Show and Tell
The idea behind what constitutes ‘telling’ is probably the most often confused by critics who are new to poetry.
The general notion of it has been around for centuries in all types of literature, but the approach to it was tightened considerably in the 1920s by those of the Modernist school of thought – most notably TE Hulme, HD and Ezra Pound who adapted many tenets of the French school of Symbolism into Imagism.
This leaves us with the current poetic climate, which shuns the idea of a pseudo-poet narrator (as favoured in lyrical poetry – Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, for example) in favour of less intrusive accounts.
The guidelines that it encourages are pretty logical, and mostly just serve to crystallize a critical paradigm present long before it was given this name. It’s simply a matter of narrative viewpoint.
If I say ‘The man is sad’ I am intruding upon the narrative with my own opinion.
If I say ‘The man is crying’ then the reader makes up their own mind based on visual information, in the same way a person in the real world might assess whether someone is sad or not.
The above is a simplification, but serves for the basic premise. The ground gets trickier as we go towards other types of narrative, however. In a dramatic monologue (My Last Duchess [Browning], The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock [TS Eliot]) the entire poem is focused around a speaker’s opinion, and so if the poem says ‘the man is sad’ then this is not an authorial intrusion, but rather the opinion of the speaker.
A good guideline to use when writing monologues is to simply consider whether the bit that would usually be telly is effective. Perhaps the narrator’s calling the man ‘sad’ actually shows his melancholy outlook on life. It often comes down to what aspect of the narrator a statement seems to be concealing, which is really the core of the dramatic monologue.
Even when you can justify telling, it is most often better to show. For example, saying ‘my dog likes to play’ is telly, generalising, abstracted and all-round vague. Saying ‘my dog will jump metres in the air to catch a frisbee’ is showing, and is also specific, interesting and imageable.
A short bit of writing exploring the idea of 'showing and telling'.