Essay

Poetry and Project Runway

Should book critics take their cues from Tim Gunn?

by Stephen Burt
Project Runway
Image: Getty Images

If you follow contemporary poetry but you haven't been following Project Runway, the popular cable TV show now in its sixth season, you might be surprised to hear that the show holds lessons for poetry critics. To learn them, you first have to know how the TV show works: aspiring fashion designers compete for a chance to show their work in New York's Bryant Park alongside couture's big names, among other prizes. Each week contestants design clothes to meet a challenge: successful designers and guest judges rate the results. The lowest scoring contestant gets eliminated. The highest scorer usually gets immunity (he or she can't be knocked out next week) along with kudos from the viewers and from Tim Gunn, the dapper adviser. In one recent challenge, contestants made dresses, tops, jackets or skirts out of newspaper. The winner, Irina Shabayeva, came up with a coat whose thick cuffs looked like curly meringue; one runner-up, Christopher Straub of Shakopee, Minnesota, made an ankle-length skirt like the tail of a tropical bird.

Many poets, like many designers, love technical challenges; some poets have organized books (Robyn Schiff's baroque Worth, Angie Estes's nimble Chez Nous) around haute couture. No wonder, then, that Project Runway counts poets among its fans. Ron Silliman has examined the show at length more than once on his popular blog: Project Runway, he says, "does a better job of showing creative people being creative than any television show ever." Another poetry blogger, Tim Jones of New Zealand, proposes a show, "Poetry Runway," involving made-to-order verse.

With its invitations to test our tastes against experts, its parade of outfits for us to critique, Project Runway even recalls the famous exercises in "practical criticism" performed at the University of Cambridge in the 1920s, in which professor I.A. Richards asked his students to make snap judgments about unfamiliar poems. Richards meant to improve (as he saw it) students' tastes, and to examine their own sense of beauty and meaning; Project Runway might spark such examinations too.

Such overlaps between the world of reality TV and the world of poets and literary critics sound attractive. Yet other aspects of the TV show make me uneasy—and those aspects, too, can speak to how we judge poems.

Each week the producers choose, from a great mass of footage, the moments and scenes they believe work well on TV. Some of those choices highlight what wins, or what could win—Christopher's newsbird-of-paradise, Irina's news-coat, and so on. But much of each episode follows contestants who flounder: people whose dresses (or jackets or suits) won't work, and or who have trouble making anything at all. This season, the editors gave lots of time to Johnny Sakalis, an emotionally fragile recovering meth addict, who crumpled up and threw away his first try at the newspaper challenge after Gunn insulted it; he then claimed the dress got ruined by careless ironing, and presented an underdone strapless item instead. Sakalis got eliminated; fans saw him caught in a lie.

It's good television to concentrate, sometimes, on losers. Until I looked it up to write this essay, I couldn't remember much about Christopher's winning dress from episode one (strapless and thick up top, with an off-white skirt), but I did remember the outfit that got the first designer sent home: a shiny, baggy sleeveless shirt and short shorts, like vacuum-cleaner bags from outer space. The losing designer, Ari Fish, seemed spacey herself, unable or unwilling to follow directions: her personality, and her failed design, made better storylines than the careful construction of the winning dress. When Christopher did get time on camera, we learned more about the obstacles in his background (family troubles kept him from going to college) than about what he could do with ruffles and folds.

And rightly so. A show devoted wholly to winners' techniques—how to sew this and pleat that, how to get collars right—might not even make sense to me, unless my wife (who once aspired to theatrical costume design) felt like explaining each move. Techniques command attention from technicians, practitioners of the relevant art, and those who know it intimately. Life stories, on the other hand, are easy to follow; so are "personalities." And flagrant failures—easy to judge, and easy to describe—tend to stick in the mind.

Those truths affect, not only the judging of hurriedly-assembled cocktail dresses on television, but the reading and reviewing of new poems. The broader the audience, or potential audience, the harder it is to talk about technique, and the more tempting it is to fall back on the poet's life: Keats's tuberculosis, or his failed romance with Fanny Brawne; Robert Browning's successful romance with Elizabeth; Emily Dickinson's isolation (so often exaggerated); William Carlos Williams's medical practice, and so on. The temptation to show the life and avoid the work besets, in varying degrees, almost all writing on poetry, especially for a large audience, just because accomplishment, line by line, is almost always harder to talk about, and harder to make evident (especially when you can't quote the verse at length). And that problem—excessive focus on life stories—afflicts us whether we write about Browning and Keats, or about first books by writers almost unknown.

The other problem that Project Runway reveals affects, most of all, the way we describe new poems: it's the dangerous ease of a focus on failure. It's hard, by definition, to account for aesthetic invention, aesthetic success; it's a lot easier to point out lapses of taste. If you are reviewing a new book of poems, a new poet, and you find that half the lines in half the poems are laughably soppy, or limp, it's tempting to make a whole review from such quotations, interspersed with attacks. The same goes if half the poems are apparently incomprehensible, fakely folksy, or painfully contrived. The future will probably forget the book, since most books by most poets are forgotten, and the present will probably agree with you, since—if the poet isn't already famous—what you quote is what they'll see.

Project Runway gets most of its suspense by punishing failures; you get kicked out if you finish last, even if you won three weeks ago. It's good TV. But it's not good for readers and critics to treat poets that way. Inside almost all good books, and all first books, lurk disasters: to judge the books rightly—to find out whether they reward sustained attention—you have to decide what might count as their best poems, and even consider ignoring the rest. (I don't mean reviewers should always ignore the bad lines, but that we should ask, if we bring them up, why we brought them up, and what they show about the book overall.) W. H. Auden, the best judge the Yale Younger Poets contest ever had, said he "regard[ed] a manuscript as meriting publication if I like a third of its contents": it didn't much matter how dodgy the other poems were. Famous in youth for his negative reviews, Randall Jarrell eventually concluded that we should judge poets by their good poems: when you had read all of Robert Frost, he warned, you would end up "tearing out a third of the pages, reading a third, and practically wearing out the rest.”

Literary history abounds with critics who saw what was wrong with some poems so clearly that they could not see what was right with others: Jarrell himself couldn't get past the "habit of philosophizing" in Wallace Stevens's The Auroras of Autumn, though he did praise Stevens's other books. William Wordsworth in the 1790s penned lines that seem now, and seemed then, bathetically pedestrian ("I've measured it from side to side / 'Tis three feet long and two feet wide"), and he got understandably pilloried for them, even though during the same years he was writing a brace of epoch-altering poems (some people even count "The Thorn"—the poem with the infamous measurement—as one of them). The Victorian critic J.K. Stephen wrote a sonnet about reading Wordsworth's poems: "Two voices are there," it begins, “one is of the deep; / It learns the storm-cloud's thunderous melody.” The other voice, Stephen says, is like

. . . an old half-witted sheep,
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine . . .

Wordsworth would never have lasted on Project Runway, where contestants must literally stand by their worst efforts: critics, if not designers, should keep that in mind.

The credits to Project Runway remind us, each week, that its judges make decisions alongside the show's producers: they go by what makes the best TV, the best stories, not always by what or who—all drama aside—makes the most elegant, most inventive clothes. Reviewers and critics and readers of poetry, on the other hand, need not consult producers: we should consult, first and last, ourselves. We certainly can (and sometimes we should) say what we dislike, and why. But we should ask—with first books, with new books, with all books—not whether this poet has failed sometimes, nor how much we care for his or her biography, but whether and how the poet made durable poems. A critic who wants to heighten attention to poetry "as poetry and not another thing" (as T.S. Eliot put it), who wants to instruct as well as delight, must not seek, based on weak lines, to put writers out of contention; we should ask, instead, whether and how poets can make it work.

Originally Published: November 11, 2009

COMMENTS (16)

On November 11, 2009 at 1:12pm Patrick wrote:

I was interested to read this as a fan of both poems and Project Runway, but most especially because the comparison seeks to get at the pesky ideal of critical values. What is "good," what comprises a "failure," such values are approached here through the ease of exposition of such values (narrative over techne, for instance), then the climax, the dictation of critical values, which should come from "ourselves," and determine the durability of the work. So, it's an endurance test gauged best by subjective means, rather than the weights and measures of commerce ("good TV"). This leaves the question of critical values provocatively dangling before the self, the reading subject, as though the moral to the story is to say what you mean and mean what you say. It's tautological, isn't it? The best way to fashion something as durable is to pose it as coherent in just this logical/illogical fashion. Underwriting all is a reductive sense of the task of criticism, as opinion, not interpretation. That latter would expose and call to task critical values themselves, whatever they may be. But to revel in opinion, those flickers of deeply protected and protectionist enthusiasm, this is precisely why we watch "good TV." The artist who fails us, the one who makes good, and the judges we love to hate. It is ultimately divisive, and relegates the work of fashion or poetry to an internal space whose social functions remain dormant.

On November 11, 2009 at 5:48pm Chloe Joan Lopez wrote:

To take this a bit further then, I might argue that a focus on judging poets as poets is itself also a distraction from judging poems. I have no problem taking the third of Frost's poems I find valuable, but once I have those poems in hand, the question of Frost's relative greatness as a poet seems pretty empty to me. I could go in another direction as well: focus on technique can also be a way of avoiding the art. At best, technical accounts approximate how art does what it does, but I think we've all read poems that "shouldn't" work from a technical point of view, and I, at least, am familiar as a technician with the poem whose effect is blunted by any attempt to "tighten it up." Poets should talk shop-- that is our camaraderie-- but critics as well as poets need to remain open to the aesthetic success for which there is no account, as Burt points out. This is why I have nearly no use for negative reviews (except those that mourn a dashed hope for a greatness glimpsed), and I try to limit the shop talk in my own life. Not to get mystical on y'all, but: you can make your golem out of clay, but once it comes to life, it dreams its own dreams.

On November 11, 2009 at 7:32pm Matt Giancarlo wrote:
A thoughtful piece, Steve, and fun. But of course the one dimension you defer to consider—necessarily, it seems to me, in contemporary reviews as in contemporary fashion—is history: not as allusion or pastiche (or camp or kitsch) but as the substantive time-depth of judgment. Like certain works and poems, certain fashions rise above "fashion" itself to become classics, which later artists will look back to and draw inspiration from. And like any episode of PR, any issue of a journal or any new volume of poems is unavoidably an exercise in tempered ephemerality. "Timely" and "timeless" (or trendy and enduring) are not exclusive categories. The satires of Pope or some verses by Dickinson are examples of how the toss-away can easily become the canonical and profoundly influential. Poets' reputations and "worth" can rise and fall over time like hemlines. But we aren't somehow going to avoid this dynamic, or make art any better, by avoiding negative assessments. Certainly critics will never always get it "right", and it may well be better to err on the side of generosity. But at the end of the day we would short-circuit the dialectic of art if we pre-emptively keep ourselves from calling a bad poem a bad poem—or an ugly tie, an ugly tie. Of course our judgments may turn out to be wrong or dated. But they are always dated, and refusing to judge—or judging too generously—just kicks the can down the road. What did Ezra Pound say long after his friend Ford Madox Hueffer flopped on the floor like a fish and rolled around, derisively mocking the earnest Provençal-influenced diction in a volume of his early poetry? That it saved him three years. And à propos of biography, we all know by now that a bad review didn’t kill Keats. So I wouldn’t worry about poetry critics being too much like Simon Cowell or Tim Gunn on a sour day. Because history has shown what good poets do when they get a bad review. They go on writing good poetry.
Cheers! -- Matt

On November 11, 2009 at 8:09pm Tim Jones wrote:
Thank you for picking up on my "Project Runway" blog post - incidentally, I have since learned that others had been there before me, as this 2006 post by poet Peter Pereira attests:

http://thevirtualworld.blogspot.com/2006/09/poetry-runway-season-three.html

My post was distinctly tongue in cheek, and the enthusiastic response to the idea surprised me. I discovered that a similar idea had been pitched to New Zealand television a few years earlier, without success, and that quite a few poets would love the chance to appear on such a show!

Would it be a good idea? If it was done as well as Project Runway, I think it might be. It would ease the great burden of finding an audience for the poets who took part, and perhaps for other poets as well. On the other hand, if done badly (and New Zealand is home to some remarkably bad reality shows) it could turn into a kitsch-a-thon which wouldn't reflect well on anyone.

For myself, I would love to try out for the Tim Gunn role. But then, wouldn't everyone?

On November 11, 2009 at 9:14pm Steve wrote:
Thanks for the feedback! To Matt, in particular, yes, good poets at least sometimes go on writing undeterred by bad reviews (though we'll never know what got quenched). I am all in favor of calling poems bad if we think they are bad-- it's the tendency to dismissing whole oeuvres (books, poets) because there are bad poems in them that I write against here. To Patrick, do you really think that opinion can be separated from interpretation? We can, in the manner of anthropologists, try to separate emic from etic, but then we may not be writing criticism (as against literary history, or literary historiography) at all.

On November 11, 2009 at 10:03pm Patrick wrote:

I think we do make distinctions between interpretation and opinion, and especially in literary criticism. (But practically everywhere else, anytime we reach for phrases like "professional opinion" or "in history's judgment.") I hope I didn't imply they were separable. There are complex but common gradients involved, and what clarifies and probably warrantes the claim to interpretation, it seems to me, is the articulation of critical values. I guess I don't think the location of crito as subjective, as in the confidence of "ourselves," is that, and you do. Yes, emic/etic, if what matters is how we construe our "selves" in relation to the work. I'm thinking of a distinction based more on how we construe the work in relation to the world (the set of all sets, yes). I don't recall having read a book review, beyond those review essays by Jed Rasula, that met my exacting standards of "criticism," come to think of it...

On November 12, 2009 at 8:09am Kent Johnson wrote:

>[The] problem—excessive focus on life stories—afflicts us whether we write about Browning and Keats, or about first books by writers almost unknown. But what about poets who write obsessively about their *own* lives, so much so that one can only start to wonder how they wish to be recalled: as designers of cutting-edge literary apparel, or as models in poetry's reality show of fashion? Are they part of the problem you highlight, or not? You mentioned Ron Silliman, rightly, as a devoted fan of Project Runway (he has a new post on it today, in fact). I wonder if his fascination with the show might in some "hidden" way be connected to the fact that he's an author of The Grand Piano-- a multi-volume series of (often unintentionally hilarious) collective autobiographical self-canonization, written by poets who made their radical poetic reputations, once upon a time, by assaulting the autobiographical "I" in poetry? Who's clothes, exactly, are they wearing, do you think, and Why, as they walk the runway plank?

On November 13, 2009 at 11:20am R. Michael Virinsky wrote:
what is the point of the author here? possibly to "join the bandwagon" by adding more to the "poetry/reality t.v. crossover" and thereby attempting to legitimize the need for the dross? waste of space

On November 13, 2009 at 2:23pm Paul Bélanger wrote:
as publisher of Éditions du Noroît and
poet, i like to stay in contact with the
fondation.

On November 17, 2009 at 10:56am Michael wrote:
@R.

I don't think he's "attempting to legitimize the need for the dross" (I'm furthermore unsure which side of the crossover you would consider drossy: reality TV or poetry). Rather, he seems to be picking up on a connection that, for whatever reason, has been made by others and applying it to a wider critical scene as it functions in both situations. Such a furthering seems legitimate, even if you do not agree with the objects at hand.

On November 18, 2009 at 6:19am Ronald Kritter wrote:
I'm glad not to be alone in finding
Project Runway an illumination of the
creative process. If Tim Gunn is what a
poetry critic should be, the show's
judges, however, are what poetry
critics shouldn't be.

Gunn -- such an ironic name for a kind,
lovely man -- is absorbed and
stimulated by the dress itself, fanning
the contestant's ( I don't like that word
for the artist ) desire to turn out
beauty.

The judges too often critique the artist
more than his or her art. Nina Garcia's
personal and judgmental verdict can
freeze the heart of a vulnerable, young
dressmaker.

But true it is, that Project Runway is a
metaphor -- and quite appropriately so
for any poets watching out in television
land.

On November 18, 2009 at 11:59pm Curtis Faville wrote:
I think there are several disconnects
here, which completely undermine the
connection you're attempting to make
between a faked-up "game" with
contestants (and "judges") and the very
serious industry of making poems.

Though design and writing are
essentially private affairs, which
depend upon the concentrated and
focused attention of a single person
(cooperation be damned!), the
phenomenon of fashion (which is
largely a child of the new organs of
media invented in the 20th Century),
has no historical standards from which
adequately to form judgments (taste).
This year's fashion "musts" are no
better or worse than last year's--a
commonplace among customers for
high fashion--which is as true as last
year's discarded "dated" examples.
Whereas the "craft" of writing does not
seek to remake itself each season in
order to seduce a hypocritical audience
into spending absurd amounts of
money, to insure its continued
existence. Poetry isn't driven by the
marketplace, but by the persuasion of
its audience(s)--a matter of taste,
rather than economics.

Poetry AS FASHION doesn't exist, or, if
it does, it has little or no meaning as
high art. If Billy Collins's work is just a
raised hemline, or a ruffled collar, then
its value is ephemeral at best, and
meretricious and trivial at worst. Which
may indeed be the case--Billy Collins's
work IS terrible, in some measure
precisely because of its quantum of
"fashionableness".

It's a cute idea, standing Randall Jarrell
beside Tim Gunn, but it doesn't make
any sense. Tim Gunn could no more
adquately "explain" why one fashion
outfit is rationally and defensibly
"better" than another, than he could
explain why he likes salty food instead
of sweet. Because fashion, by
definition, changes without underlying
purpose--just the restless, aimless,
requirement to renew the product, to
offer something superficially "new" to a
bored, decadent rich class (and its
followers).

Poetry has never been about attracting
or catering to such a class. Further, the
point about good poetry, is its
resistance to obsolescence, to the
momentary craze, the hip trend.
Women don't wear bustles and large
hats anymore, as they did in the late
19th Century, but we can still read a
poem by Tennyson and be moved, in
spite of its age. We would not be
embarrassed to be thought enjoying a
poem by Tennyson, but no woman
would be caught dead wearing a bustle
today. We can read Berrigan's Sonnets
with total delight, today, but woe to the
woman who tries wearing a striped
miniskirt in 2009!

On November 21, 2009 at 4:31pm Kim wrote:
On the 10/29/09 episode of Project Runway, the producers selected each designer's best look to date, and the assignment was to create a new look that "compliments and enhances your best look." "That is how you build a collection," they were told. I immediately wrote this down in my poetry notebook, substituting the word "work" in place of "look." This is not the only idea about the creative process I've taken away from this show.

On November 23, 2009 at 10:38am Nada Gordon wrote:
Curtis, there is so much I disagree with in your comment above that I hardly know where it begin.

It could be argued that writing is actually an essentially social affair.

Poetry AS FASHION most certainly does exist, as the perusal of any period anthology demonstrates.

Raised hemlines and ruffled collars SIGNIFY, which make them more than merely “meretricious” or “trivial.” This is a typical dismissal of an art (fashion) that is gendered feminine (despite the fact that the majority of designers are actually men).

Tim Gunn is extraordinarily well-qualified to explain why one outfit is better than another. If you watch the show, you will notice that his critiques of garments-in-progress are in fact very well supported, much more so, in fact, than many equivalent poetry critiques one stumbles across. There are numerous logics to fashion, some of them undiscovered and unarticulated. I can tell you, for example, that a skirt above the knee absolutely lengthens the appearance of the leg, and that tights and boots coordinated with the color of a skirt will do the same by creating a unified color field. This is design science.

Fashion is not actually limited to the bored, the decadent, or the rich. The human need for attire has always combined with our innate creativity regardless of class.

Vivienne Westwood has done bustles… some not too long ago. Aretha Franklin’s large hat at Obama’s inauguration earned its own Facebook fan group.

I like Tennyson all right, but I think I do know many poets who would never read him because they feel his Victorian style is too dated, i.e. out of fashion. I suppose I like it precisely because it is dated, and the archaic structures serve as a defamiliarization device.

I am wearing a miniskirt today. It is not striped, but I wouldn’t NOT wear a striped miniskirt if I had one, providing it didn’t make my ass look too big. I do have striped tights on today with my miniskirt, and I am feeling fashion JOY, not WOE.

So... hmm...

On November 29, 2009 at 10:39pm Cheryl Savageau wrote:
I agree with you, Nada, that fashion is an art as much as any other - something I've come to believe even more watching Tim Gunn's comments and beginning to understand an artform that I was unfamiliar with.

I would love to see other shows like Project Runway that let us see the creative process - I know in my own life there is a lot of cross-pollination that happens when I encounter creativity of any kind - one of the reasons I love to read books by artists writing about their own process. Twyla Tharp, for example, has a great book on creativity - Her work as a choreographer and dancer have influenced my work as a poet/writer/painter/textile artist.....
(Dance programs also have a large following these days....)

About judging by one's failures - there have been plenty of poetry teachers who've taught that way - by humiliating students. I would argue that to praise what works in a poem is a more successful way to teach.

I love what Tim Gunn said about how to create a collection, and I agree that it applies equally well to creating a book of poetry.

On December 17, 2009 at 3:12pm Erin Morrill wrote:

re-drossing the issue totally underthinking this Why stop with Gunn? Let's expand the panel! Simon from American Idol can critique performance value and delivery, Gunn can cover the aesthetic and Padma Lakshmi can weigh in on palatability. And whoever wins gets a cash prize, new car and a vacation to their favorite developing country. This post was obviously very exciting for poets with a passion for reality shows. A vindication of taste! Gross! Reductive positivist fluff, a flarfer's wet dream... I'm gonna go bite the thumb I used to suck and read some gurlesque poetry 'cause that's where the fashion's already at, reclamation and parody stitched into one.

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 Stephen  Burt

Biography

Stephen Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” He grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. Burt has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and Popular Music (1999).

Burt's works of criticism include Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry . . .

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