DAIPAYAN NAIR

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What has happened to contemporary literature?

When did it become so overly serious, so full of itself?

What is literature supposed to do?

Literature is supposed to show us life, if not here, than over there, as it is.

OK, fine. Kill me and torture me, but with an enjoyable read.

Our modern era revels in the Weltschmertz novel—fiction written from an autobiographical ditch of despair, allowing readers to thrill at an existence more heart-breaking and miserable than their own.

Schadenfreude sells.

Literature, whether it is American literature or literature from somewhere else, has one use:

Drop the reader into a silo of pain—a place (real, fantastic) or a time (if it’s historical fiction) so terrifying, we are overjoyed, when we finish the book, to return to our boring, mundane existence.

The only difference between the more modest torture devices of contemporary literature and the gigantic, cumbersome classics such as Moby Dick or Ulysses, is that we don’t finish these epics—but we say we did.

The famous authors we read—Faulkner, Orwell, Huxley, O’Connor, Golding, Greene, Fitzgerald, McCarthy, Burgess, Bradbury, Miller, Waugh, Hemingway, Bowles, Rhys, Styron, London, Conrad, Kesey, Pynchon, Bellow—if we finish their books—blind, maim, confuse, madden, burn, demoralize, crush, enslave, confound, and kill us.

Henry James? He just bores us.

Why do we let them do this?

Do mystery or fantasy genres make us any happier?

No. They torture and murder us, too.

It’s all quite grim.

Modern literature. A maw. Of insanity and torture.

Look at any list of the “The 100 Best Novels.”

Check the list. Where are the great comic novels?

Where is the literature which lifts us above this dreary life?

Where is the genius of insight and humor?

Garrison Keillor recently got into some hot water, because Keillor wrote in the Washington Post that humorless, bleak, Kazuo Ishiguro should not have received the Nobel Prize for Literature—it’s because we let the grim Swedes pick the prize, Keillor half-jokingly opined.

Keillor must be shocked at how much genuine hate and scorn he received for his recent essay—for simply voicing his opinion, in a witty manner.

This is what we’ve come to.

Where have you gone, Oscar Wilde?

Or, Dorothy Parker?

Does every book, esteemed, or popular, need to feature hacked limbs?  Or clouds of confusion and depression?

Does every book need to be about how we’re trapped, and there’s no way out?

It only gets worse when we turn to modern poetry.

Expecting a rhyme to make us happy?  Guess, again.

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

This is from America’s currently most critically esteemed, contemporary poet.

And the prison walls of the harried soul close in.

So we go back to novels.  At least there, we have an arc, a story, and not just snippets of doom—as we are brutally killed and demoralized.

What a joy, then, to read the shrewd, brilliant, philosophical, poems of Daipayan Nair.

Nair says his “real muse” is “my own ‘distorted’ mind,” and though he belongs to the Neruda/Whitman school of poetry, this, we think, is the proper way to approach writing: don’t be afraid of your own distorted mind.

His childhood in northeast India had “fairy tale lullabies,” but “school and growing up” put him “survivor” mode, and then, finished with school, according to Nair:

The birth of poetry in me was more like a ‘rebellion,’ though I started with penning lyrical, romantic verses. One can say

Falling in love is
Like following a trend

Understanding love
Is kissing a rebellion

The excellence of the epigram is nowhere better exhibited today than in the writings of Daipayan Nair:

She doesn’t
Speak much

It gives me
One pair of lips
Two eyes
And an entire face
To talk to

~

How I will die
depends on the life
After my death

~

Time is a spoiled child.

~

The maker of a house carries its hardness.

~

Poetry is a poet trying to fathom his poet.

~

Let’s be silent
With each other tonight,
As our words
Have found better routes.
They take to the air,
Fly at luxurious speeds,
Landing exactly where they
Want to.

When I hear a voice
I only walk towards
The terminal.

~

Beauty, as helpless
As its beautiful posture
Reflected on a ten story window,
The walls of which
Are on fire.

~

Let’s die together.
What use is your cover
When it has
Nothing to cover

Everything
Sucked in my grave.

~

The future of a soul
As formless
As its disintegrating
Present.

~

It is not that Daipayan Nair’s writing refuses to deal with death and mayhem.

It does.

We are not here to praise the sunny colors of poetry which can be described as overly optimistic.

Some accuse Billy Collins of this, but there is an edge, an irony, beneath the surface, in Billy Collins—but this is a debate for another place and time.

The point is this.

Daipayan Nair does not belong to the sunny optimism school.

You have darkness.

And either the author is part of that darkness.

Or carries a light.

Some readers want mayhem, (or political indignation only) and need to see characters crushed by real cement and bricks. Killed by real despair.

With Daipayan Nair, the wit is what buries us.

It is the philosophy, not the sad life, which makes the writing important.

And which deserves a closer look.

Let us see again, that list of great writers.

Daipayan Nair deserves to be on it.

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ASHBERY WAS NEVER MODERN

Ashbery was clever to see Poe was right: poetry succeeds at what prose fiction can’t do.

We fall into the error of modern thinking by assuming all thinking in the modern era is modern thinking. 

The truth is: Modern isn’t new, but rather what follows, and is attached at the hip to, the old.

So modern isn’t even modern, and by the same reasoning, post-modern is even less modern.

The more ancient, the more new

But enough of this.

The point we want to make is that modern has nothing to do with a contemporary who happens to be clever enough to discover a small (or a large) truth.

Ashbery discovered an old truth, and if we persist in thinking that every success in poetry after 1900 is somehow a  “modern” one, we blind ourselves to how Frost or Eliot or Ashbery succeeded.

The so-called ‘avants’ flatter themselves that being modern means breaking taboos, that poets like Byron and Pope walked in fear of taboos; but this is to treat truth as a taboo, so no wonder the ‘avants’ fall short of Byron and Pope in wit, and everything else.

Ashbery’s reputation is based on a principle that never varies.  It’s a simple one, but it’s how we know Ashbery is Ashbery, and its simplicity in principle doesn’t mean it didn’t take a certain genius to discover it and persist in it—in order to rise to prominence in the crowded field of post-war American poetry.

Stop for a minute and think to yourself: what makes Ashbery Ashbery?  What is it that he provides that no one else does?

Most cannot see that it’s what poetry does that other literary genres cannot do, which makes poetry work as poetry.  The formula is too hyper-practical, too obvioius, too simple for them to see.   They think contemporary poetic interest has something to do with “new” modernism “breaking taboos,” or some other foggy notion.

Let’s set the glorious record straight.

James Joyce was already well-known before he unleashed his Finnegan’s Wake on the world; had this been his opening gambit, it surely would have doomed him to obscurity.  No fame rests on lengthy (or even moderately lengthy) works of fiction which defy sense and meaning.  The reason is simple: few have the patience to read nonsense for a very long time.  But who would deny we don’t get a certain pleasure from sweetly elegant, ambitious, and lofty nonsense, having absolutely no design upon us? 

Enter the Ashbery poem (seen in glimpses here and there, in Gertrude Stein, influenced by her professor, William James b. 1842, early Auden, or Wallace Stevens, but never persisted in so as to define a career ) which, simply because of its lyrical brevity, enabled it to succeed at its literary mission: tickling the reader’s fancy with doses of pure nonsense in small enough bites to enjoy. (Byron’s epics, or any writing that self-consciously digresses, could also be seen as an influence.)

Surely the ‘Ashbery Poem’ appeared when it did because of other so-called “modern” developments, some sub-literary, some extra-literary, some literary, etc. but even so, it is crucial we don’t confuse the conditions for something with the thing itself. 

We don’t see how even Mr. Ashbery, himself, could disagree.

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