It is a well-documented fact that writers can be dismissive, hypercritical, and downright insulting when it comes to the work of their peers and predecessors. Juvenal, Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Sayers and her nemesis Edmund Wilson, Dorothy Parker, John Logan…the list is long and spans centuries. Some of the critiques are valid, in their way; many are wickedly funny, which doesn’t remedy the unkindness of the barbs. Most writers who have been writing and presenting or publishing their work for awhile will have encountered some less-than-generous “feedback” from other writers. Given human nature, such responses are probably inevitable.

In the mediated circle of the voluntary critique group such as may be found among MFA programs or community writers’ groups, the group or mentor often establishes protocols for sharing work–methods of responding to creative efforts that avoid too-harsh criticism, ad hominem attacks, or dismissive/discouraging comments. Once your writing is out in the world in whatever public form (print, slam performance, live reading, video, online, etc), however, the best advice is sometimes “don’t read the comments.”

Many agendas may drive the urge to bash particular writers or their works, among these envy, attention, pride, status, self-preservation, righteous indignation, or a sense that one needs to scramble to make space for oneself in an already small environment (“the literary world”). Even, dare I say, ignorance. I could speculate on reasons for unkindness until the proverbial cows come dawdling home, but I suppose it can be attributed to a kind of social Darwinism. People can be mean-spirited when threatened. Though exactly how the writing of poetry poses a threat to other poets remains a mystery to me.

Maybe I am a Pollyanna (entirely possible), but although I can recall some incidents and critiques that have stung me, there have been far more instances of generosity from fellow writers. While contemplating writing this post I sat back and decided to count how many fellow writers have extended courtesy, respect, useful advice, helpful criticism, networking and publication leads, encouragement, and the sense that I’ve “been seen”–acknowledgment as a writer–and I found the list was long. I considered listing names, but there are so many…and I was afraid I’d inadvertently overlook someone. I consider this an excellent “problem” to have.

Granted, some stings have been…memorable. However, I’ve been writing and publishing poetry and related prose since the early 1980s, so there have been many years during which I’ve had the joy of connecting with other writers in generous ways. Writing is both a large community and a small one, depending upon where I am in my own life: local at times, semi-isolated other times, and then–thanks to social media platforms, with which I have love/hate relationships–national and international!

As I get ready to pull back a bit from my work in the realm of higher education, I hope that the lessons I have learned about being generous to my students, gently encouraging while pointing out areas to keep working on, will stay with me. My feeling about poetry is that there’s certainly room for more of it in a world which can be harsh, and that acknowledging other humans’ urge to express their awe, fear, grief, passion, love, anger, and perspective won’t actually harm many of us.

Thus, to all of the fellow writers and artists living and dead who have been generous to me: Bounteous gratitude. I’ll keep trying to pay it forward.

Altercation, alliteration, & assonance

Recently, while driving to a restaurant just at rush hour, we witnessed a near-accident. The offending vehicles were blocking an intersection but had just managed to avoid collision, and the driver of one car was shouting from his rolled-down window–shouting words that it is a good thing my 90-year-old mother-in-law was too deaf to hear, I might add.

After scooting around to the shoulder and proceeding along our route, my son commented on the driver’s use of the epithet “douche canoe.” It’s one I was not familiar with. “What does that even mean?” I asked, unable to process it either literally or by metaphor; yet I grant there is something appealing about the phrase, for sound reasons (I am making a pun! I admit it!).

Not the insult variety of canoe
Not the insult variety of canoe


Poets tend to be enamored of the way language sounds, even those who “write for the page.” We can imagine the sounds, “see” them, as we write. Performative poems rely on sound and continue the ancient oral foundations of poetry in song and chant. Many American students encounter the Beowulf saga in high school; kenning appears on the curriculum, and it is the one aspect of the saga my students always seem to recall. says of “kenning”:

a conventional poetic phrase used for or in addition to the usual name of a person or thing, especially in Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon verse, as ‘a wave traveler’ for ‘a boat.’

Poets deepened these modifiers, using kenning to evoke allusions to well-known myths, for example, or doing tricky wordplay such as puns and alliteration…or all of the above.

Moving away from kenning and into the general field of poetic wordplay, poets and others who are facile with language can move with ease to the sarcastic, the suggestive, and the downright vile (a classic example is Catullus–here’s a link to a biography from the Poetry Foundation that includes commentary on some of his well-known insult poems). A quick Google search on Shakespearean insults yields dozens of results from the bard of Avon. One of my favorite strings of poetic invective is from King Lear: “lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue.” Note the alliteration and the meter. Touché.

Closer to “douche canoe” in terms of era is playing the dozens, exemplified for boxing fans through the boasts and challenges of Muhammed Ali–here, crowing over a bout with Sonny Liston:

“The crowd did not dream when they laid down their money
that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”

Elijah Wald has a scholarly book on the tradition of playing the dozens. These rhymes are intended to challenge, provoke, and amuse. The evolution into rap is easy to credit.


Despite the aural appeal of “douche canoe” with its long, repeated vowels, I doubt the phrase will enter my personal lexicon. It did remind me, however, of an alliterative insult I heard fairly frequently from my uncles when one of us kids was acting particularly balky:

“Don’t be such a horse’s hind end!”