Poetry and Project Runway
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.—Stephen Burt finds a connectiton between poetry and Project Runway.
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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.
Steph 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.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...