In a recent article, Poetry and Project Runway, on the Poetry Foundation’s Website, Stephen Burt, some guy who attended Oxford and Harvard and now is trying to be the next Helen Vendler (see Scarriet’s piece on the Dr. Phil of Criticism) defends his rosy view that a criticism is not a criticism—that critics should ignore the bad. Scarriet recently pointed out that this is like telling a philosopher to ignore the bad. Put this way, Burt’s rosy view appears silly, which is proper.
In this essay, Burt uses the TV show Project Runway as a platform for his pedantry.
“Project Runway,” Burt informs us, “holds lessons for poetry critics,” but first we must learn “how the TV show works.”
Contestants design clothes.
Enter Stephen Burt with ill-fitting analogy.
“Ron Silliman has examined the show at length” and “a poetry blogger from New Zealand” has blogged on the idea of “Poetry Runway,” so Burt is ready to launch. [click here]
Ruffles, buttons, ribbons, white T-shirt, striped button-down, jacket…ready.
“Poets, like clothes designers, love technical challenges.”
Design a dress made from newspaper. Write a poem about a red wheel barrow. OK.
I.A. Richards, Burt informs us, encouraged his students to make “snap judgments” on “unfamiliar poems” in an exercise of “Practical Criticism.”
Judging is Fun. Alright. So far, so good.
But now Burt wades into deeper waters.
And is quickly in over his head.
Happily reveling in the fact that TV overlapping poetry is pretty cool, Burt reaches for his drug of choice:
The happy drug, designed by the Lilly pharmaceutical company.
“Aspects of the TV show,” he tells us, make him “uneasy” in terms of “how we judge poems.”
The show, Burt warns, tends to highlight “contestants who flounder.”
Criticism. Not good in the world of Stephen Burt.
Burt informs us what works on TV–and “rightly so” (Burt doesn’t want to appear as a scold)–are “flagrant failures” and “life stories.”
A TV show, Burt admits, “devoted wholly to winners’ techniques—how to sew this and pleat that, how to get collars right—might not even make sense to me.”
Now Burt gets down to the nitty-gritty:
“Those truths [popular appeal of negative focus and life stories] 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.”
Burt’s reasoning is fatally flawed on two counts.
1. Does he really believe reviews of “new poems” are marred by reports of medical ills and romantic intrigues? When is the last time a review of a new book of poems came down the pike with delicious details of the poet’s love life? Is this really an issue, today? Note that all of Burt’s examples are poets born in the 19th century. Is it really true that poets born in 1980 are aesthetically challenged–because reviewers and critics keep focusing on their romances?
2. Any legitimate historical, philosophical, and cultural view of Keats that flies above mere New Criticism would obviously need to pay attention to a great deal more than Keats’ “turberculosis.” (Though someone should tell Mr. Burt it was kind of a big deal—it killed him.) Meet Mr. Burt’s straw man. Mr. Burt evades the responsibility of the critic who whould investigate more than “getting collars right” by categorizing biography as “failed romance” or “TB.” Burt, the New Critic, derides biography, and thus historical scholarship, by diminishing its scope—assuming the topic is little more than sordid gossip.
Burt is most troubled, however, by “the dangerous ease of a focus on failure.” What does this mean? Why isn’t he worried about a “dangerous ease of a focus on” glib praise? The latter is far more prevalent than the former, and surely Burt’s prozac approach to poetry has a lot to do with this bland and sorry state of affairs in the first place. Burt is like someone who complains of a bean bag’s hardness.
Mr. Burt now sheds the playful attitude he had towards the TV show completely, Silliman’s appreciation be damned:
“Project Runway gets most of its suspense by punishing failures.”
Shades of Blackwoods! Say it ‘aint so, Professor!
Unable to face even the idea of failure, Burt, seeking out more serotonin, announces: “But it’s not good for readers and critics to treat poets this way.”
Burt demands nice—or else.
Critics must be nice to poets.
Great. The prozac is kicking in.
Burt quotes Randall Jarrell, saying we should judge poets by good poems. Well, sure. Judge poets accomplished by their good poems. Sort of obvious, isn’t it? Pope warned against fastidiously finding fault if the poem triumphs as a whole, and this is more to the point: we should protect ourselves against the pedant—but Burt wants to protect us against the truth.
Because Wordsworth wrote dreck at times and was faulted for it, Burt proclaims, “Wordsworth would have never lasted on Project Runway.” But he did. He’s Wordsworth.
Now Burt brings out the heavy artillery: “Reviewers and critics and readers of poetry should consult, first and last, ourselves.”
A noble sentiment, but what if “ourselves” is a prozac buzz?
Finally, the bow-tied New Critic steps from behind the Reality TV curtain: What is important, Burt intones, is “whether and how poets can make it work.”
The very phrasing is right off the New Criticism rack: doctrinaire, tweedy, and square-jawed, with a whiff of the musty.
A little tip for Stephen Burt (and Helen Vendler):
1. A criticism is a criticism.
2. Criticism should consider everything–the poet’s mentors, associates, politics, in short, the life.
3. Use tact and taste (this goes without saying).