I wanted to make some observations about why our criticism is so bitter and vindictive, instead of respectfully serious, even if sometimes harshly so; and offer some comments about teaching creative writing and the poetry these programs are producing nowadays. But there's so much to say along those lines (not to mention that so much has been said, and much better than I can offer), that I feel a need to respond to a few comments, from Laura and Mitch, and go from there.
Auden was famously kind and, as John Ashbery says, "notedly" ethical. But "negative" writing/ reviewing means different things to different folkses. The exact quote is "One cannot review a bad book without showing off." Not only does that speak to a personal evaluation writ large to include, perhaps less accurately, all others; but Auden also famously refused to select a winner for the Yale contest in 1955, and would have done so in 1956--with Anthony Hecht's full support--had he not been able to request O'Hara's and Ashbery's manuscripts from the reject pile (at Yale). So he was perfectly capable of the strongest "negative" criticism in fact, though he didn't see fit to write an essay addressing the flaws in the works of the 24 or so finalists (12 each year, presumably). He obviously saw a "system-wide" failure of some sort, but it didn't bother him; I wonder why not. Certainly, he had no obligation to (would Randall Jarrell have felt such an obligation?); but an awful outcome of this showed up in the TLS last year, in the form of a horrible homophobic letter from Jascha Kessler, one of the finalists in 1956, who had simmered bitterly over this rejection for more than fifty years! Maybe criticism (again, honestly and seriously rendered, no matter how harsh; that is, rooted in instances and examples one can point to, that gives a reader the possibility of making up his or her own mind) is a kind of (meta)fiscal accounting: pay as you go, critic/reader and poet both knowing what the p(l)aying field is.
This begs the question, are there any critics around like this, or is everyone a bitter partisan? Three terrific and measured critics come to mind immediately: James Longenbach, Mark Ford, and Angie Mlinko. But the kind of criticism -- or maybe I should say delivery system -- I'm talking about is personal and professional both: it can show up in print, but it functions on a day-to-day basis among our friends and students who are writers. To address each other in this way is, practically speaking, very possibly the only serious response the vast majority of writers out there is going to receive. Which makes it all the more important, and brings me to a consideration of the type of criticism one receives in a creative writing program. Laura makes the good point -- and DL implies this, too, in a recent statement about the new ascendancy of writing programs -- that there can't be anything wrong with the proliferation of these programs, as they foster good writing and sophisticated readers. The implication is that all programs broaden students, turn them into good citizens of the creative writing republic. Maybe that's so; but the institutionalization of writing has had some curious results, which I would like to explore, preferably after I read to my daughter so she goes to sleep.