In prose the “show don’t tell” rule is a way to make a story more alive, and more interesting. In poetry, though, showing instead of telling is a way to pack a lot of punch into a few words.
One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems, well, really one of my favorite poems, goes like this:
The Poets light but Lamps–
The Wicks they stimulate–
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns–
Each Age a Lens
I had to read that three times before I figured out what exactly Ms. Dickinson was talking about, even though it’s really a simple poem. And yet paraphrasing it takes all the magic out: : Poets are mere conduits for poems, which are like lights, and the vital ones get expanded by time which acts like a lens. Pretty dull, isn’t it? It’s better to let the metaphor work its way into our brains like a depth charge. And then, when the shockwave ripples through, you realize she’s talking about mortality and immortality. This is more than just lamps. She never realized it, but she was talking about herself. Only seven of her poems were published in her lifetime. She died in 1886, and her first collection was published four years later. It wasn’t until the publication of The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955 that she first began to be recognized as a great poet. The lens worked in Emily Dickinson’s case, and her wicks still burn with true light.