Saturday, 5 February 2011


Dostoevsky is everywhere I turn these days. I got into an argument recently about how the "show don't tell" philosophy that's endoctinated so many young creative writers isn't a rule to live by. Dostoevsky's poetry for example was full of telling images and statements which didn't discredit or undermine him as a great creative thinker or a poet. However, someone like Dostoevsky was great in a pragmatic sense too, this gave him authenticity and we as readers are always sceptical of obscure writers and poets.

I'd like to quote this from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Beauty Will Save The World.

"One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: "Beauty will save the world". What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes - but whom has it saved?

There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. It is possible to compose an outwardly smooth and elegant political speech, a headstrong article, a social program, or a philosophical system on the basis of both a mistake and a lie. What is hidden, what distorted, will not immediately become obvious.

Then a contradictory speech, article, program, a differently constructed philosophy rallies in opposition - and all just as elegant and smooth, and once again it works. Which is why such things are both trusted and mistrusted.

In vain to reiterate what does not reach the heart.

But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force - they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through - then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar to that very same place, and in so doing will fulfil the work of all three?

In that case Dostoevsky's remark, "Beauty will save the world", was not a careless phrase but a prophecy? After all he was granted to see much, a man of fantastic illumination.

And in that case art, literature might really be able to help the world today?"


  1. Ray, I still don't get where you get the "show don't tell" thing from. SDT is simply an English professor telling a student that writing "Andrew's face reddened, his hands trembled etc." is often more effective than writing "Andrew was angry". It doesn't mean don't be political or deal with big issues. Pablo Neruda's Elemental Odes don't contain any grand lines of political expression, but the poems are intrinsically political. The all adhere to a Marxist ideal of making do with what you have instead of getting lost in consumer fetishism.

    Most poetry is a mixture of showing and telling, it's what I based a recent class of my own on. It's quite thrilling to build up an image and then suddenly make the voice of the poet intrude. Without imagery and aesthetics, a political poem will just come across as a soapbox sermon. Young people shouting about the problems of the world tends to cultivate a boredom that can only be alleviated by amusement at their clumsy rhymes, mixed metaphors and tautologies. Such poetry is also historically proven to do sweet FA towards helping those problems, or anything else for that matter.

  2. "If poetry shouldn't make statements then what/ who should?" - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I can't believe you haven't come across this concept in poetry. Even a Jean Binta Breeze workshop I did was based around description over statements.... You got it though Niall, that's it! its a mix of both! p.s. if your running a workshop with Keats House right? - I'll be there and I'll criticise you in this blog if I don't come out with the best poem I've ever written that makes huge, loud and interesting statements!

  3. I make no guarantees, other than to turn you all into a bunch of sonnet hacks! If JBB was putting it forward as an exercise, that's fair enough, but if she was advocating it ideologically then that's a shame.

    Speaking of Dostoevsky, he may indeed have done a fair share of telling (my favourite was a mini rant in The Devils about students who wear blue tinted glasses and think that makes them nihilists) but he also liked to open up a chapter with a twenty page description of the room the scene was set in before anything happened!

  4. yeah, of course Niall my argument isn't about limiting description in your writing. It's the way I kept hearing/reading that making statements should be avoided and people like my man Dos hadn't lived by this so called rule and still managed greatness... and I find it refreshing to talk openly about how creatvity is taught... I heard some poets at a Literature festival I was at slagging off poets that use rhyme... what idiots! again, you don't always have to rhyme but there are so many exciting possabilties with rhyme and it ties in your lines so well if crafted right... anyway, that's another argument.