Poetry as Nonsensical Sophistication

There is the poem of nonsensical sophistication, which is so filled with private code words and diffuse references that one can’t possibly find a steady toehold. This sort of poem is slippery as an eel, and again very easy to imitate, because the second one is pinned down by a thought one can slide over to another. An example is Terrance Hayes’s “A House Is Not a Home,” part of which reads: “I decided then, even as my ears fattened, / to seek employment at the African-American / Acoustic and Audiological Accident Insurance Institute, / where probably there is a whole file devoted / to Luther Vandross.” Hayes continues later: “I already know there is a difference / between hearing and listening, / but to get the job, I bet I will have to learn / how to transcribe church fires or how to categorize / the dozen or so variations of gasping, one of which / likely includes Ron and me in the eighth grade / the time a neighbor flashed her breasts at us.”

What? What is the “African-American Acoustic and Audiological Accident Insurance Institute”? You’ll find lots of this made-up capitalized stuff in current American poetry—an easy way to import portentousness when the material is flimsy to the point of nonexistence. Luther Vandross, transcribing church fires, eighth grade breast flashing—what the hell is going on? Also the pseudo-profundity: “There is a difference between hearing and listening.” Because it is an African-American writing this poem, we must impute jazziness to it—its saving grace, its code of honor, its point of entry.

Shield your eyes from the relentless brilliance of Anis Shivani HERE

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