It’s true, poetry workshops can be helpful. I've been to workshops that I've enjoyed. I've led workshops. At some point, it is always necessary to invest time in solitude. Recently, I ran across this interview with Gregory Orr, excerpted here:
"To me poetry is both Quest and Craft. The quest aspect: what poetry means to you as an individual who has decided to orient her life in relation to this thing called 'poetry'—no one can really solve that for you. You search for guides and poetic forebears, but it's a personal search and struggle. Workshops necessarily stress craft, they can do only so much in relation to quest. But craft is easier than quest and less lonely. You can learn craft; you can improve, you can utilize your intelligence to master it. Why not call poetry Craft and forget Quest, or give the quest aspect short-shrift? That's the temptation that workshops breed. We know that. I guess the main defense would be to be forewarned. To tell yourself, "yes, this workshop response matters, but what is it that I personally need to learn or understand that poetry is trying to teach me?"
The full interview is at http://www1.american.edu/cas/lit/folio/spring2004inter.html
Gregory Orr makes an important point. When workshops or writers groups meet, we talk about craft but quest is also equally important. While another writing group member might offer a good suggestion, you can’t “go that way.” The suggestion might not fit the need because of the self’s deeper quest.
It takes a long time to master craft. Orr offers an interesting question: what is your poetry trying to teach you?
Sometimes, we are so close to our own work that we can’t see it objectively. There are things that you can do to step back from the mirror. Literature is a coin of two sides, writing and reading. The work that you are drawn to reading again and again contains a key to your own writing. Notice what you are reading and why you like to read it. Consider the kinds of poems (written by other poets) that you love. What kind of quest do these poems reveal? What are the life questions? Your own fascinations and obsessions reveal things about you. Another way to gain some distance is to ask a friend to make some observations of your work. This time, don’t ask for feedback about craft, but do ask for reflections about quest related to a specific group of poems that you wrote. Expect an interesting conversation.
This is not about writing “wisdom poems.” In a quest, the answers are hard won and long in coming, if they come at all. The issues are deep and deeply troubling; the best that one can do is to name the question. Think of Chiron, the wounded healer. Think of the Odyssey and King Arthur. Think of Lord of the Rings. These great stories illuminate a path for your own work.