This is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile now, a few months out of the MFA.
When you’re in a dedicated workshop environment, the opinions of your classmates and teachers will mirror the opinions you’ll hear from editors and readers in the world beyond. You’ll have one to three years of hearing and getting used to those opinions before they are presented to you in the form of faceless one-line letters or brief asides. I’m not talking only about rejection letters here, but all forms of communication with other people about your work. An offhanded comment at a party or in an email, for example.
What this buffer period of listening to people’s opinions means is that these comments have a lot less power to unsettle you. Editor X, or Friend Y, says to you (for example–this is obviously not a comment I ever get!) “Poet, your poems are too short.”
If this is the first time you’ve ever heard this, it’s going to make you feel weird. You may, perhaps, overreact to it, and take immediate steps to double or triple the length of all your poems.
If, however, you’ve had two years of listening to people tell you your poems are too short, you’ve had time to come to terms with it, to evaluate it, and decide whether or not you want to actually do something to change this element of your writing. Maybe you do, and maybe you don’t–but you’re not caught off guard by the comment.
Instead, you can put the comment into context. You have a bit more data on how people tend to respond to your work, and you know if this response is a familiar or an unfamiliar one.
This idea of having more audience response data is especially important, I think, for poets, who have a smaller readership anyway. It’s really useful to have a couple years of people responding to your work to draw on while evaluating commentary and critique you receive in the future.
A workshop is an artificially accelerated form of giving audience response–feedback–to a writer. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not without flaws, but it doesn’t not do this one thing.