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What Seamus Heaney Taught Me About Giving Feedback

About 15 years ago I was lucky enough to have a one-to-one writing tutorial with the poet Seamus Heaney. This was before he won the Nobel Prize, but he was still an acknowledged superstar, someone whose poetry I had been reading and studying for years. So I felt pretty nervous as I sat waiting in the corridor with my manuscripts. When it was my turn, he ushered me in and patiently read through the three poems I had brought.

Obviously, my heart was in my mouth. It was so quiet I could hear him breathe.

Then he looked up with a smile on his face and picked up the first poem I had shown him. “If I were you,” he said, “I would have shown me this poem first as well”. He then went on to talk about what he liked about the first poem, enthusing about the promising bits and encouraging me as much as he could. Most of all, he got me to notice the points at which I was clearly enjoying myself, delighting in the words themselves, rather than hammering away at trying to get a ‘message’ across.

It was only gradually, through hints and asides, that he made it clear that the other two poems had virtually none of the redeeming features of the first one. But by that time I didn’t really mind, I was so pleased that he had found something he liked and was showing me how to improve it. He also mentioned in passing that he was currently accepting submissions for an anthology of student poetry.

Ever since then, whenever I’ve been asked to critique a poem (or other creative work) I’ve tried to follow his example: focus on what’s working and encourage the person to do more of that. The aim, of course, is to help the artist maintain their enthusiasm for the work while giving an honest judgment. If you’re lucky, they’ll take the hint. If not, you’ll need to be more direct about what doesn’t work.

Heaney made it easy for me. He was charming, tactful and funny, while making it very clear where my writing had some promise and where I was wasting my time. I left the room with renewed enthusiasm for writing and respect for the craft. Unfortunately, not everyone is so good at giving feedback. Whenever I think of this meeting, I also thank my lucky stars I wasn’t the young composer who asked the great Rossini to appraise his compositions. According to the story, after hearing the first piece Rossini said “You needn’t play any more. I prefer the other one”.

So what do you do when someone gives you ‘constructive criticism’ that sounds anything but? Or when you simply can’t see what they are talking about, and wonder whether you are both looking at the same work? Continuing the theme of at How not to give feedback on creative work and my 5 tips on giving feedback on creative work, my next post will look at how to deal with feedback constructively.

As for my poem, I took Heaney’s hint. I went back to my room and reworked it, addressing the (now glaring) weaknesses. By the time I had finished I was much happier with the poem and very grateful for his feedback. I was even more grateful when I received the letter saying he had accepted the poem for the anthology.

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  1. lovely post – no facebook button?

    ps – can we get hold of that anthology?

  2. Thanks. What do you mean by a ‘Facebook button’?

    The Anthology’s here on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/May-Anthology-Oxford-Seamus-Heaney/dp/0902240129/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1210339907&sr=8-1

  3. are you joking? LOL – and I thought it was me who was behind the times! I just wanted to ‘share on facebook’ your luck in spending some time with Seamus Heaney with the few poets I actually rate – some of us are on the same sites there.

    It’s an icon (like those on de.licious/digg/reddit/stumbleupon) where you can instantly post content you value – straight to your profile/minifeed.

    I don’t unfortunately have the time to ‘hang out’ there non-stop, like some of the kids, but I do use it to keep up with what some of the other poets/writers are doing.

    PS – Here is a poem that just popped into my head as I walked with the kids in the woods hoping to catch the last of the bluebells this evening – at the moment it’s just notes so will get filed away til I have a minute to work on it

    sorry, wrong one! LOL – this is the one I wrote when I got back (I have two others on BBC Get Writing Northern Ireland)

    Away with an urgent spring
    into the black space under the
    flies a fingernail froglet the colour of
    speckled hazel eyes.

    the iced whisker of webs in miniature
    still frozen on the back of my hand
    among hot dock weeds.

    The bluebell one is unfinished too – and in the last two days out sprang two more (In the Evening The Bees Come and Man Bat) They are all about things I can see from my house LOL! The pomes won’t leave me alone!

    ‘Downstream in February’ was written for children and is ‘googleable’ – one day I’ll put them altogether as a monthly diary of the Moorland Seasons.

    Anyway, I’ll post a link instead (we are at Soibhain M Thomas on Facebook) – nice to talk poetry (esp Nature Poetry – any excuse!!)

    I’ll look at the anthology too and will write an article/personal review if I like it.

    Poets I like are Gerard McKeown and a few more of the Belfast Poets and some from Get Writing NI

  4. I do know about sharing on Facebook, but I don’t think you need a button on the post to do it. I keep meaning to add a Stumbleupon button as that’s where I seem to get the most/best social bookmarking traffic.

    I like your poem. Spring feels particularly urgent this year in the UK because we had such a miserable summer last year. 🙂 Love the iced whisker.

    If you like moorland poetry I assume you know Moortown by Ted Hughes? One of my favourite books, all about the North Devon landscape where I grew up.

    I hope you’ll go easy on my contribution to the anthology if you review it – I can tell you now the rhyme scheme is a dog’s breakfast. Remember I was only young. 🙂


  1. […] just been reading a post by Mark McGuinness, called ‘What Seamus Heaney taught me about giving feedback’.   McGuinness had a one-to-one tutorial with the poet and, after handing him three poems to look […]

  2. […] McGuinness, writing on his blog Lateral Action, gives an ideal example of how criticism can be delivered effectively. At one stage in his career he had several of his […]