The Impersonality of a Telephone Conversation

My first encounter with Telephone Conversation was via the excited gushing of a university sweetheart. “Gosh, I love that poem!” Stricken as I was with her, I could only wonder what the fuss what about, myself entirely unfamiliar with said piece of poetry. Her father, an artist, was a Soyinkophile it emerged (from her of course; I had learnt that her parents jealously guarded their crown jewel and wisely avoided contact with them), and therefore had tomes of literature about or of Soyinka. I learnt all of this in 2010, as a soon-to-graduate Microbiology undergraduate of the Obafemi Awolowo University.

Three years later – very much heartbroken and recovered in the interval – I had finally come across this poem. I was now a postgraduate student at the University of Lagos, and my book-buying sprees had now extended and stayed limited to what some might describe as serious Literature, the acquisition of a-thrill-a-minute books now on a doused backburner. In this new enthusiasm, I bought for myself a copy of Michael Meyer’s Bedford Introduction to Literature and helped myself to the glut of literary material within. And there I found Telephone Conversation, by Oluwole Akinwande Soyinka, published in 1960. Wole Soyinka was born in 1934, which put his age at the publication of the poem at a mere twenty-six! His complex independence drama, Dance of the Forests, a treatment of the enthronement of mediocrity over ability, was also published in the same year. Just saying.

And it was then I realized what had titillated (forgive me) that sweetheart so. However, unlike her – thanks to YouTube’s rapacious magnanimity (or is it magnanimous rapacity?) – I had the good fortune to see the man read his poem before an audience, that famous sprout of white bobbing as the famed dramatist’s face dramatized this telephone conversation. The man drew laughter at different points as he read.

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with a friend on Twitter centering on what medium is most appropriate for the propagation of poetry. He thought that poetry should be restricted to private reading where one might unravel code into full-fledged meaning. He also argued that reading poetry out loud before an audience would mean that the value of a poem might be missed given that reflection might be impossible at such a public event, which, he continued, is why there’s such a medium as spoken word poetry. The arguments have some merit – a single reading does not suffice for poetry and reading between the lines might be impossible except upon private rumination. However, what is today written as poetry has origins in oral tradition, and poetry, much like drama, primarily served as a spectacular medium for public entertainment. For me, the other uses of poetry are secondary to the purpose of entertainment. Taking poetry “out of the library” and back to where it belonged, so to speak, became a preoccupation for the American poet, Vachel Lindsay, the wildly entertaining Congo being the ultimate example of that viewpoint. Christopher Okigbo’s Elegy for Slit Drum (when read like drum beats) falls in this category. I have seen a video of the beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, reading his poem, Howl, in front of an audience that continuously broke out in laughter amongst other signs of comprehension. Whether they were indeed laughing at themselves, or nodding recognition at cancers they hadn’t yet realized was eating away at them,  is a matter for another day. There are millions of poems which will immediately make at least surface meaning to us even if propagated through the oral medium. Let’s leave the gutting to knife-totting academics.

By its conversational nature, a poem such as Telephone Conversation also puts paid to such an argument. Hearing Soyinka verbally re-enact – because it’s high drama – the poem to an audience served the purpose of illuminating the poem the more although I had read it a few times in private. I also had the good fortune of watching an animated incarnation of the poem. No words of mine would do justice to the hilarity of this video (translation: watch it yourself).

Telephone Conversation is delivered in the typical biting wryness of Soyinkan wit. Telephone Conversation follows a humorous telephone conversation between an erudite black African and a racist white landlady with suspect erudition – what would appear as a somewhat amusing reversal of roles, given the prevalent stereotypes of the day. Soyinka successfully depicts a black male who shifts the fight past the hue of skin into alien territory for the white landlady – wit and erudition. The white landlady eventually catches up to the speaker’s game at which point we’re informed by the speaker he sensed her receiver “rearing on the thunderclap” and quickly tries to squeeze one last one in to complete her owning. Or maybe she didn’t catch up. Maybe she just got tired of the intelligent blabbing of the black fellow at the other end of the phone.

What may have been missed in the explication of this poem is that of the speaker’s motives. If the speaker agrees that there exists a need for “self-confession” (Nothing remained/ But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned/ “I hate a wasted journey—I am African.”), is it not consistent to opine that he expected the spectroscopic appraisal from his foe? To what extent – or not – does this paint the speaker’s declarations of “being caught foully” (and the flashes of red rage) as contrived? I can fashion some manner of defence, having myself – as well as a lot of other people I imagine – experienced the divergence of expectation from reality. Perhaps “It was real!” was a confirmation of the palpability of reality exceeding the weight of expectation.

Racism, the major issue addressed in Telephone Conversation, still abounds, albeit in a far more amorphous and sinister form. But over the years till the present, one theme that has surprisingly undergone furnacial concretization is the impersonality of communication techniques afforded by technology. Would such a conversation as described by Soyinka be possible were the antagonists man-to-woman? Would such a lampooning of gargantuan proportions have been possible in a face-to-face conversation? Soyinka’s employment of this device of impersonality suits his motives of painting a picture of the intellectual superiority the oppressed can have over the oppressor and therefore destroying a vital crux of the oppressor’s argument – (in this case) that the white man  (and consequently every white person) is superior to the black man in thought. Finally realizing the power inherent in the telephone – a reductive contraption, our hero robs the landlady’s racist spectroscopy of its stinging potency, rationalizing it away, and deploys his arsenal of biting wit to vanquish the lipstick coated voice of his foe hesitant emitting through the phone.

[…]Revelation came.
“You mean–like plain or milk chocolate?”
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. “West African sepia”–and as afterthought,
“Down in my passport.” (Emphasis mine)

Other issues arise from certain types of impersonal means of communication, for instance, the immediacy of response. A telephone conversation is not a medium that promotes the clear-headedness that hesitancy might bring, especially not in adversarial conversations such as in this poem, where the fact that one person cannot see the other is a potent weapon. The point of impersonal, adversarial conversations is to score cool points by outwitting the adversary in front of an amused audience, which is what Soyinka does with this poem.

Soyinka perhaps would not have imagined that that red booth-wrought impersonality was to assume even more impersonal proportions in the years to come. The mind-boggling innovations and inventions in technology have redefined impersonality, especially as social media is presently all-pervasive. At the forefront of this new impersonality is Twitter, where disparate personalities can form tenuous friendships whose disintegrations can be amusing to behold. To cap it off, Twitter demands the immediacy of the telephone conversation; therefore, little to no time is often given to pre-expression reflection. In fact, the more immediate the responses are to Twitter stimuli, the higher the esteem one is held in. This is why for instance, the Nigerian-American writer, Teju Cole, may have found it expedient, in the immediate aftermath of the breaking of the Westgate tragedy, to announce that he was a mile away from Westgate Mall and fine, and to retweet a part-commending, part-contemplating mention from a fan. Perhaps if reflection had primacy, respect for the hundreds trapped in the immediate proximity and on-going horror of the vicious attacks would have headed off what I will have to describe as misguided and solicitous profit-taking.

This impersonal nature of social media (Twitter particularly) has its advantages: that reduction of persons into distant digital entities – a handle and a picture in a stream of handles and pictures. This is not to say that meaningful personal relationships don’t develop from online ones; no that would be a fool’s opinion. All manner of meaningful relationships have sprung up from Twitter, and who knows, if Twitter can head off the usual platform fatigue we seem to develop, perhaps the root of most relationships going forward might be Twitter. But sometimes, content in the security of that distance, we just don’t want to see for ourselves how human the other is.

While we are popping champagne in celebration of the vanquishing of the idiot racist, it is easy to miss the desperation of the final line of the poem. “…wouldn’t you rather see for yourself”, the speaker says, perhaps or not into the thunderclap of the dial tone. The rushing-in of this desperate plea perhaps points to a different winner of this bout. The speaker is the one who is in need of accommodation and the landlady is clearly content not to let it out to one who might be “dark” or “very dark”. And so, despite being decades behind on the cool chart, it is the landlady who has the last victorious chuckle. To an extent, I agree with the landlady: no, I wouldn’t rather see for myself.

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