Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986)
CHAPTER 2 (pp. 33-44)
The Contemporary Conversation Poem
The most personal type of contemporary poem—personal because in this type of poem we find the poet speaking in his or her own person directly to the reader—is the poem which appropriates, as a formal analogue, ordinary conversation, the “conversation poem.” But this mode, popular as it is, is also the most difficult mode.
As is true of all those kinds of poems which base their structure and rhetoric upon some nonliterary analogue—for example, upon religious/psychological confession, primitive song, or dream-vision—the conversation poem confronts the poet with two paradoxical demands. As with the confessional poem, the contradiction inherent in the conversation poem—a contradiction which ultimately determines the characteristics of the achieved conversation poem—centers on the authority of the speaking voice. The authority of the confessional voice finds its source in the authenticity of the speaker’s testimony, a testimony which must satisfy two paradoxical requirements: it must provide sufficient journalistic detail so as to render a vivid historical sense of the speaker’s past experiences; simultaneously, however, it must transcend the narrowly personal, so that the speaker’s story acquires, like a saint’s life, a mythic rather than a merely journalistic significance.