Poetry workshops can be extremely helpful in discussing your work and getting feedback from other poets. They can also be highly competitive, with each poet wanting to be the best in the workshop. Competition is healthy for a poet - it sets a standard by which you can judge your work. This guide offers some suggestions to critique poems in a way that seems like you’re trying to help while you jab the metaphorical knife into your peers’ backs. Your opinion can be used as a weapon to dull the poems of your workshopmates. Don’t hold back your advice. After all, if they weren’t looking for you to tell them how to fix their poems they wouldn’t be in poetry workshop.
Your critique may be extremely subjective - but so is most criticism, so remember to always offer your opinion as if it were a fact. Don’t equivocate. It’s not “I think that this line is too poetic.” It’s: “This line is too poetic.” The more you can cement your opinion as fact the more validity it will have for the poet whose poem you’re critiquing.
How to Fake Sincerity and Pretend You Really Want to Help
The most important aspect of dominating your peers in poetry workshop is to be able to feign sincerity and disguise your contempt for them. Watch some daytime television panel shows (like Opera or Dr. Phil) and see how the host comforts and affirms those who have been through some type of trauma (it will likely take less than a week of viewing to find a show that focuses on survivors of abuse or some fatal or debilitating disease) and try to match the host’s vocal cadence and body language.
It may take some practice to rein in your displays of overt hostility or disgust. Try not to let anyone know what you’re really thinking or feeling. It is important that they believe you care and want to help them make their poetry better.
Always try to make eye contact with them while critiquing, and never break it to see if others are agreeing or not. You may also latch onto a criticism that someone else has already lapidated at your contender. Agree with previous opinions offered and solidify the weakness of the poem (and thus the poet) without having to initiate new criticism yourself.
Handy Phrases to Demoralize Your Fellow Workshoppers
When other poets’ work is up for discussion, this is your time to shine. Always respond or critique after a few other people have offered their opinion - that way you don’t really have to pay attention to the poem and can just riff off of what others have said. Thankfully, in most workshops the poet whose work is being discussed is usually not allowed to speak or defend themselves. Use their silence to your advantage.
Words in brackets are blanks that you can fill in with words, phrases, or one of our suggested choices. Be careful to only use each of these phrases where appropriate. Telling someone that something is a cliché when it isn’t will have the adverse effect of making you look bad. As always subtlety is paramount.
For added smarm, emphasize the italicized parts like you’re talking to a hearing-impaired child who is visiting from a foreign country.
“This line sounds too poetic.”
The key to using this phrase is to look for adjectives and adverbs - too many in one phrase, line, or stanza, and you’ll be able to accuse the poet of being “too poetic.” Also, anything involving nature or human emotion is game.
“This [stanza|line|sentence] is too prosaic.”
The inverse of the above - look for sentences (regardless of line or stanza breaks) that read like prose. Keep in mind that “prosaic” also means “dull and unimaginative.” You get bonus points if you can apply the criticism to both meanings of the word at the same time.
“I don’t feel you’ve really earned [phrase] here.”
“Earning” a phrase (whether that is a whole line or just a word or two) means that the poem supports the phrase with what has come before. You can easily use this phrase if the poem has some kind of shocking reveal or unforeseen twist. Doubting the deservedness of a word or phrase is the easiest way to critique a poem because it’s generally an unassailable position. It is difficult to defend that a poem has earned the word “lonely” in stanza three. It is much easier to assert that it has not earned it.
“This one’s close. Maybe if you just [dropped|added|rearranged] this [word|line|stanza] it would gel.”
You know what is best for the poem; even more than the poet does. By giving a poem your stamp of approval (even with the reservation that it is only “close”) you are implying that you are a superiour poet who is capable of judging the quality of your peer’s work, like you would be if you were to judge a kindergarten art show.
“[Verb] isn’t really doing enough work.”
It is no secret that verbs are the engines that propel poems forward. Not every verb has to be descriptive or interesting - “said” is often a better word choice than “retorted” or “demanded” and in fact, if a poet uses verbs to carry too much emotional weight you could accuse the use as being “too poetic.” However, look for simple verbs, especially being verbs (is, am, are, has been, etc.), as a place where you can strike, and suggest that the verbs aren’t pulling their weight.
“You can get into the middle of the action by cutting the first [number] stanzas.”
Suggesting that a poet cut all but a small portion of their poem is like telling them to throw it away and start over. You must exercise caution when suggesting cuts, though, because a lot of first drafts can actually be improved by cutting the expository stanzas, usually written before the poet knew how the poem was going to evolve. You don’t want to give any advice that would result in a better next draft.
“This image is telling rather than showing.”
You can always return to the old standby - the cliché of “Show, don’t tell.” Even non-poets tend to know this bit of poetry wisdom. So whenever you can point out that someone is telling instead of showing an image (or reporting a scene rather than depicting or dramatizing it) you are essentially implying that they have failed to achieve a grasp of even the most fundamental aspects of writing poetry.
“[Anything] is a cliché.”
If you can think of at least one example of a technique, phrase, or idea having been used before in the history of human art, you can accuse the poet of using a cliché. Reserve this tactic for the best line in the poem - that way they’ll be more likely to excise their own gems and the poem will usually crumble.
“The line length is too [long|short].”
This one can be a little silly to point out. Too long or short for what? So you must try to keep a straight face when you say this one, no matter how much you want to laugh. What’s important is that you’re encouraging a rewrite. Always try to keep them off-balance, and keep them writing new first drafts.
“This poem would be better as a [sonnet|villanelle|triolet|sestina|haiku].”
When all else fails, suggest a rewrite into a different form. Try to back up your choice as matching the theme of the poem with its form. If the poem is written in free verse about a recurring dream, suggest a villanelle as a means of matching the theme of repetition in the poem. Or you could suggest something that is the opposite of its current form, thus requiring the most amount of work to rewrite. If the poem is a long narrative, suggest that it may be rewritten as a haiku.
How to Survive When Your Poems are on the Block
While your own work is up for discussion, here are a few tips for ensuring that your own poems are as defensible and immune from criticism as possible. Be strong. It’s not like you care what anyone else has to say, anyway, so let them talk themselves into a corner where they’re more vulnerable to your attack.
Here are a few ways to turn the disadvantage of your silence to your favour.
Write poems about unassailable subjects, written in the first person about the time you were raped or molested, the death of a close family member, or some kind of persecution because of your race, religion, or sexual alignment. That way people will be less likely to criticize your poem for fear of upsetting you or breaching social etiquette. If possible, try to nearly weep a little when reading your poem aloud, and if asked if you need a minute afterwards to compose yourself, always say “Yes… I think I do.” and leave the room for a few minutes (as long as you know they’ll get back to your poem upon your return - if not, then you can pull yourself together, buck up, and be ready to listen to simpletons talk about your poem).
Show your workshopmates that you have completely disregarded their critiques by consistently writing new poems that go against the advice you’ve received in previous weeks. That will show them that their opinions do not matter to you, and that their attempts to help are futile.
Whenever someone is saying something negative about one of your poems, be sure to roll your eyes or make some face of disgust so that they and the others in workshop know that you disagree with them. Audibly scoff at least once per session.
Disaffirm & Dispute.
When it is your turn to speak, claim that your poem actually is doing the opposite of what one of your more vocal detractors has stated they believe it is doing. You will make them look like a fool who doesn’t “get” your work.
Create “straw man” arguments that refute comments that your critics never really made. You get bonus points here if you can somehow compare them disfavourably to a Nazi.
Always be sure to remind someone that the poem is about a speaker, and not you, even if the poem is in the first person and your name appears in the poem along with specific details about you and your life. Whenever someone attempts to say something about “you” interrupt them and remind them that it’s not you, it’s “the speaker.”
After you’ve been handed back copies of your poem with notes on them from your peers, make a big show of throwing them in the trash on your way out of workshop. That will prove that you don’t need their advice.
By following this survival guide you’ll be sure to outwit, outpace, and impress your teachers, peers, and classmates.
Following the advice of this guide will likely get you thrown out of the workshop, physically assaulted, or both. Luckily, these people don’t even deserve to be in the same room with you, so this should not be a problem. They’ll all be sorry once you are rich and famous (and they’re still mired in their mediocrity).
About the Author
Jough Dempsey is a poet & critic and the webmaster of Poetry X, an online poetry resource for learning how to crush your competition. In his spare time he enjoys scoffing and rolling his eyes.