show don't tell

Why Show Don’t Tell?

Around the dawn of the twentieth century, a new generation of experimental poets were emerging such as Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, ee cummings et al. These were often referred to as Modernists, Imagists, Symbolists, or Vorticists, who cast off the more directly expressed verse (or, strict rhyming poetry) that had been in fashion throughout most of the Victorian era (think Kipling, Tennyson et al). They embraced instead a greater emphasis on images and metaphors, in order to put across ideas and feelings in a more symbolic way; in other words, to use such literary devices to show or evoke a poem’s meaning, rather than to tell or spell it out to the reader – i.e. show don’t tell.

The horrors of the First World War, as most powerfully expressed by poets such as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, acted as a kireji (cut-off point) from the perceptions of the previous generations. This signalled in literature and more particularly poetry, a new vanguard of linguistic experiment by way of articulating a drastically altered world-view. It is ironic in this context that the first English-language manifesto of these new poetic forms and ideas was entitled BLAST.

To refer to these many new schools of poetic form and experiment with the umbrella term of modernism, this new wave in poetry placed an emphasis on the importance of evoking and showing the meaning of a poem, through images, metaphors, symbols etc. as opposed to telling it, as such genres as narrative prose are more inclined to do. With this new show don’t tell approach also came an inclination towards what is known as free verse, essentially, non-rhyming poetry, which relied more on the inner rhythms of speech to convey the musicality of a poem rather than on any formal structure such as rhyming line-endings. Although perceived at its inception as a very modern development in poetry, free verse in some ways had much in common with a form used long before rhyme was considered the norm, that being blank verse. Blank verse relied not on rhyme but on rhythmic precision, or meter, to convey its rhythm (for examples see much of Shakespeare, or Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost). Free verse however showed a move on from blank verse by abandoning reliance not only on rhyme but even on regular meter itself.

In spite of a slightly regressive shift back to more traditional poetic forms, such as meter and rhyme in the last thirty odd years, one key aspect to modernism which has become an indelible ingredient to contemporary poetic convention is the philosophy of show don’t tell.

How Does the Idea of Show Don’t Tell Work in Practice?

To illustrate the convention of show don’t tell, below are two poems from two different poets of the First World War, one of which is more inclined to tell than show, and one of which is more inclined to show than tell – underline where both these stylistic qualities seem to you most pronounced in both poems. Also, which of these two poets do you get the impression actually experienced action in the War, and which was most likely to have been spared its full carnage, on the basis of the tone and language?

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust conceal’d;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air.

Wash’d by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.


Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, — –

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.


What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


[Key to diction: orison = a prayer; pall = a cloth spread over a coffin]


‘Show Don’t Tell’ compiled by Alan Morrison for Creative Future

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