By Sage Cohen
A poem’s job is to bring a story viscerally to life. In making a poetic scene or a narrative palpable for readers, descriptive images are often far more engaging than statements. This truth has been distilled to a golden rule of poetry that echoes through classrooms everywhere: Show, don’t tell.
Let’s take a look at what show vs. tell means by considering different ways to communicate the concept of “weakness”:
Telling: “I felt weak.”
Showing: “I could barely lift the spoon to my mouth.”
The first example explains to the reader how the speaker feels. The second example gives some specific details to bring the concept of “weak” to life. We can see where weakness lives in the speaker’s body in this moment. When you “show” with images, you offer the reader a visual, tactile, sometimes auditory reference, rather than a conceptual one. Because weakness might look and feel completely different in your body than it does in mine, images can help you more effectively articulate your own experience. They can also help move a poem from vague to specific, making it a lot more interesting.
A good question to ask yourself every time you make a declarative statement in a poem is, “What would happen if I described this instead of naming it?” The best way to find out is to experiment with injecting images and see what feels right.
Now it’s your turn! Rewrite the following statements to “show” instead of “tell”:
Her hair was a mess.
I hate the smell of roses.
He couldn’t wait to see her again.
The preschooler wasn’t ready to leave the playground when recess was over.
You always change your mind.
The moon is full.
I refuse to give up.
Getting a feel for the art of the image? Good! Try using this technique next time you draft a poem. Replace three “tell” statements with “show” images. Notice how that changes the experience of the poem. Bring this exercise to every poem you write, and you will soon be writing language that leaps off the page.
Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.