The only thing worth saying in a book review, Raymond Carver once said, is Good job, keep writing! Some people hearing that line assumed he was soft-hearted if not soft-minded – but Carver was neither. He knew that writing, especially personal writing, is an act of courage in which we expose ourselves -- what we stand for, what we believe, what we feel -- to public scrutiny. As a classroom teacher, I’ve always kept this idea in mind when I respond to student work.

As a student I suffered through the bleeders (teachers whose pens leaked so much red ink that the page looked like a crime scene) and the teachers who wrote short pithy judgments like “Awk!” that sat atop lines the like the murder of crows on telephone wires in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. (Communication channels are always the first to go in horror movies). These teachers never motivated me to write more. Rather they made me afraid to speak and encouraged me to take fewer risks in order to avoid the harsh and cryptic marginal “notes.”

Such comments end rather than promote discussion. Worse, they breed cynicism and self-doubt. As a college freshman, my wife was told by a poetry teacher that she had written the best poem she would ever write. Though this comment was meant to be positive, it strikes me as just about the worst possible pronouncement a teacher can make. How different than William Stafford’s advice in Leaving a Writer’s Conference: “Listen -- if it was OK/this time, the world can surprise us/again.”

Luckily I had a number of teachers who read my work the way Raymond Carver might have. They encouraged me to re-write my work and took the time to talk over the choices I had made and the choices I had not considered. I try to keep these models in mind when I read student work. The only judgments I write are positive, the only declarative sentences encouraging. When writing is infelicitous – okay, awkward! – I write questions: How else might this sentence be written? What are you assuming about your readers here? Can you think of a more powerful verb here?

These are not rhetorical questions. With my comments I hope to hear my students’ responses, to read their revisions, and to talk with them about their writing. Like Carver, I want my implicit message to be, “Keep writing.”

Originally Published: October 23rd, 2009

John S. O'Connor's poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East and RHINO. He has written two books on teaching: This Time It's Personal: Teaching Academic Writing through Creative Nonfiction (2011) and Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom (2004). He earned his BA and MAT from the University of Chicago and his PhD from...

  1. October 23, 2009
     Colin Ward

    Insofar as published products are concerned, I would hope that few agree with Carver. I hate to sound cranky but, IMHO, a book reviewer who lacks the integrity or courage to call the brown stuff "shit" simply doesn't belong in the business. Yes, I know there are some who wonder at the pointlessness of trashing a book when so few read poetry anyway. I just feel that the "if you don't have anything good to say, say nothing at all" dictum has no place in a critical milieu. There, I said it.\r

    Insofar as students are concerned, the situation may be less clear; rather than a one-size-fits-all argument, perhaps the best course should target the individual student's basic need. Yes, a neophyte lacking confidence might require an ego boost. Scathing comments such as "you use words like a magpie uses wedding rings" (Gerard Ian Lewis) would undoubtedly devastate such a budding poet. At least as common, though, is the overconfident newcomer who grossly underestimates the complexity of the craft. For the latter, the cheerleading you describe may be kerosene on a fire.\r

    Speaking for myself, I've seen both extremes, from esteem-based petting zoos to Usenet (i.e. the "Hell's Kitchen" of open workshops). I appreciate both approaches. Indeed, I participate in both types of fora. Let's flash forward to the bottom line, though: "Which environment produces the best poetry?" In general and without reservation, I'd say the latter. As evidence, I'd invite anyone to compare the works posted and see how many names they recognize on PFFA, Eratosphere or Gazebo as opposed to those in any of the more supportive workshops, like the ones listed here.\r

    Unlike Carver's cart-before-the-horse approach to education, I'd want my message to be: "Stop writing. Start reading. Start learning." Do we really need more poets/grads who think AnaDiplosis is a Greek porn star, can't scan and don't even attempt to distinguish prose-with-linebreaks from free verse? I realize I may seem like a grouch but if everything a student writes is "mahvelous", needing only a tweak or two, what reason do they have to learn the craft? Worse yet, how many decades of rejection will the graduates have to endure before they begin to suspect that, acting with the best of intentions, their professors may have sacrificed candor on the altar of encouragement?\r


  2. October 23, 2009
     Jeroen Nieuwland

    Can't we have a bit of both? Candour + encouragement? Affirmative criticism, not in the meaning of only always positive. But, yes, in the sense of exploring potential instead of putting down whatever is supposedly lacking in a piece of writing. \r

    David Foster Wallace apparently always marked papers with four colours (got that from: Kelly Writers House 'Remembering DFW' audio, 2008). Harsh criticism, but coming from someone who had invested a lot of time in it and hoped it would actually be constructive. \r

    Also like what Deleuze writes, someone who like no other could 'pervert' the ideas of whom he was writing, but always did do so with an attitude of affirmation: \r

    'If you don't admire something, if you don't love it, you have no reason to write a word about it. Spinoza or Nietzsche are philosophers whose critical and destructive powers are without equal, but this power always springs from affirmation, from joy, from a cult of affirmation and joy, from the exigency of life against those who would mutilate and mortify life.' (don't know where he wrote that - it's on the back cover of 'Desert Islands')

  3. October 23, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    And then there's William Logan:\r

    “The only way Ammons could have improved 'Ommateum’ would have been to burn it.”\r

    “Almost everything Graham writes offers the swagger of emotion, pretentiousness by the barrelful and a wish for originality that approaches vanity – she’s less a poet than a Little Engine that Could, even when it Can’t.”\r
    [Billy Collins is] “…the Caspar Milquetoast of contemporary poetry, never a word used in earnest, never a memorable phrase. . . . If such poems look embarrassing now, what are they going to look like in 20 years?”\r
    [Ted Kooser’s poems come] “slathered in sentiment like corn on the cob with butter,” \r
    [Gary Snyder’s poems are compared to] “the disconnected thoughts of a man trying to make verse with magnets on a refrigerator door,” \r

    [Anne Carson’s are like] “parlor games of extraordinary tedium.” \r

    “Reading a book by James Fenton is as bad as 'chewing shoe-leather,’ and the verse of Sherod Santos makes Logan want to put his hand into the whirring blade of a lawn mower. The experience of working his way through a particular Carolyn Forché long poem is one of 'nearly unbearable agony’ (not because it’s harrowing but because it’s so bad), while Tess Gallagher is pilloried as an “insufferable” drama queen whose poems are 'so garrulous and windy’ that 'what’s intended sincerely often seems grotesquely funny.’ The Pulitzer Prize-winning Franz Wright is characterized as 'a sad-sack punk, a 50-year-old who . . . moans like a depressive teenager.’ The recent poetry of Paul Muldoon is so 'full of artificial sweeteners, artificial colors’ that it is 'probably regulated by the F.D.A.,’ and even Muldoon’s Nobel-crowned countryman, Seamus Heaney, is sternly warned that he’s beginning to resemble 'a faux Irish pub, plasticshamrocks on the bar, Styrofoam shillelaghs on the wall and green ale on tap.’"\r

    From Mark Ford 'Samurai Critic’\r
    NYT Sunday Book Review

  4. October 23, 2009
     Wendy Babiak

    Well, they do say critics are usually frustrated artists. I haven't read Mark Ford's poetry, but I wonder if he's as sure of it as he'd like to be.\r

    I personally appreciate critique if it helps me improve a poem, and balanced criticism in a review so that I know what I'm getting when I buy a book, but I don't see the point in real snark (other than selling papers to people who enjoy that sort of thing).\r

    When I was in college workshops (a long time ago, now), I was taught to give critique in a balanced manner. Yes, find a way to suggest improvement, but sandwich it between praise. It's not really a one-or-the-other proposition.

  5. October 23, 2009

    I am with John S. Conners and, by extenstion, Carver's approach to nurturing poetry and writing. I am dead against Collin Ward's approach which, in my view, amounts to a death note on the creative process. His way fits poetry to a template, and that amounts to a killer of poetry's instinct.\r


  6. October 23, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Oh...I almost forgot:\r

    "Reading the poems of C.K. Williams, Logan writes, is 'like watching a dog eat its own vomit.'\r

    Eric McHenry - Slate

  7. October 23, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Speaking of William Logan, and since we’re both here, let me add a personal note. I don’t mind saying that, having been subjected in the past to the poetry criticism of Mr. Colin Ward, my theory is that he's actually William Logan in disguise.\r

    Either that or he has a picture of him hung over his bed.\r

    You will note in his comment, above, the very same philosophy of poetry criticism: kill 'em all and let God sort them out.

  8. October 24, 2009

    Mark Ford is a glorious poet (SOFT SIFT), editor (see his selected O'Hara & his NY School Anthologies), biographer (Roussell) and--those bitter comments are not his bitter comments--those are Logan's comments quoted by Ford in Ford's review ("Samurai Warrior")of Logan's book. Ford would never stoop to crassness for a simple snicker.

  9. October 24, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald


    I'm sure you noticed in my comment, above, that full credit was given:\r

    "From Mark Ford 'Samurai Critic’\r
    NYT Sunday Book Review"\r

    Ford is Ford. Logan is Logan.

  10. October 25, 2009
     Don Share

    Just so folks know, I am not the Don who commented above.\r

    Hi, other Don!

  11. October 25, 2009
     D W Cunningham

    Hey look what I found...some Dons.\r
    Don #3 here.\r

    Not sure that poetry reviews are needed at all. Because of its compression, poetry's worth (for lack of a better word) usually can be observed in a modest sampling of the thing itself--no filtering needed. [Unless the object is a book-length poem where we need to know the value of whether or not the underground command center operated by the bad guy blows up at the end.] To "review" the new Ashbery book, why not simply print a representative poem and note that it is representative (and it better be, dammit)? Then the reader can decide.

  12. October 25, 2009
     edward mycue

    ray wasn't interested in wasting time showing off. we were friends and met in a writing group that met in lawrence and justine fixel's living room early 1970's san francisco. others there then still alive are shirley kaufman (jerusalem)\r
    jack gilbert (massachusetts) nanos valaoritis (athens). talk to them. and to maryanne carver the lovely intelligent kind coauthor of ray's life in those early years. \r
    edward mycue

  13. October 26, 2009
     Colin Ward


    I assume we agree on the tautological: in any endeavour that involves skill neophytes tend to perform like, well, neophytes. \r

    Here I think you've hit on the crux of the matter:\r

    Can’t we have a bit of both? Candour + encouragement? \r

    Candour is precisely what I'm advocating. \r

    I think "encouragement" is the trickier part of your equation. For starters, are we encouraging students to continue writing [badly] or to begin writing well? Surely the former has to stop before the latter can commence, with considerable unlearning and learning in between, no? When better to initiate this transition than when they enter our classroom?\r

    If we give students the mistaken notion that their work is impeccable (or within a few minor edits of perfection) why should they continue coming to class? Why should they bother contemplating what, in one word, distinguishes the free verse of the 1920s from that of the 1930's and what we see today? Why discover whether "Prufrock" is free verse or het-met? Why wonder how critics were able to predict that "Beans" would be received as the best DPK poem and "Eve Marie" the worst? Why ask about the absence of a volta in "The Silken Tent"? Why strive to understand the reason Poe's work was disparaged by most contemporaries and by critics ever since? These are just some of the hundreds of pertinent questions that can be answered. Imagine the thousands that can't! Instead, students can plod along the rest of their lives wondering why discerning editors, critics, readers, publishers and contest judges reject their work.\r

    "It must be just a matter of taste. Or politics. After all, I know my work is fine. My professor said so!" Or, at the very least, never said otherwise. \r

    That brings us full circle back to candour.\r


    "Whether or not critique is constructive depends on how the author uses it, not on the manner in which it's phrased."\r

    - John Boddie\r

    "Yes, how selfish of someone to spend time giving an informed critique of another's work."\r

    - Aidan Tynan\r

    "But what really pisses me off, when you get right down to it, is the unmitigated gall of so many who...have the patronizing, self-absorbed opinion that the person who critiques their poetry has not a clue, has never loved, has never grieved, has never existed in all of the frames they write so badly about. THAT (at the moment) is what really pisses me off."\r

    - Debi Zathan

  14. October 26, 2009
     John S. O\'Connor

    Many thoughtful comments above. I do not, of course, advocate praise without constructive criticism. In fact, a student of mine emailed over the weekend to remind me that I recently wrote this comment on her four page paper: "The final paragraph is terrific. How is everything that comes before it helping you to achieve your purpose here?" What I really want to advocate is a dialogue with students (questions that lead to further discussion) rather than summary judgments.\r

    Two other points: I don't think book reviews are equivalent to end comments on student papers. (If anything, teachers -- especially school teachers -- have a greater responsibility to encourage). \r

    That said, I don't quite understand the function of critics like William Logan who trash many of my favorite poets (Dean Young, Kevin Young -- and I'm just in the "Y" section of the index!). I'll address what I see as a serious audience problem in poetry in an upcoming post.\r

    P.S. Since friends have asked: the bird at the top of the post is an "auk."

  15. October 26, 2009
     Daisy Fried

    Book reviewing and giving feedback to students are two different things, and I don't think it serves anyone to conflate the two. We review professionals; we give feedback to students in hopes of helping them become professionals. Of course, teachers should always tell students specifically, and at length, what they're doing well. But in defense of "awk": I think it can be pedagogically useful to tell a student something is awkward and have them work out for themselves 1)whether they agree that it's awkward, 2)what's awkward about it and 3)what a better way to phrase it would be--more useful than it is to edit their work for them. Sometimes more explanation is helpful but sometimes working in confusion is a great way for students to teach themselves something. For one thing, it's a great way for students understand what it's like to be a professional, after you no longer have teachers telling you how to proceed, and after you realize that there are more (and better) reasons to write than merely pleasing a teacher.

  16. October 26, 2009
     Arthur Durkee

    I agree the two should never be conflated, although they frequently are, especially in the more jackbooted of workshop situations. I would add that both students and teachers, or workshop peers, always need to remember that the writing is what's being commented on, not the person. At least in the classroom setting one doesn't have the veil of digital anonymity behind which to hide when one prefers snark as one's default mode of discourse; that's not an issue of candor, it's a mere issue of civility. It's quite possible to be absolutely honest in one's critique without being a crank or an arrogant potentate.\r

    On the one hand, it is a teacher's job to encourage and motivate: in a word, to mentor. One changes one's tactics based on the student in question. The best mentoring is flexible and adaptable, never absolutist and never rule-based. (Those who consider themselves charter members of the Grammar Police rarely achieve their goal of making everyone conform to their ruleset, but more tragically many Grammar Cops never seem to understand that poetry isn't prose and isn't required to follow the same ruleset.)\r

    On the other hand, one can make a strong case for student writers never learning anything at all from either reviews or classroom critique. The best way to learn to write remains reading, reading, and reading some more, and picking up good ideas from good writing. By absorbing it from good examples, and by osmosis. That mentors can be found, when needed, in many places other than the classroom–yes, I do realize it's heresy anymore to state that MFA writing programs are not necessarily the best choice in one's life, but nonetheless there it is–and that one of the best places to look for mentors, when one desires to write, is the library.

  17. October 27, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    So, in other words, if you love poetry as much as Nietzsche loved moral philosophy, you should be willing to write about it in the way he did about St. Paul and anti-Semites.

  18. October 27, 2009
     Richard Epstein

    I have said this a thousand times, so, hey, what's once more? The problem here is in failing to distinguish between critique and criticism and in failing to identify one's audience. A critique is a conversation between critic and author; its goal is improving the poem. Criticism is a transaction between critic and reader; its goal is understanding the poem--explication, placement in history and biography, and the like. The reader is more or less irrelevant to the former; the poet is not a party to the latter. Eliot was not suggesting ways in which Milton might improve his epic; he did not need to be "constructive." Bugbear264 was not unravelling the chain of Virgilian allusion in Angelfish3's latest poem and understood that his purpose was not to heap scorn upon her callow head.\r

    The 2 modes often are mixed online, but people seem more confused than benefited by the overlap.\r


  19. October 27, 2009

    Oh my goodness. It is the same old debate and couched in the same old attitudes.\r

    Today on a very small board I run a member quoted something William James said about philosophers. She said he said:\r

    "William James once argued that every philosophic system sets out to conceal, first of all, the philosopher's own temperament...This creates, as James puts it, 'A certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: The potentest of all our premesis is never mentioned...What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is--and so flagrantly!--is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is." \r

    A certain insincerity in the discussion James draws attention to. To me this as true of the philosopher as it is of the scientist as it is of the politician as it is of the priest as it is of the poetry critic. In the case of poetry criticism the insincerity has to do with the critic's relative lack of self-reflection, his incapacity for seeing the extent to which his crits are the product of "personal flavor." Said differently, in my view, the poetry critic who predicates his value on his critical abilities should always be held suspect for compensatory behavior.\r

    Mr. Durkee makes a vaild point. I think Mr. Epstein adds to the point to make a valid distinction between critic and critiquer. But I have to remind everyone of two cases in which the critic, speaking to his readers, looked to disparage poetry. Dryden whose label of Metaphysical poets was a put down of Dryden and company. And Rosenthal whose coining of Confessional poetry was a put down of Lowell and company. In both cases I would argue the point that the poetry involved is world-class.\r

    What was the name of that woman who was so easy on the eyes and whose poetry was metrically exacting on the ears? Carolyn Kizer I think it was. She said something like a good poetry teacher wants you to get your poetry right on your own terms. A bad poetry teacher wants you to write like them, just not as well. Most critics fall into the second class in my view.\r

    No. The poet/critic relationship is a bust.\r


  20. October 27, 2009

    Sorry. I meant to say Dryden's was a put down of Donne and company.\r


  21. October 28, 2009
     Wendy Babiak

    Thanks for the clarification! I've been battling a gut bug and had not had any coffee.