Holden 3

Although the term “conversation” includes many types of discourse, and the “conversation” poem appears in such diverse guises as the “poem of instruction” invented by Gary Snyder in his “Things To Do” poems, and in “letter” poems best exemplified by Richard Hugo’s letter poems in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, we may distinguish two basic types of conversation poem, each with a characteristic kind of structure, diction, and prosody, suited to the type of conversation which is being imitated. The first type we might label “narrative.” It is usually in free verse, and it comprises what might be labeled “the free-verse, narrative, conversation poem of voice,” or what Stanley Plumly has accurately labeled “the prose lyric.” The second type of conversation poem we might label “discursive,” though the more fashionable term has come to be “meditative.” In this type of poem, the conversation, instead of being anecdotal, tends to be digressive, abstract, and to include philosophical speculation; but its poetic decorum is apt to be significantly less formal than that of philosophical, late-modernist poems such as Richard Wilbur’s vintage work, where conspicuous artifice renders unlikely any mimesis of conversation, and the absence of an “I” addressing the reader directly lends the poem a modernist impersonality, so that instead of being conversation directed to the reader by a person of similar background, the late-modernist metaphysical poem remains an elaborate art object synthesized by an elite specialist and handed down for study. Because meditative discourse assumes a greater degree of premeditation than narrative, however, the prosody of the meditative conversation poem admits a greater degree of formality than that of narrative conversation. Blank-verse cadences frequently crop up, and when they do, the meditative conversational mode invokes a style and tradition that leads back through Wallace Stevens to romantic conversation poems such as “Tintern Abbey.” Each of the two main types of conversation poem seeks to establish the authority of the speaker’s voice and sensibility in a different way. In the case of the narrative conversation poem, such authority, where it can be established, tends to be ethical authority, created by means of tone; in the case of the discursive conversation poem, the authority of the speaker tends to be aesthetic authority, established by the speaker’s ability to manipulate analogies.



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