IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS OF SOYINKA'S "TELEPHONE CONVERSATION"
Soyinka's 'Telephone Conversation' is a poem that explores racism and the engrained mindset of certain white people who, for reasons yet unknown, discriminate on the grounds of race and, in particular, skin colour.
The poetic narrative takes the form of a dialogue between two people on the telephone, an African man and a white British landlady.
Apparently, the man is looking for somewhere to rent and needs a room, apartment or a flat.
But, for the landlady, there is an obstacle: he's black.
He knows that this fact could effectively ruin his chances of getting accommodation, so he preempts the prejudice and saves a wasted journey by confessing 'I am African.'
What makes this poem interesting and different is the use of humour and subtle sensitivity to distil the very serious issue of inbuilt everyday racism—how the simple act of looking for accommodation can turn into a social disaster or moral dilemma.
This poem is also written in a dramatic fashion—Wole Soyinka is both a playwright and poet, novelist and lecturer—and has the flavour of a dialogue within the scene of a play.
Note the use of irony and sarcasm which serves to ridicule the idea of racism and make the landlady appear rather foolish.
Here is a racist woman compelled by prejudice to ask 'HOW DARK?' because, presumably, she had a scale of acceptance: the lighter, the more chance of being accepted as a tenant?
And here is an African male tempted into answering 'You mean - like plain or milk chocolate?' after which he describes to her several other parts of his body . . . palms, soles and bottom, ranging in their darkness and lightness from blond to raven.
Although the poem reflects the age it was written in, the issue of basic racism is still very much prominent, making this rather light-hearted poem all the more poignant.
Read the full poem below before my in-depth analysis:
The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. "Madam," I warned,"
I hate a wasted journey--I am African."
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was, foully.
"HOW DARK?" . . . I had not misheard . . . "ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?" Button B, Button A. Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis--
"ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?" 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." Silence for spectroscopic Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. "WHAT'S THAT?" conceding
"DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT IS." "Like brunette.
""THAT'S DARK, ISN'T IT?" "Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused--
Foolishly, madam--by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black--One moment, madam!"--sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears--"Madam," I pleaded, "wouldn't you rather
See for yourself?"
IN-DEPTH LITERARY ANALYSIS
'Telephone Conversation' contains just a single stanza of 37 lines in total, free verse (no rhymes) and a narrative style that is both internal, of the mind alone, and external, expressed through dialogue.
The poem is arguably an interesting mix:
Take note of the lower case and capital letters to signify inferiority and superiority, the African caller being the former, the white landlady the latter.
Numerous lines feature enjambment (no punctuation to stop the flow, the meaning carrying on with momentum) and caesura (pauses halfway, roughly where the reader has to take a mini breath).
The conversational tone allows the awkward silences to be 'felt' by the reader.
The opening line takes the reader straight into an already existing conversation, the thoughts of a person engaged in some sort of negotiation over price.
Here we have someone talking to themselves, weighing things up. The price is reasonable.
And the location—the whereabouts—is indifferent. That is an unusual word to use but rings true when looked at objectively.
Indifferent means to be free of judgement one way or the other. In light of the theme of this poem, that has some gravitas.
It seems of importance that the landlady lived off premises.
She swore, that is, she told the absolute truth honest to God, hand on the Bible or anything else used as a touchstone in a court of law or ritual.
Was this stipulated by the caller? She must live at some other address?
OK, so there's the small matter of confessing. Confessing? Is the caller a criminal, has the caller committed a crime already? Together with a warning.
There's a polite address . . . 'Madam' . . . the caller doesn't want to waste time and money, so he is willing to declare right now . . . 'I am African.'
There follows complete silence as the landlady's thoughts and feelings go round and round the racism tree.
The speaker uses active words to get this feeling over, coupled with class distinction for good measure.
He (we can assume it's a he) sees the landlady, gold cigarette holder in lipsticked-mouth, her classy gears going through the motions, pressure building.
She's obviously from good-breeding (whatever that means), in contrast to the caller, who is presumably from the common herd.
Then two little words posed as a question, holding so much baggage, centuries worth, enough to catch him off-guard:
That is painful. How poor? How stupid? How tall? How small? How disabled?
This was the norm back in 1960s Britain, when it wasn't uncommon to see NO BLACKS posted up in the windows of lodging houses and others.
We know the setting is in Britain from the red telephone booth and other very British things, like mail boxes and buses (history has it that the poet, Wole Soyinka, was a student at Leeds University in the north of England in the 1960s). The landlady's question genuinely throws him.
Note the pun in line 13: public hide-and-speak . . . a play on hide-and-seek . . . a popular game played by children and families back in the day when hiding from someone for fun was experienced as fun. In this particular case, it is anything but fun.
It seems the silence made him feel as if he was the one being impolite? He wants clarity, please.
To clarify, she asks again, deemed to be a considerate thing to do from the caller's perspective. (Or is he being slightly sarcastic? I suspect the latter.)
Note the subtle difference, from HOW DARK? to ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?
The caller now sees what she is getting at. She wants an analogy and the perfect analogy is chocolate. His question thrown back is a gem:
'You mean - like plain or milk chocolate?
She agrees, answering in the affirmative, which is yet another body-blow for the African man, because she's so impersonal with it.
He's a quick mover, however, and arguably gains the higher ground by saying that he is 'West African sepia' which is officially endorsed, because it's also in his passport.
There is silence again; the landlady knows not of sepia, especially that of West African origin.
Note the use of the word spectroscopic, which is a scientific term related to the colour spectrum and the way matter interacts with electromagnetic radiation. This is a curious word to find in a poem about racism . . . or is it?
Perhaps the caller is a student of science? Or the speaker is indirectly implying that the spectrum is indifferent when it comes to the matter of colour. Colour simply is; we humans are the ones who attach prejudices to it
The African man informs the landlady that sepia is akin to brunette (French word for brown—associated usually with brown-haired girls). There is more enlightenment to come for the well-bred landlady.
The caller explains that his face is brunette but that other parts of his anatomy are not. In fact, the palms of his hand and soles of his feet are lighter . . . peroxide blond! Peroxide is a chemical used to turn hair really blond, bleached.
And he goes further, much further. He sarcastically admits to sitting down and that this causes his bottom (bum, ass, posterior) to turn raven black. Oh dear, this has a direct effect on the unfortunate landlady, and he senses her unease. She will soon clang the solid plastic receiver head down and hurt his ears.
But before he's cut off completely, he just manages to suggest that she herself should see with her own eyes . . . see his face, his palms, his soles, his . . . well, the idea is clear and some would say, ironically comical.
In a nutshell, the caller has turned the tables on racist bias and, with a mix of humour, moral stance and arguably charm, shown up the landlady for what she is . . . a racist, pure and simple.
POETIC DEVICES IN THE POEM:
Imagery And Irony
Wole Soyinka mainly used two (2) literary devices to deliver the message of anger and frustration, towards the racial discrimination at the micro level of the society.
One imagery, “lip stick coated, gold rolled cigarette holder piped” is the mental image of the lady made by the African speaker by just listening to her voice on the phone.
His attitude towards her is that she is socially superior than him and from a higher strata.
The image of a huge bus crushing the black tar is highly symbolic of how major white community dominate the insults the minor African community.
He becomes so angry when she further asks about the darkness of his color to confirm his identity that he sees red every were.
The other important poetic device is irony that, the poet uses in the poem.
The irony lies in the fact that the lady has given an ad about the flat stating that the price is reasonable and indifferent , in the case of color of the skin of any people, but when the African room seeker confess about his identity, she holds silence and dose not respond to him.
Her words and action do not match in any way. Her words appear to be liberal and generous, but in reality her actions are full of hatred and indifference, just the opposite of her words.
This vehement irony is meant to attack the so called social equality created by the whites.
The next irony is that the African speaker self-confession about his identity to the white lady, which vividly shows his loser mentality and lack of confidence in his own color of the skin upon which he does not have any control.
He has to be so meek and fel lower as if he has committed any crime.
METAPHOR AND ALLITERATION
Metaphor like spectroscopic was used to compare the lady’s mind with equipment which was used to judge a color.
The significance of using the metaphor was to show the landlady was eager to find out what color the poet was.
Alliteration like clinical and crushing was used to emphasize the coldness in the landlady’s tone, when she knew he was African.
The poem uses a lot of enjambment, meaning that his anxiety and discomfort express themselves via sentence that spill from line to line as the speaker tries to get through this racist telephone conversation.
The poem’s end-stops, by contrast, tend to apper in the speaker’s moments of self-assurance and confidence.
1. Modern Poetry from Africa, Penguin Books, 1963
2. Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005