One-Minute Book Reviews

August 8, 2007

The Case Against Poetry Workshops, Quote of the Day (Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

“Can you imagine Keats or Shelley going to a poetry workshop?”

Should poets stay home and read poetry instead of taking their work to workshops for critiques? Sometimes, yes, says Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the author of Coney Island of the Mind: Poems (New Directions, $9.95, paperback) and other books. Julia Oder asked him recently what he thought of the current “obsession” with workshops. His answer:

“Poets in small towns like Hailey, Idaho, feel they have no one to talk to about poetry. Everyone’s watching football on TV. So the poetry workshop serves a wonderful purpose for lost souls trying to find themselves in poetry. But if you’re in a big city, you don’t need it. I think it’s better for poets to stay away from poetry workshops. I mean, in a place like San Francisco, there are so many poetry readings going on – practically every night there’s one.”

Oder followed up by asking Ferlinghetti if he thought a poet could learn a lot just by reading poetry. He replied:

“Yes, it’s much better just to read it. And then I think – can you imagine Keats or Shelley going to a poetry workshop?”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti in “Poetry’s Eternal Graffiti: Late-Night Conversations With Lawrence Ferlnghetti,” by Julia Oder, Poets & Writers magazine, March-April 2007 issue. I couldn’t find the interview on the site for the magazine, but if you search for “Ferlinghetti” there, you’ll find lots of other articles about him.

Comment by Jan Harayda:

Ferlinghetti has a point that also applies to other kinds of writers’ groups. You have to be careful about when, why and which groups you join. They can hurt you if they devolve into a substitute for serious reading and writing. Groups that consist only of writers who have published little or nothing can involve other problems, especially if they include critiques of members’ work. The people in your group may not know how to give you the feedback you need to get published or make other kinds of progress. If they don’t, you might gain more from taking a class with a writer you admire who has achieved some of the things you’d like to accomplish.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. I think T.S. Eliot used to give workshops. I don’t see the harm in it. Even bad workshops are good. Poetry doesn’t have to be about getting published or “succeeding.”

    God forbid people would actually want to leave their homes and go to where others are talking about poetry.

    Anything that promotes poetry is automatically good.

    Comment by heehler — August 9, 2007 @ 12:03 am | Reply

  2. Have to disagree that “even bad workshops are good.” Some critics are so cruel that they can set people back.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 9, 2007 @ 1:01 pm | Reply

  3. I don’t write by committee and really don’t see how swapping notes instead of writing makes the writing better. The workshops are an excuse to spin book ideas in front of agents and editors. It’s the peons all lying up for a chance to touch the sleeve of somebody’s jacket. At some point, I wonder how low a write is expected to go.


    Comment by knightofswords — August 10, 2007 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

  4. Malcolm: No question, some people do go to workshops (esp. those sponsored by academic writing programs) to show their work to agents and editors. There are also lots of private workshops that may have a different dynamic. By my lights workshops at the major writing programs might be better for poets hoping to publish because it gives them a chance to meet people who know how the system works (and are part of it). But not all poets want or need to publish. And if you don’t, the workshops at the big programs can definitely be, as you say, an awfully expensive way “to touch the sleeve of somebody’s jacket.”

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 10, 2007 @ 2:29 pm | Reply

  5. Here are 3 filters Poetman puts all of his writing through.

    These are for editing purpose only – never for a poems initial stream of consciousness beginning.

    1. What are you trying to “say”?

    2. Have you “said” what you are trying to “say”?

    3. Can you “say” what you are trying to “say” any better?


    Comment by onepoet4man — August 10, 2007 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

  6. Poetman: Good questions. My version of “Can you ‘say’ it any better?” includes, “Can you say it any more briefly?” I’m a great believer in the principle of: Never say in more words what you can say in fewer.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 10, 2007 @ 11:48 pm | Reply

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