01 January 1970
#WeekendReads

The Modernity In The Modern Literature

The controversial editor of Scarriet inspects the elements of freedom, democracy, and the madness of the literature in the time of social media.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Literature is currently in disarray. It is because, I think, people, even truthful types, generally pursue literature to escape facts — but facts are more important in literature than they are in life. Let me give you an example: A team wins a basketball game (or cricket match) despite the fact that it played badly. In life, the fact the team played badly is instantly forgotten in the celebration of the victory. In fiction, however, the reader naturally demands to know how it was possible that the team played badly — and won. 

The fact is not forgotten. The fact is urged, by plausibility, to be understood. The reader cannot be satisfied: fiction is not luck, but fiction, which is not life, is forced to explain luck, and sounds hopefully artificial when it does — like those tales of historical fiction where the fiction murders the history and the history, in an act of revenge, murders the fiction. It doesn’t take a Plato to see that Fiction is Bad History. And no one reads poetry. So what are we to do?

My facts are these: I am the editor of Blog Scarriet (2009—present), the “scary” version of Blog Harriet, and the Poetry Foundation website. Scarriet grew out of Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com. Mr. Cordle, a university librarian, noticed poetry contests were unfairly awarding prizes to friends of judges.

Scarriet practices more general and historical criticism, but likes to simply promote poetry, as well.

The following is from the sixth in a series Scarriet recently began: Great Poems Scarriet Found On Facebook.

Inevitably, Scarriet would find a fine haiku to present in this series. And now a reckoning must occur. Daipayan Nair has seduced us with this haiku first published in the June issue of haikuKATHA, 22:

long phone call—
the smell of burnt rice
from the kitchen

Scarriet is infamous for abusing “The Red Wheelbarrow”—and the Modernist era’s occasionally fraudulent aesthetics.

If Scarriet is now discovered calling a haiku a “great poem,” the charge of hypocrisy will come crashing down around us at once.

Haiku was the first kind of poetry I wrote as a school exercise in New York City, having just turned 11. (6th grade, P.S. 145 elementary school W. 104th St, Manhattan) I’ll never forget the rules (which are hardly followed). 5-7-5. Three lines of five, seven, and five syllables.

Is this all poetry is? A piece of writing with rules?

This is easy (and delightful), my 11-year-old-self thought. I recall thinking I had joined the ranks of the haiku masters with my first efforts. I was arrogant even then, even as a terribly shy 11-years-old.

There are two ways to look at this.

One, I was a fool to think at 11 I was writhing good haiku.

Two, only fools believe there are masters who write masterful haiku. 5-7-5 has no clothes. A democratic art form has no place for elitism.

The arrogant child at P.S. 145 was correct.

But my haiku arrogance was a democratic arrogance, not an elitist one.

Inevitably, there will be these two things: Poetry and Criticism.

The latter (Criticism) is where democratic arrogance and elitist arrogance fight it out.

Poetry cannot be arrogant. Poetry is a kind of anti-arrogance. The poem obeys rules, or tacitly, humbly, breaks one or two of them. One can see why the “humble” haiku would rank high on the all-important anti-arrogance scale.

A person writing haiku-length Criticism would be met with disdain.

Criticism is arrogant:

“Ha ha ha! What a ridiculous rule!” (Democratic)

“Look how exquisitely the poet has bent (but not quite broken) this time-honored rule! Without question he deserves the title of master!” (Elitist)

Swarms of literary gnats are attracted to what we have termed above elitist criticism, while the lone, haughty, maverick tends to choose democratic criticism. There is a political lesson here somewhere.

We mentioned above the “humble” haiku.

Criticism, merely on account of its length, can never be as “humble” as the haiku.

The more words I write, the less humble I will appear.

Length, as Poe made it clear in his “Philosophy of Composition,” is the foremost physical reality of the poem.

The ultimate humility is silence, all the way up to the highest arrogance—the novel, poem or lecture continuing (or seeming to be capable of continuing) forever.

Scarriet will, with Criticism (how few practice the true, arrogant, democratic, Criticism!) save its reputation (per the character Portia in the Merchant of Venice) by arguing how one haiku is infinitely better than another. The “pound of flesh” always contains “blood;” a poem is never just a poem—it is watered by all kinds of things; the poem living in a nearly infinite context. (The New Critics were wrong.)

Now for this Wheelbarrow:

“Depends” is a term I doubt—for how do I, or any of us, or anything, “depend” on a series of objects (red wheelbarrow, white chickens)—these things obviously depend on other things much more than other things depend on them.

The radical wheelbarrow author’s implied triumph is that the reader of the “Red Wheelbarrow” depends on the poem (and its images) for the reading experience.

This rather easy reductionism is exactly like another Modernist joke (played around the same time and in the same elitist circles) in which the museum-goer “depends” on Duchamp’s toilet for their museum-exhibit experience. Reality (a toilet) comes into the museum—which is true for all “fine art” objects finding their way into a museum.

You want a “rule,” Mr. Aesthete? I’ll give you a “rule!” W.C. Williams and Duchamp are funny, as well as philosophical (the greatest philosophy is surprisingly funny just as the greatest poems tend to have “punchlines”).

Modernism is a joke, but unfortunately a joke that is funny but once, it being so fundamental and profound. To persist in the Modernist trope is to quickly become unfunny—a humorless troll. Putting all our eggs in that (joke) basket, they are now broken. It is why Modernism (Post-Modernism etc) for the most part is hopelessly elitist, fragmented and ridiculous.

As for Daipayan Nair’s poem. We’ve seen Daipayan’s work on Facebook for about 10 years now and believe he is a genius—whether the world has made him one, or he is one, or the world would not like him to be one and has failed (that’s always a possibility) I am not certain.

Unlike the “Red Wheelbarrow,” we aren’t told that “so much depends” on a bunch of objects presented to us as static images.

As the German critic G.E. Lessing told the world in his Laocoon, poetry and painting are radically different. We don’t see anything (really) in poetry; we hear about things. Daipayan Nair goes all in on this, which is why I find his poem so wonderful:

long phone call—
the smell of burnt rice
from the kitchen

In human life, there is actually no vacation. We are always working. To be mature is to realize that work and human existence are the same.

Daipayan Nair’s (“long phone call!”) poem is brief.

But with all short poems, we sometimes forget the immense work it took to “boil down” the “story” so it is perfectly suggested in the briefest possible manner. (“Briefest possible” is the science of poetry.)

Ezra Pound said he boiled down “In The Station at the Metro” (celebrated almost as much as the annoying wheelbarrow) from a longer piece of writing. Pound, the Modernist godfather, would later do the reverse in his Cantos—the second of two extremes which haunted the almost hellish landscape of the Modernist vision.

The boiling down is crucial. Which is why “the smell of burnt rice” is as funny as the “long phone call.”

“from the kitchen” almost seems unnecessary, and yet it gives the poem a sense of space. The long phone call occurs away from the kitchen; in fact, we are not sure if the “smell” has reached the cook yet, distracted by the “long phone call”. For all we know, not only is the rice boiling down to a hideous crisp, a life-threatening fire is imminent.

Weighed in the balance, which is more exciting? Which more fully evinces genius?

Daipayan Nair’s poem?

Or the most famous Modernist poem of them all?

(Thomas Graves maintains a frugal existence by the sea with his family in Salem, Massachusetts. He is the author of Ben Mazer and the New Romanticism, Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2021. He edits the Scarriet Poetry and Culture website.)