonight). There’s no simple formula for a genre that huge, that can vary so profoundly in style, content, visual and auditory components, editing (a big one!), and other production values. I know good when I see it, and I know lousy when I see it, but I can’t make a list saying that if a documentary story does a), b), c), and d), then it’s good, and if it doesn’t, it’s not. Each story had to be looked at as an individual work.

      I CAN, however, evaluate a PARTICULAR documentary film. “Inside Job” was propelled by a riveting narrative drive (that is, a riveting story), one that was ostensibly a true one (and, as far as I can tell, was accurately told); extraordinary film images, especially at the beginning; an intelligent script for the narration; telling and surprising interviews; a strong score; and an alarming conclusion that follows from the arguments presented earlier in the film. On a visual sense, it’s beautifully made, though a film about the financial collapse wouldn’t, it seems, require these elements.

      I loved Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” when I saw it. When, however, I later learned how much “creative editing” (as opposed to aesthetic editing that doesn’t play with the facts) Moore engages in, I could no longer take his documentaries nearly as seriously. That was a content-based, rather than aesthetic, judgement on my part.

      In workshop, each story had to be judged against what it could be at its best. We, in class–or most of us–never tried to persuade the classmate being workshopped to write a different story, but we–and then, after all the students had spoken, the professor–would offer our opinions on what we thought was standing in the story’s way to becoming better, whether that was dialogue, the tone, something in the characterization that didn’t ring true, point of view (something undergraduates often have trouble with), the story’s STRUCTURE (which can vary significantly from one story to the next), the imagery, which can play a huge role in the degree to which a reader feels she’s entered the world created by the story to the extent that she feels carried along, on a sensory level and emotionally, by what’s happening on those pages…As I’ve said, I saw no standard “workshop story” while I was there, so I can offer no list of “tricks” the artist can rely on to write well. The stories differed too much from one another for that for such a list to be effective.

      I can talk about short stories another time, but I’m under a deadline now.

      Anyway, it seems that you want me to provide a simple formula or set of rules that good, or even decent, art transcends, which is why I can’t provide one. We see common problems in workshop stories, which are usually early drafts–many of which are very good drafts and, occasionally, almost finished (I had one of those once, according to the person who taught the graduate fiction workshop that semester). But no good teacher of fiction writing would proscribe steps a writer must take to produce a good work of fiction. If most teachers did that, there really WOULD be such a thing as a common “workshop story.” (Maybe those exist somewhere, but I can’t identify one I saw at Arkansas.)

      I have a presentation to give on Tuesday, so I’ll be off this site until after that (I still have a fair amount of work to do in the next couple of days). Meanwhile: Have fun, everyone! I enjoy reading the large range of opinions on this site.

      P.S. Because I have to get back to work, I’ll apologize in advance for any typos or other errors above. I didn’t catch any in a quick proofread, but that’s not to say that none exist.

      • Laura Runyan said,

        December 1, 2013 at 3:13 am

        One quick P.S.: Once in a while, a story in workshop didn’t seem too salvageable. In a few cases, it was because the writer didn’t appear to have a strong grasp of the world she or he was writing about. I’ve seen writers become experts on a topic about which they’d known little but were later able to write with authority, but it doesn’t always happen. Jane Smiley, in the novella I consider far superior to the novel she wrote that won the Pulitzer, did a great deal of research on dentistry for that novella. But sometimes it’s too great a stretch for the writer. Workshop teachers never hesitated in those cases to suggest that the writer might want to move on to the next story rather than toil away on the one that had just been workshopped. It was the teacher’s best judgment at the time. And after all, workshop teachers would be useless if they didn’t say what they really think. We base our decision to trust their judgement or not on how much their comments about OTHERS’ stories makes sense to us. My thesis director was an exceptionally astute reader, so I listened to him. If a teacher’s comments about work written by others resonates with us, then that tells us that maybe we ought to listen to what they have to say about our own work as well.

      • J. Powers said,

        December 3, 2013 at 5:04 pm

        “There are no simple ‘rules’ for art, Tom.”

        Isn’t this a rule, and therefore a paradox?

        There are lots of rules about art, most of which are quite simple. Rules about how to make it. Rules about how to read/experience it. Rules for beginners. Rules for masters. The rules may _change_, but that does not mean they are not real. Rules often act in concert, but each one is ultimately on its own calendar, some changing with the season, some with the century, and perhaps some not at all in our collective experience.

        To proclaim that there are no rules in art is facile. Art is at least partially rational (and this is particularly obvious in the case of linguistic arts, which literally _are_ “logos”), which makes it at least partially rule-bound. There is more than one kind of reason, and this is _practical_ reason we’re talking about. Art cannot live among the universal quantifiers of categorical logic, subject to the law of death by counterexample. Art has practical rules, which are not brittle like iron, but supple like steel. Exceptions can wound a practical rule, but no single one can kill it.

        To say of any art that it has no simple rules can only impoverish the practice of it. I’ve used this analogy before, but it’s apt here: rules are like bones. All the life and liveliness of art occurs by pushing against and pulling upon the rules. Just because every technical manual entitled “How to Write a Poem” is doomed to obsolescence does not mean that it the writing or consultation of such a manual is useless or “wrong.” Literature manifestly does not work the way a VCR does, but VCR engineers have no monopoly on either reason or rules.

        Our current habits of speaking about rules and about art make it hard to keep the two on the same side of any larger distinction. Our language does most of our thinking for us. It is the essence of poetic thinking to resist the tendencies of the language by engaging with them directly.

  8. thomasbrady said,

    December 1, 2013 at 1:15 am

    Diane’s Workshop comments on David Bottoms are very interesting, very interesting indeed.

    When education becomes entirely subjective, is it still education?

  9. thomasbrady said,

    December 1, 2013 at 2:05 am


    I like your pedagogical thinking.

    I will be happy to comment on Shelley’s “To A Skylark” in relation to Szybist and Rasmussen’s poems.

    Shelley’s poem has a musical and architectural organization which makes it vastly superior to the other two poems. Shelley’s structure shows, but his words tell. We often hear how ‘the line’ is the essence of poetry. I say it is ‘the stanza’ and we can see this in Shelley’s poem. One of the wonderful things we see is how the “overflowing” quality of the Skylark is manifested in the extra long line which finishes each stanza of the poem.

    Shelley establishes his subject and never strays from it. He takes what is “hidden” and “finds” it in the sound-archictecure of his poem. The Skylark is his poem, so we get a poem within a poem, in fact.

    The whole idea of ‘showing’ in language gets an added boost from Shelley. The standard advice to ‘show’ in language is pitifully woeful. You know the one I mean: don’t tell us the child is crying; show us the ‘red eyes,’ the ‘quivering lower lip,’ the ‘face wet with streaming tears’ etc. But this ‘showing’ only uses more words to depict at greater length what the reader can depict for themselves without language—which does not count painting as its chief strength anyway.

    Shelley ‘shows’ chiefly with the music of the poem, even when he is being visual:

    In the golden lighting
    Of the sunken sun,
    O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
    Thou dost float and run

    The whole ‘show vs. tell’ trope is a false one. We always tell. When we are ‘visual,’ we tell the reader what we see. The real ‘visual enhancement’ of mere words is the rhythm of the phrase, stanza, poem.

  10. thomasbrady said,

    December 1, 2013 at 2:18 am

    Writers err, however, and thinking that “showing” is in fact what they are doing (when it is actually not what they are doing), what these mistaken writers actually do, is enfeeble their telling and become obscure, relying on a lot of wasteful detail and vague impressionism, and they become increasingly upset with their readers for not getting it and begin to make excuses that they are too highbrow for the general reader. From one error, many more proceed.

    • Laura Runyan said,

      December 1, 2013 at 2:53 am

      I’ve made it clear that I don’t admire the obscure, Tom, and I don’t know too many poets who do, so maybe you’re preaching largely to the choir on this? Also, you have your own strong personal preferences, and it’s important, I think, that you acknowledge the element of personal taste in forming aesthetic judgments.

      I know the difference between showing and telling (and, of course, they overlap); I just object to the claim that it’s the “mantra of the workshop.” Fortunately, I was never taught by someone like Bottoms. He sounds like an ass and a narrow-minded control freak. There’s no reason whatsoever to generalize about MFA programs or the teaching of writing from this unfortunate example of “teaching.”

      Okay, I gotta go…

  11. dawelch said,

    December 1, 2013 at 2:37 am

    Thanks Tom, those are helpful points. I like the idea of musicality and form as poetry’s singular way of showing what is told. Here is Mary Szybist reading her poem “Hail”:

    What do you think of this poem on hearing it?

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 1, 2013 at 3:21 pm


      On hearing the poem, I find no charm in the reading; it is starkly matter-of-fact; not the sort of thing that would make me stand and applaud, as for an aria, for instance. It is not Mary Szybist’s fault. The Workshop priesthood has killed poetic expression with its pedantic fault-finding, its seminar dullness. I notice she emphasized “you” (twice) in the ending of the poem as if to enforce the idea that Mary is very important to her. Unfortunately the dry words on the page do not convey that feeling. I did notice, on listening, the word “what” repeated three times, beginning with “what is the matter with me?” That added a little to the poet’s feeling despair at being helplessly betrayed by “Mary.” One more bit of emphasis experienced when I listened to the poem was the word “only” applied to “ankles” “violets” etc. The beautiful images dreamed are more a source of pain in the light of that “only.” The poem speaks of passionate loss and every piece of the poem points nicely to this theme—but I just have a sense that its theme wants more realization as a physical utterance. Mary Szybist is a Keats who gave up.

      • dawelch said,

        December 1, 2013 at 4:02 pm

        “An emotional theme realized as a physical utterance”: this seems a good definition poetry and it reminds me of something said by W. S. Merwin:

        “What a great poem teaches you, and it’s not intellectual at all, is the resonance in the language that’s heard there. This goes back to the very origins of poetry and to the very origins of language. I think poetry is as old as language, and both come out of the same thing — an effort to try to express something that is inexpressible. If something can’t be said, what do you do? You scream. You make some terrible noise of pain or anguish or anger or something like that. You make a sound, an animal-like sound which, with time and society trying to calm you down, begins to take shape into something.”

        Merwin’s description of the genesis of a great poem seems the antithesis of the anti-Romanticism of the High Modernists. I’ve never taken a MFA workshop, so I don’t know how that quote by Merwin would be received there. The only poetry workshop I ever took was an undergraduate creative writing class with Jack Myers at SMU. I know Jack would have agreed with Merwin. I also recall Merwin has spoken highly of Shelley.

      • Anonymous said,

        December 3, 2013 at 10:44 pm

        You need to stop generalizing about workshops and the workshop culture, Tom (that “priesthood” doesn’t exist). Your broad generalizations so thoroughly fail to capture what happens in MFA programs, but you’re unaware of the extent to which that’s true because you’ve a) never enrolled in a workshop and b) leapt to conclusions based on examples here and there of literature that isn’t to your liking. Broad-bushing based on so little evidence is utterly fallacious reasoning that would never pass muster as an argument in a respectable philosophy paper. I know you’re smarter than that, so I have little choice but to assume that this topic is just a blind spot of yours–some sort of bias that has little to do with the MFA programs themselves.

        Also, based on what you’ve written about Poe versus every contemporary poet you’ve mentioned, your personal aesthetic seems to me a relatively narrow one–though that doesn’t mean I consider it superior to everyone else’s (sorry, but I’ll take Shakespeare over Poe any day).

        You said above, “When education becomes entirely subjective, is it still education?” All of the arts involve both technique and interpretation, the latter of which is highly subjective. When a violinist studies at Julliard, she doesn’t merely improve her technique but receives coaching on how to interpret, say, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G. There’s no “proof” that one musical interpretation is the “correct” one. It’s based on a consensus. Hell, even accepted science involves consensus (and you know how I detest the extreme relativism inherent in so much critical theory). The technique, alone, doesn’t produce a work of art, but it’s a requisite if the interpretation is to succeed in doing so.

        Whether you realize it or not, what you’re really arguing is that arts training doesn’t qualify as “education.” Literature isn’t some rarefied phenomenon that shares nothing in common with the other arts, and because it’s an art form, personal taste and personal aesthetics play a role in audience members’ responses to it. And it, too, is a product of consensus regarding where it rates in quality within the literary and larger communities. In poetry, the formalism that many MFA poetry students love to play with is also training in technique. Times change, though, so most MFA poets also write non-formalist poems.

        Another topic we introduced to kids in the Writers in the Schools program: line breaks. Line breaks in non metric poetry require thought; it’s not a haphazard process (or it shouldn’t be). The kids got very excited by the idea that the word on which you end a non-metric line can change the effect of that line, and the one after it, considerably. That’s technique, but, again, it doesn’t by itself create art.

        I don’t know about others here, but I’d hate to see arts training abolished in higher education.

        I have another deadline now (Thursday), so I won’t be back here anytime before then.

        • thomasbrady said,

          December 3, 2013 at 11:43 pm


          You’re right. I do generalize and simplify for the sake of argument, but we all do that to some extent. Why shouldn’t I use my literary taste to make pedagogical judgements? Shakespeare and Poe are different eras, different writing. Poe is as valuable in his way. I wouldn’t say an appreciation of Mozart is only subjective. No, I don’t want to ban arts education.

  12. thomasbrady said,

    December 1, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    Re-reading that evil book, “Understanding Poetry” Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 4th Ed, 1976, the poetry textbook from the New Critics/ Modernist laboratory which first emerged in 1938, at the dawn of the Creative Writing Program Era, and established itself as the pedagogical bible in high schools and colleges across America.It is riddled with pedantry and error on every level; I recognize all the shortcomings in my peers; I see all that is the wasteland that is poetry and culture today reflected in this book. What a horror. From its cruel and crude sentiment to its botched take on metrics, this book is demon pedantry.

    The example of David Bottoms, Workshop poetry teacher, slamming the door on rhyme to his class (!) and practicing mental and emotional torture on a student (!) is telling.

  13. thomasbrady said,

    December 1, 2013 at 3:57 pm


    You tell of a positive experience in a Fiction writing poetry program and draw on other experiences to support your theme that Creative Writing can be helpful and sane. I have no doubt in some instances it can be.

    Scarriet will continue to look at the whole picture as objectively as possible. We really appreciate all the input we have been getting. Comments are more important than posts, and I thank all of you.

    • Laura said,

      December 3, 2013 at 10:50 pm

      I appreciate your conceding that, Tom. And I have no doubt that abusive instructors–those who behave, for example, the way Bottoms was described–poison the well.

  14. dawelch said,

    December 1, 2013 at 4:22 pm

  15. noochinator said,

    December 3, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    A poem uses language
    (Hopefully well) —
    So in order to show,
    You gotta tell —

    Al Wilson got rich stressing the importance of both:

  16. March 4, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Hmm іs anone eose experienϲig problems with the pictures on
    ths blog loading? I’m trying to determine iif its a problem onn my end or iif іt’s the
    blog. Anyy suggestiߋns would bbe greatly appreciated.

  17. thomasbrady said,

    March 4, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    Wse looging intttoo da prablum.

  18. noochinator said,

    September 30, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    Henry Gibson showed without telling, even when he was…. telling….:

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