One of the more challenging problems that a workshop has to face is how to deal with poets who repeatedly present bad poems. The usual guideline is to be tactful. The benefit of this to the group is that it creates a more socially relaxed atmosphere, giving people a chance to learn in a supportive environment. The democratic, non-elitist mix of poets guarantees variety in the group. Tactfulness and honesty need not be at odds and after all, individuals can ask for honest comments either privately or to the whole group if they want. Moreover, newcomers to the group won't be scared away by fears of being adversely criticised. The guideline also makes it easier to stamp out gratuitous insults.
However, there are disadvantages as well, for the group and the individuals. To accurately express one's opinions is never easy, but to express them tactfully is harder still. In some groups even calling a poem bad constitutes a tactless insult. Tact too easily leads to bad poems being welcomed by
- Silence - soon filled by well-meaning comment from others
- Coded praise - praise that the inner circle know is derogatory (damning with faint praise)
- Diluted adverse criticism
- Hypocrisy - saying initially that it's ok then finding fault with most aspects of the poem.
All of these maintain the polite veneer. However the desire not to risk hurting the poet's feelings can spread beyond the lowest echelons. Reducing the range of critical comments can devalue the currency of criticism, producing wheelbarrows of "Great work!". Even if it doesn't, it leads to the strange situation of bad poetry getting fewer adverse comments than good poetry. The consequent development of false self-images and self-delusion can't be good.
Before we proceed further a distinction needs to be drawn between workshop comments and more academic criticism. The latter is concerned with quality for the benefit of buyers or readers, an exercise of comparing, contrasting and theory building. A workshop is in part a support group with improvement of the poem and poet as the purpose of quality evaluation, not the establishing of a pecking order. All kinds of people join workshops and for a variety of reasons. A workshop needs to decide how many of these reasons are within its scope to satisfy. Quality is not always foremost in the poet's mind. Catharsis or a political agenda may be more important to them. They may just want a shoulder to cry on. This variety is reflected in the response to deprecation. When a poem is adversely criticised
- the group may react to the critizer, rushing to the defence of the victim.
- the victim may have written a poem with sensitive personal content and may become very upset if their whole being is felt to be devalued.
- the victim may be unhinged enough to take obsessive revenge.
These are dangers that the workshop critic is more likely to encounter than is the academic critic because the risk of a poet identifying with his/her work is greater. Sometimes the critic makes such identification is more explicit. Of course, one should criticize the poem not the poet, but a consistent run of poems lead to plausible inferences. Also, while some good poets (e.g. Auden) can write awful poems, there are bad poems that only bad poets can write. Distinguishing between types of bad poems is a useful critical function. Sometimes the most direct way to improve the poems is to improve the poet. Perhaps they should be advised to take a break for a while, or read more, or think about why they write. It's even possible that the person might be more fulfilled in another field of creativity. It's worth taking the prospective poet aside to see how they feel about the comments their poems are receiving, because it's easy to miss the hints when they are presented through the smoke-screen of tactfulness.
I knew someone who he did a 60 mile round trip each month rather than go to his local workshop whose tactfulness, he claimed, delayed his initial progress for a year or so. He was led to believe that the odd line or so needed tweaking. In fact, as he later realised, a radical overhaul was needed. He felt in retrospect that he was being patronised, that the people who at the time wrote better poems were getting direct, honest complimentary comments from him while he was getting watered down white lies, that he was not being treated with respect.
Some say that one should never discourage a poet: a poet might always improve, and artistic judgements may always be wrong - look at Hopkins, people say, look at Van Gogh! But both of these men survived discouragement, and if Van Gogh hadn't been discouraged from being a pastor, he might not have progressed as an artist. Workshop tutors (professional ones in particular) should bear in mind their responsibility to the person and not just the poetry in the same way as a good sports trainer would evaluate whether athletes are in the discipline that will give them the most fulfilment, though care should be taken when heeding the advice if the trainer gains financial benefit from a particular choice by the athlete. Money complicates things, something of which those who pay for writing courses should be aware.
Of course, if a poet knows that s/he is no good and still enjoys going to workshops, that's fine. Where would we be without Sunday joggers? The problems arise when they neglect their family or risk their health in the belief that they have a realistic chance of qualifying for the Olympics. There's also the risk of the bad driving out the good.
Tact is not the risk-free option that it's often assumed to be. It has consequences for the group but more seriously the lesser poets get less than a fair deal. They have as much right to honesty as anyone - it's wrong to equate naivity of poetry with emotional naivity. In the end, the decision whether or not to insist on tact depends on which poets (bad and good) the group wants to keep. Personality rather than quality are likely to determine who will feel uncomfortable enough to leave. Tact will hurt the listeners with delicate artistic sensibilities (because there'll be more bad poetry) and critical integrity (because comments won't be so honest). It will slow the progress of some beginners. It won't impress the newcomers who come expecting an honest evaluation of their work. It will protect the mentally unstable and the egos of those who think they're better than they are.