Poetry Editing 101 – Session Three: Show and Never Tell

I want to present you with a hypothetical situation.

Imagine you go out to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster. You pay fifteen quid to get in, buy your drink and popcorn and settle down for the movie. But wait. The lights dim, there is no music, no actors, no visuals whatsoever. A narrator just says, “Our hero was a brave soul. After a hard childhood he set out to avenge the murder of his father and killed all the bad guys. The end.”

You’d be pretty annoyed, right? And rightly so. You’d demand your money back.

When poets build their work out of abstractions, this is exactly what they’re doing. They’re robbing their readers of the music and imagery of verse and its tangible dealings with emotion and beauty.

In our last session we looked at emotional abstractions and how best to rewrite them into concrete images.

In today’s session we’re going to stay with abstractions once again and look more clearly at the concept of Show, Don’t Tell, as it applies to poetry.

To start with, let’s look at this example of a common type of abstraction we might find in our first draft.

The state of the girl makes him feel sorry for her.

Here we have an entirely abstract line that simply isn’t pulling its weight. It doesn’t have the power required to express the emotion to the reader that it needs to deliver. The real problem we have here is that we’re telling the reader what’s going on, not showing them.

Last session, we spoke about rewriting emotional abstractions, and one might be tempted to think that doing so here would fix the problem. It would help, for sure, but it’s not enough.

The issue with this line is that it’s the equivalent of a narrative summary. What we need to do with it is actually show both the girl and the reaction to her. This is called unpacking – opening an abstract box and taking out the images from which it’s formed – showing rather than telling.

I would ask, what is the state of the girl and what caused her to get that way? What reactions are at play in his response? Then take those exact images and translate them onto the page in words.

Here’s what I would do with the above line.

Her vest is torn and stained with blood.
The bruises on her face reveal
the vicious hands of mum and dad.
He turns his eyes away.

To me, that is much more powerful and conveys the situation and its emotion in a more vivid and concrete way.

Taking an abstract approach with the pictures we want to paint entirely disempowers them. So when you find a line in your poem where you’re summarising with an abstract statement, spend time unpacking it and turning it into concrete imagery. This will make your poem the most effective it can be and give the reader the chance to experience your ideas on a sensory level.

Modern poetry is written with a focus on the concrete.

But it wasn’t always that way.

I think this shift towards concrete poetry has a lot to do with the changes in our society. Once upon a time there wasn’t the freedom or independence of thought we have now. We often accepted the word of the authorities and tended to question things less.

These days a great many people are put off by direct value statements, even if they agree with them. They’re put off by absolutism. When our poetry starts to take on that tone, or anything like it, we should ask ourselves if we’re served best by telling a reader what to think.

This isn’t a new discovery. It’s something famously noted by John Keats:

”We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.”

The modern audience will simply not put up with being told what to think. Lines like the following could ensure a reader never looks at your work again.

We should bring back the noose!

God is always thinking about you.

Positive thoughts bring you positive results.

These may be truths to you, but I assure you, they’re not truths to everyone. I don’t read poetry to be told what to think, believe, or do. I read it to encourage my own thoughts and work out what’s true for me. I read it because I want to experience beauty.

When you find you’re writing poetry which seeks to tell someone what to think, no matter how innocuous it may seem to you, think about changing those abstract statements into an image which you think demonstrates that truth. Or, do what I try to do, and avoid writing that kind of stuff altogether.

Remember Keats, and his final line of Ode on a Grecian Urn:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Before you go, please take a moment to give me a follow. It’s a great way you can help support the series and the blog. If you have any comments or questions about this lesson, or just want to say hello, feel free to post a comment below.

For now, go write!