Why Poetry Workshops Matter

The following reflections appeared in the recent print edition of the Ver Poets newsletter.

“Revision is not cleaning up after the party; revision is the party.”
-Source unknown

“Sometimes the best revision of a poem is a new poem.”
-Marvin Bell

“You must be careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origin.”
-Stanley Kunitz

“You must revise your life.”
-William Stafford

Poetry can be a lonely art. Yet the best poems are rich in influence, and poets seeking to improve their writing (that is, all of us) do well to read widely and solicit feedback. One place we can all help each other is in workshop groups the likes of which I recently attended at the home of Ver Poet Simon Bowden.

The appreciation of poetry is largely a matter of taste, and therefore ultimately only the poet herself can decide what constitutes a “better” decision in relation to her poem. And yet, paradoxically, it is through input from other self-aware readers that poets can often develop most quickly, learning through feedback how their decisions affect a receptive reader. Through both giving and receiving input on poems, the poet also increasingly learns to act as this receptive reader for herself in both composing and revising her own poems. It is useful, therefore, not only to the poem in question, but to the poet over time.

The temptation for the author to explain something in the middle of a feedback session can be great. After all, we often write to be understood–if not intellectually, perhaps emotionally. Yet the greatest benefit a willing author can receive from her writing group is the opportunity to be a silent “fly on the wall” as a group of intelligent readers speak their thoughts aloud in response to the poem. It is a privilege they will not have once the published poem is read silently and more widely in the minds of others.

The best thing a feedback group can do, then, is to reflect their honest experience as a reader. You can reflect on the form of the poem, and what you understand about how it is working. You can try to answer the question, “What happens?” (far more useful than “What does this poem ‘mean’?”), giving insight into where the practical details are ambiguous or clear. You can reflect on what is evoked by the poem, what lines stand out, or where you felt your attention starting to dwindle. You can be curious and inquisitive about what you would do (if the poem were your own) in relation to these observations. All of this can be helpful.

The American poet Billy Collins once quipped that the greatest mistake of the journeyman poet is “being mysterious where one should have been clear, and clear where one should have been mysterious.” It can be hard to tell when and how this is happening on your own. A good group holds up a mirror. The best workshop groups operate in this spirit of confraternitas–all on the journey together, and I saw much evidence of both talent and familiarity in the recent meeting.

[For more tips on getting the most out of poetry workshops, including a list of useful questions, see “The Joy of Revision“.]