Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Exploding the Groupthink Myth

Factoid from Facebook: A group comprised of fewer than 1 in 10,000 living poets has quietly produced, in addition to the bestselling personal poetry collection (not including educational sales), one third of the speakers at the 2012 West Chester convention and all of the last ten Nemerov winners. Who are these poets and what is the source of their mojo? Do they have a secret handshake?

To be fair, the Groupthink myth isn't among the silliest things that poets believe. After all, it makes sense at first blush that a workshop filled with people critiquing each other's poems would produce a consensus aesthetic. Indeed, this may be the case in universities where all participants share common traits, most notably the same teachers. That is a function of demographics and education, though; working on their own those new poets would likely exhibit marked similarities in their writing.

The issue, then, is whether or not a mixed congregation of experienced writers will, over time, establish a common style. The major online critical sites provide the perfect testing ground, embracing members of all ages, education levels, styles, backgrounds and locales.

So, does anyone claim that they can tell the difference between poems from Gazebo, Eratosphere, PFFA and/or Poets.org? No, not even if the focus were narrowed to members who don't hop between venues. Can people distinguish individual poems coming out of those outlets from poetry on the same subject and of the same quality and form written in less serious forums or by offliners? No.

What about individuals within these workshops? Do they adopt a "house style"? Erin Hopson, D. P. Kristalo and Margaret A. Griffiths were active contemporaries on Gazebo in the mid-2000s.

  1. "Studying Savonarola" by Margaret A. Griffiths
  2. "Beans" by D. P. Kristalo
  3. "How Aimée remembers Jaguar" by Eric Hopson
Are the styles of these poems or, more broadly, these poets even remotely similar? No. In fact, anyone familiar with these and other long term participants is liable to observe how much more disparate the styles are. That's right. The data suggests that, collectively and individually, workshopping expands stylistic and thematic choices. The Groupthink Myth isn't just wrong; it's antipodally so.

"How," you may wonder, "can that be true?"

I'll answer a question with a question: "Which is more likely to produce coalescence: pushing or pulling?"

Outside critical venues stands the blurbosphere. Criticism is largely pointless and rarely appreciated. Commenters "pull" (i.e. root) for poets. They sweet-talk poets, glomming onto them like honey. Why should poets change when every voice is marvelling at their work? Where "never is heard a discouraging word" reviewers politely ignore strangers and foreign styles. Not surprisingly, this supportive and protective environment leads to overuse of the same form (i.e. prose with linebreaks), the same theme (i.e. the poet's navel), the same medium (i.e. text), the same [dispassionate] tone, the same [affected] voice, the same everything. All of this comes before an editor's taste narrows variety even further.

Objective critiquers don't have a quota of poems they need to approve/publish this quarter. Easily bored, they push back against anything they've seen too many times before. They push for variety between poets and poems, thus discouraging bandwagon jumpers and one-trick ponies. They push the writer to improve each word, each line, each poem. Homogeneity is the first thing they notice and the last thing they want to see. Members are more interested in making new poems than new friends. (In my experience, those who kvetch about cliques and the tone of critiques--the wrapping over the gift--are just looking for an excuse to leave.)

It may seem counterintuitive at first but any examination of the results and processes should convince us that open workshopping enhances diversity and originality. Were this not so I'm sure the 1-in-10,000 poets who participate on Gazebo, Eratosphere, PFFA and/or Poets.org would be far less successful than they are.

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