In the conversation poem, the problem of establishing the authority of the speaking voice is even more acute than in confessional. The speaker cannot lay claim to the ethical or moral authority of the confessional voice by virtue of testimony alone. Nor is the conversation poem a dramatic monologue. The reader must be willing to pay attention to a speaker about whom there is nothing inherently exotic or historically compelling. The speaker is not Bishop Blougram, the duke of Ferrara, or Jonathan Edwards. The speaker is no more than an ordinary man or woman speaking in his or her own person, sharing the same quotidian life as the reader. For the speaker to command our attention and respect, then, he or she must prove extraordinary by virtue of the very manner in which the poem is spoken. The conversation must be brilliant. The speaker must establish his or her own authority by means of art alone—a demand which points directly to the formal paradox inherent in the conversational analogue: how is one to produce a mimesis of conversation yet produce art, poems whose language resembles conversation yet is superior to it? For the conversation poem confronts us with a brutally clear criterion of critical judgment: if the poem on the page is not better than the best conversation, then it has no raison d’être. It becomes one more example of the fallacy of imitative form.
The conversation poem, then, recalls in many respects Wordsworth’s conception of the poet as “a man speaking to men” and in “the language really used by men.” But the contemporary conversation poem, which is postromantic, relies on a different conception of the poet. Whereas the Wordsworthian poet was endowed with “a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind” and with an “imagination” whose “colouring” he could “throw over … ordinary things” so as to reveal them “in an unusual aspect/’ the contemporary poet, bequeathed a poetic language in which Wordsworthian personifications are hackneyed and obsolete, must rely on totally different forms of invention in order to establish authority, an authority founded not on vision but on sensibility.