‘Telephone conversation’ and ‘Nothing Said’
Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian, and Brenda Agard, a West Indian, are both black poets. They want to portray their views and beliefs on colour prejudice. Although the poems are written in different decades they have many other similarities in the theme and message. ‘Telephone Conversation’ was written in the 1960s. Peoples’ views, beliefs and opinions about colour prejudice were different then from in the 1980s, when ‘Nothing Said’ was written and different again from nowadays, the early 21st Century. During the forty-year period, from the 1960s to 2004, there has been a huge change.
Youngsters today will have a different response to both poems, as compared with those in the 1960s and 1980s. Today is different, as, in the majority of instances, colour prejudice will not be tolerated, whereas the 1980s was a period where coloured people struggled to get equal opportunity. A large number of Government initiatives took place to secure this. For example, it was in this period that the Rampton and the Swann report ensured that there was equal educational opportunity for ethnic children. Going back to the 1960s, some politions, such as, Enoch Powell were campaigning to reduce ethnic minority immigration to this country.
Ethnic minority people had few rights and equality of opportunity. The central theme in the 1960s poem, ‘Telephone Conversation’, is racism. The response of students including myself to this poem is, shock about these events happening and peoples’ attitudes in the 1960s. However, students of the 1960s would find it educational. It would make them think about their own attitudes and prompt them to help society change its attitude in general. The poet is writing from a personal point of view, about an incident, which happened to him.
However, it is a microcosm of what was happening to black people all over the country. In this instance he is discriminated against with regards to housing, but this discrimination was reflected in education and industry in the 1960s too. ‘Nothing Said’, by Brenda Agard, has one main theme, racism. Again, she deals with one, particular incident, a black march/protest in January 1981. This incident was an example of events happening ‘worldwide’. The poet says, ‘we marched half the day’, then towards the end she says, ‘we will march all our lives’.
This shows that there will always be something to march about, in the black community. I feel that the theme of racism in this poem is being dealt with more actively, that the black people can protest and will protest. We know from a historical perspective that this perseverance and wanting to ‘march some more’ eventually resulted in equality. ‘Telephone Conversation’ is written as a dramatic monologue. Its conversational tone conveys a sophisticated message. The language is also sophisticated and the poem is better understood after several readings.
It contains no similes, however it has many metaphors, such as, ‘ill-mannered silence’, this emphasises the landlady’s cold attitude to Wole Soyinka, like the impersonal treatment one may receive at a hospital. It is a conduit, to show how the educated Wole Soyinka manipulates the white landlady, through language. He displays his own articulate use of language, such as, using, “condensing techniques”, squashing the meaning into a few words. This is used for the very strong images of all of these red, British conveniences’ Red booth.
Though we get many sophisticated descriptions of the surrounding and the landlady in numerous adjectives, the reader does not acquire a description of the man. The only thing we acknowledge is that he is African and he has a black skin. This is very important and vital, for the rest of the poem and influences the audiences’ opinion, that we should not judge people by the look of them. As it says in the pun, ‘hide and speak’, this is what we “see” of him.
But we learn what kind of a person he is “inside” his mind. He is sensitive, tolerant and has a dry sense of humour. He is clearly a suitable tenant and should not be discriminated against. Although Soyinka has done nothing wrong, the white landlady insults him just because of the colour of his skin. He turns it almost into a joke, using “tongue in cheek humour”, ‘West African Sepia’, almost joking with himself, ‘spectroscopic’. ‘Wouldn’t you rather see for yourself? ‘, implying that instead of asking stupid questions, the landlady should meet him.
The language in Agard’s poem, ‘Nothing Said’, is not sophisticated. It is simple, with much repetition, containing no similes, adjectives or alliteration. In addition, there are not many metaphors, with little onomatopoeia, ‘slashed’. The main language is rhyme and, infrequently, some rhythm, ‘we marched half the day… until the pain goes away’. Also, many of the words and verbs are repeated throughout the poem. The poet’s thoughts and the feelings of the black crowd are repeated too, when Brenda Agard comments on the word, ‘march’. All of this emphasises the message, equal rights, for blacks and whites.
Capital letters likewise add to the effect. ‘We’ is used consistently to show the unity, along with, ‘brothers and sisters’ to further show union among the black race. The whole poem is easy to understand. The language is clear and the message is clear. It is written in the third person rather than the first person, as was the previous poem, which suggests more black solidarity, which has occurred over the years, since the first poem. As well as language there are many similarities and differences in the use of tones in the two poems. ‘Telephone Conversation’ uses sarcasm, with wit and humour.
Also, it is a conversation, so, there is no rhythm or rhyme. In addition, it is overt about the topic of colour prejudice. Another difference is that it is isolated ‘I’, alone in the telephone booth. ‘Nothing Said’ uses anger and bitterness as the main tone. Unlike the ‘Telephone Conversation’, there is the rhythm of the march captured and the sounds of the protestor’s voices. Also, there are stanzas so the poem has more structure, than ‘Telephone Conversation’. In addition it is not overtly about racism. Finally, we see the poet, Brenda Agard, among a whole group of people.
In ‘Telephone Conversation’ the tone is of resignation. Whereas in ‘Nothing Said’ it is of protest and group solidarity. The structure of ‘Telephone Conversation’ is contrasted, to Brenda Agard’s ‘Nothing Said’, as it is in the form of a dramatic monologue, in a very conversational tone. Containing no rhythm, as if he, Wole Soyinka, is telling what happened, with his thoughts “streaming” out of him, in a “stream of consciousness” throughout the poem. Soyinka has composure, as he is able to turn the situation around, exposing the women and racism.
Although, ‘Nothing Said’ is not as specific, not exposing any particular person. Brenda Agard uses many stanzas, with much structure, as the message “loops” round, with the last stanza being very similar to the first. The main point in the structure is repetition. ‘We’ is almost in every sentence. The whole poem contains not many full stops, to show the marching, continuously. Shock language is spelt out in long verses, in black and white, with the explanation in capital letters. As well as much repetition there is also rhyme, to the rhythm of the poem.
The poem is propaganda, and is structured in order to get the message across in a simple way and to as many people. In my opinion, the poets’ messages were more effective in the time they were written, because they served as propaganda to make people think about racist attitudes. ‘Telephone Conversation’ is a single incident, something that happened to him, Wole Soyinka, but shows society’s racist attitudes. It is effective because the poet is in a negative situation, the landlady’s attitude towards him, then he turns it into a positive situation, educating the reader, in a way, about racism.
Although it was more effective in the 1960s, when it was written, nowadays it shocks many of us, as this would not occur. We see black people in key roles, it is a normal part of our society, the incident of the poem would not take place. If it were to happen it is more subliminal. In ‘Nothing Said’ there is very little imagery and the language is simple, so the message can be understood by anyone, especially youngsters, who do not have ‘set’ opinions and are open to other points of view. Therefore, this poem works well as propaganda.
The continuous use of repetition reinforces this and may seem to be the most effective way of protesting against racism. As well as, the first and last stanzas being similar, it also brings the message round and might be effective of getting the poet’s message across. This poem, ‘Nothing Said’ would not be written nowadays, as racism is being stamped out, the media and newspapers attitude would not be the same. The back voice is being heard. The two poems are really interesting perspectives on racist attitudes to immigrants to this country, in the second half of the 20th Century.
The poems were clearly written as educational and propaganda. However, I believe audiences’ response nowadays would be different and the pieces serve more as historical as to what happened then. It would be foolish to say there is no racism in this country at all, now, but it is minimal, and every effort is made to stamp it out. One recent example is when the white, Spanish football fans were chanting racist comments to the black, English players. In England everyone saw this as a disgrace and something had to be done.
Nothing, in effect, was done, then several days later a similar incident, although not on the same scale, occurred within English football, having the police get involved. A man was prosecuted from going to a football game for five years. There is a huge difference here, which is that England will not tolerate it, yet, it seems, other parts of the world are behind. For making racist comments, both incidents were treated seriously by the press, police and viewed negatively by society in general. The main message I have learned, from these poems, is that attitudes can be changed and the written word is a powerful device to do this.
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