• Cassandra Atherton

The quotation, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass’ is often cited as the first example of the adage, ‘Show, don’t tell’. Attributed to Chekhov, it encourages the writer to paint a picture for the reader, rather than explain everything to them. Compressed forms generally—like lyric poetry, prose poetry and even microfiction—are invested in ways of ‘showing’ because they have a limited space to ‘tell’ and therefore turn on their economy of words and expression. Poetic forms, in particular, are enigmatic because with compression comes ellipsis. Furthermore, the imagistic quality of poetry and its use of metaphors and similes provides an idea in the reader’s mind that not only limits words but also opens out beyond the bounds of the poem. Poems, in their appeal to showing rather than telling, embrace more than the sum of their individual parts.1

Because of this, it is arguably a better strategy to ‘show’ than ‘tell’: this approach allows the reader to fill in the gaps, or put together the meaning behind the juxtaposed nouns and chains of ideas. It is a heady experience, as a reader, to feel you are entering the poem and driving its interpretation, rather than being told what is happening. Perhaps that’s why we tell stories but rarely tell poems. This paper reflects on the centrality of ‘show don’t tell’ to the genre of poetry but extends the axiom to ‘showing in telling’ to discuss poems narrated by powerful storytellers, including ‘My Last Duchess’ and Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor) poetry.

Percy Lubbock’s book The Craft of Fiction (1921: 53) states, ‘the art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown to be so exhibited that it will tell itself’. Almost a century later, most creative writing manuals continue to address this concept and attempt to define the terms ‘show’ and ‘tell’ with a plethora of examples. Indeed, the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim is still a feature of many writing workshops. Notably, the Australian Writers Centre has a podcast on ‘Understanding show, don’t tell’ (Khoo and Tait 2018, n.p) and New York Times bestselling author, Jerry B Jenkins states: ‘If you want your writing noticed by a publisher or an agent—and for the right reasons—it’s vital you master the art of showing’ (2018, n.p). Furthermore, ‘show, don’t tell’ is often introduced in secondary school as technique to help students ‘achieve A+’ in creative writing:

There is one common downfall that occurs in writing. Some students create pieces that are too straightforward. Rather than using vocabulary, imagery and symbolism to express a point, they simply write down a statement that sums up what they wish to say. Your aim is to invite the reader to experience the story through your words. This can be done through the character’s thoughts, feelings, actions etc. Thus the well-known phrase among writers, ‘Show, don’t tell’. (Tran 2017: n.p)

However, there are some opponents of using ‘show, don’t tell’ in the secondary and tertiary classroom. Among other things, Paul Dawson argues, ‘show, don’t tell’ is ‘a convenient pedagogical tool for commenting on student manuscripts’ and quotes Antoni Jach’s statement that it ‘is limiting and prescriptive because it encourages “scene-setting followed by dialogue”’ (2003, n.p). Neither of these criticisms is particularly damaging to the usefulness of this technique in the classroom—assessment is always going to require marking criteria and rubrics and scene-setting followed by dialogue is not a terrible error of composition. However, it is in its application to poetry that ‘show, don’t tell’ flourishes as a tool for composition and interpretation. Indeed, Ezra Pound’s Imagist theory and TS Eliot’s objective correlative doctrine are most useful for their promotion of showing over exposition. Pound argues the successful Imagist poet should ‘use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something’ (1913, n.p) and Eliot encourages writing with the reader’s embodiment of an experience when he posits:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. (1919: 49)

Both Pound’s and Eliot’s theories are also useful when discussing poems with strong narrators, or storytellers. Importantly, these narrators show what is happening through their individual telling of events. The use of imagery, metaphor and juxtaposition are important ways the poet connects with the reader and invites them to interpret the poem.

Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, ‘My Last Duchess’ (1842), is narrated by a voice that appears to be the Duke of Ferrara telling the envoy about his previous wife:

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands. (1993: 1)

The poem brilliantly presents the telling as a form of showing, even as the Duke (presumably the narrator) tells us, ‘had you skill / In speech—which I have not—’ (1993: 1). This false modesty, which is revealed in the Duke’s artful speech, demonstrates his unreliability. He shows the envoy his previous Duchess’ painting behind a curtain, as part of a gallery tour. We are never told how his wife died, but we infer it from a clever juxtaposition of two events in the poem. The first is the Duke’s discussion of his wife’s treatment of other men:

She thanked men – good! but thanked
Somehow – I know not how – as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? (1993: 1)

The second, which follows quickly from this point, emphasises the Duke’s anger at the Duchess’ indiscriminate behaviour and ends with the words ‘as if alive’:

Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. (1993: 2)

This juxtaposition shows the Duke’s character, even as he narrates or tells his side of the story; the reader has to determine what is being shown through the telling. While it is perhaps initially possible to read the line ‘all smiles stopped together’ as the Duke commanding his wife to stop smiling at other men, it is through the images Browning conjures that readers are shown the Duke most likely had her killed.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s lyrical ballad, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798), is another example of ‘showing in telling’, where discursiveness is used as a conceit. Coleridge constructs a dramatic storyteller in the Mariner, who gives endless details and descriptions to the wedding guest. However, the narrative is told through the Mariner’s appeal to images and metaphors. In this way, the images—like the famous albatross—are examples of showing not telling.  For example, in the following excerpts, the Mariner tells the reader the albatross appears through the fog and follows the ship, but it is the revelation that the albatross is an important metaphor that progresses the tale. Coleridge shows this to the reader by investing the albatross with Christian symbolism and demonstrating the ways in which it is an auspicious sign for the sailors:

At length did cross an Albatross,
Through the fog it came;
As if it has been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners’ hollo! (1970: 14–15)

Therefore, when the Mariner shoots the albatross, it is physically, psychologically and spiritually bad:

‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! –
Why look’st thou so?’ – With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS. (Coleridge 1970: 14–15)

In 1817, a revised edition of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was published that included Coleridge’s glosses as marginalia. These moments intervene and become little more than obiter dicta. For example, in the line ‘a good south wind sprung up behind’, the gloss states, ‘And lo! The Albatross proveth a bird of good omen, and followeth the ship as it returned northward through fog and floating ice’ (Coleridge 1970: 14–15). Furthermore, in one of the most significant moments when the Mariner shoots the albatross, the accompanying gloss reads, ‘The ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen’ (1970: 14–15), telling the reader the bird is sacred and a source of good luck. The Mariner and ‘the glosser’ are both storytellers, but while the Mariner narrates his story through a variety of juxtaposed images and metaphors which the reader is invited to interpret, the glosser tells the reader how to read the work.

If Coleridge conveys the fictitious tragedy of killing the albatross through a process of showing in telling, then the contemporary poet narrating his/her own experience of disaster is faced with further complications. This is because, as Daniela Tan argues, ‘writing about the unspeakable means to speak out and by doing so to fall short—a paradox that authors of atomic bomb literature confront’ (2014, n.p). Bearing this in mind, because of its emphasis on the economy of expression and what Robert Jay Lifton argues is its ‘symbolic transformation’ (1991: 21), poetry best captures the devastation of atomic warfare and a message of hope for the future. Hibakusha poetry shows, but never tells, the terror of the atomic bomb. It is specifically in its use of abject imagery that the poet gives the reader a glimpse of atomic devastation.

Hibakusha is the Japanese name for bomb-affected people and most often refers to the survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tōge Sankichi was the leading hibakusha poet of his time and the most public and politicised of the early Hiroshima poets. Tōge was one of the few hibakusha poets who was already writing poetry prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This is significant as many hibakusha only started writing poetry after the bomb, as a way to try and make sense of nuclear warfare; to provide testimony and lobby for nuclear disarmament. Tōge was 24 when the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and he died at 36 from leukaemia resulting from the A-bomb. His first collection of atomic bomb works, Poems of the Atomic Bomb, was published in 1951. One of the most stirring poems is ‘August Sixth’ where a ‘flash of light’ opens the poem and illuminates the post-atomic horrors. As the poem progresses, the reader is presented with a series of broken, overlapping images become more and more abject and confronting. These images are juxtaposed with the huge numbers of the dead in the opening lines where ‘thirty thousand people ceased to be/The cries of fifty thousand killed’:2

August Sixth

… Through yellow smoke whirling into light
Buildings split, bridges collapsed
Crowded trans burnt as they rolled about
Hiroshima, all full of boundless heaps of embers
Soon after, skin dangling like rags
With hands on breasts
Treading upon the spilt brains
Wearing shreds of burnt
cloth round their loins
There came numberless lines of the naked
All crying
Bodies on the parade ground, scattered like
jumbled stone images
Crowds in piles by the river banks
loaded upon rafts fastened to shore
Turned by and by into corpses
under the scorching sun
in the midst of flame
tossing against the evening sky (Sankichi [1951] trans. Thornber 2011)

Images of fire and references to heat are twinned with death to intensify the gruesomeness of the moments after the bomb was dropped. The heat only serves to speed up decomposition as the bodies are ‘turned by and by into corpses/under the scorching sun’. Tōge uses the abject to sear confronting images into the mind of the reader. In this way the ‘skin dangling like rags’ and survivors ‘treading on spilt brains’ are prioritised in the poem. The abject builds to the moment where young, innocent girls lose all dignity in death: ‘Heaps of schoolgirls lying in refuse /Pot-bellied, one-eyed/with half their skin peeled off, bald.’ Their final resting place among refuse, their bellies expanding with the heat and their appearances ghoulish, perhaps the worst part of this image is the end of the innocence these schoolgirls represent. Telling in atomic bomb poetry would be horribly didactic—instead, the imagery in hibakusha poetry shows the devastation and attempts to lobby for nuclear disarmament via a chain of horrific imagery and metaphors.  

‘Show, don’t tell’ aims to avoid putting readers in the position of being told if they can instead be shown. When the narrator of a poem is cast in the role of storyteller or witness, an approach that favours ‘showing in telling’ becomes essential. This involves appealing to techniques such as imagery, metaphor and juxtaposition to allow the reader to be shown the event as it unfolds. In the case of hibakusha poetry, we are shown ways to engage with the ineffable in order to remember the horrors of atomic warfare:

the tribe of Hiroshima, from our eyes
it never disappears
that morning’s
is playing
in the shadow of the cloud. (Sankichi [1951] trans Thornber 2011)



1. This is discussed at greater length in C Atherton and P Hetherington, 2016 ‘Like a porcupine or hedgehog?: The prose poem as post-romantic fragment’, Creative Approaches to Research 9.1: 19-38.

2. This is a truncated discussion of my chapter, ‘“In the shadow of the cloud”: Hibakusha poets as public intellectuals’ in The Unfinished Atomic Bomb: Shadows and Reflections, edited David Lowe, Cassandra Atherton and Alyson Miller, Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018.


Works cited: 

Browning, Robert 1842 ‘My last duchess’, in My Last Duchess and Other Poems (Dramatic Lyrics), New York: Dover Pubs, 1993, 1–2

Coleridge, ST 1970 [1798] The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Mineoloa, NY: Dove Publications

Dawson, Paul 2003 ‘Towards a new poetics in creative writing pedagogy’, TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses 7.1

Eliot, TS 1919 ‘Hamlet and his problems’, in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, London: Methune, 1920, 47–50

Ferguson, Frances 1984 ‘The nuclear sublime’, Diacritics 14.2 (Nuclear Criticism): 4–10

Jenkins, Jerry 2018 ‘How to publish a book: My ultimate guide from 40+ years of experience’, Jerry Jenkins

Koo, Valerie and Alison Tait 2018 ‘So you want to be a writer: Episode 236: Understanding ‘Show, don’t tell’, podcast, Australian Writers’ Centre

Lifton, RJ 1991 Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press

Lubbock, Percy 2013 [1921] The Craft of Fiction, South Carolina: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Pound, Ezra 1913 ‘A few don’ts by an imagiste’, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse

Tan, Daniela 2014 ‘Literature and the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 12.40: 3, October

Tōge Sankichi 2011 [1951] Poems of the Atomic Bomb [Genbaku shishū] (trans Karen Thornber)

Tran, Lisa 2017 ‘How to achieve A+ in creative writing (reading and creating)’, Lisa’s Study Guides, Formerly VCE Study Guides