Wole Soyinka's poetry has often been described as a powerful and serious agent to social change. His themes are primarily concerned with the promotion of human rights and African politics. At the same time, such poems as "Telephone Conversation" reveal a lyrical understanding of the rhythms and resonances of language balanced with humor and a deeply felt compassion for the human condition. Appearing initially in the collection Modern Poetry from Africa (1963), the poem is a provocative interrogation of racial prejudice, misguided civility, and the power of language to create ghettos of race and of spirit. Negotiating elegantly between the subtleties of irony and the social criticism of sarcasm, "Telephone Conversation" always maintains a thoughtful distance from the emotional minefields of its subject matter, transforming itself into a poem that sets aside anger and frustration in favor of humor as a means to achieve a deeper understanding and spirit of integration and harmony.
Out of Soyinka's large body of work, "Telephone Conversation" is one of his most well-known and most often anthologized poems. It may be found in Perrine's Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, edited by Thomas Arp and Greg Johnson, published by Thomson in 2006.
Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka was born in Isara, Nigeria on July 13, 1934 (Wole is the shortened
form of Oluwole). A member of the Yoruba tribe, he was well schooled as a child in the stories of tribal gods and folklore, mostly because of his grandfather, who was a respected tribal elder. Soyinka's parents represented another powerful influence in the young boy's life. His mother was a convert to Christianity and his father was headmaster at the local British-model school. Not surprisingly, Soyinka as a youngster was very familiar with the tensions that defined colonial Africa in the early decades of the twentieth century, as tribal culture collided, sometimes violently, with the imperatives of British colonizers.
Soyinka took up writing very early in his life, publishing poems and short stories in the Nigerian literary magazine Black Orpheus before leaving his homeland to attend the University of Leeds in England. He returned to Nigeria in 1960, the same year that the country declared its independence from colonial rule. A prolific writer, Soyinka gained prominence initially for his work as a playwright of such politically motivated works as The Swamp Dwellers (1958), The Lion and the Jewel (1959), and A Dance of the Forests (1960).
It was during this same prolific period that Soyinka's "Telephone Conversation" appeared in the 1963 collection Modern Poetry from Africa. Two years later, he was arrested for allegedly forcing a radio announcer to report incorrect election results. Soyinka was released three months later, after the international writers group PEN made public the knowledge that no evidence had ever been produced in support of the arrest. He was arrested again two years later for his vocal opposition to the civil war that was threatening to split the country along longstanding tribal lines. Accused of helping Biafran fighters buy military jets, Soyinka spent two years in prison, despite the fact that he was never formally charged with any crime.
During his imprisonment, much of it spent in solitary confinement, Soyinka kept a prison diary, which was published in 1972 as The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka. He also wrote a trilogy of nonfiction books that trace the trajectory of his life and family: Aké: The Years of Childhood (1980), Isara: A Voyage Around Essay (1989), and Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946-1965 (1994).
Following a period of self-imposed exile, Soyinka was among a group of pro-democracy activists charged with treason for his criticism of the military regime of General Sani Abacha. Facing a death sentence in Nigeria, he spent many years lecturing throughout Europe and the United States, including stays at Yale and Cornell University, where he served as the Goldwin Smith professor for African Studies and Theatre Arts from 1988 to 1991. It was during these expatriate years that Soyinka wrote Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture and The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (1996). In 1999, he turned his attention to the role of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness.
A poet as well as a dramatist and essayist, Soyinka has published several collections, including Idanre and Other Poems (1967), Ogun Abibiman (1976), Mandela's Earth and Other Poems (1988), and Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known (2002).
Internationally recognized for both his writing and his advocacy of democracy and civil rights, Soyinka has collected an impressive catalogue of rewards and honors, including the John Whiting Drama Prize (1966), the Nobel Prize for Literature (1986), and the Enrico Mattei Award for Humanities (1986). Soyinka continues to travel the world speaking on the behalf of the oppressed and the marginalized.
"Telephone Conversation" is exactly what its title promises: an imagined conversation between a African man and a presumably white landlady with accommodations to rent. Some of the idioms in the poem mark the general geography of the poem as England, most likely London. The city saw a substantial influx of African immigrants throughout the post-war decades, a period that also saw a rise of racial tensions in the country, so such conversations would not have been unfamiliar.
The poem opens with the African speaker clarifying the essential information about the location, the cost, and similar business details. The landlady is initially described as being of "good-breeding," a standing that makes her questions about the color of the speaker's skin seem suddenly and dramatically out of place. Specifically, she wants to know if he is light or very dark skinned, a distinction that seems to carry particular weight within the racial atmosphere of the day.
From this pointed and clearly prejudicial question, the poem moves smoothly between the thoughts of the speaker as he considers the question as a political statement and the landlady's insistent repetition of the same questions or variations thereof. As the conversation unfolds, it becomes a painful accumulation of ironic miscommunication and blatant racism. The more the speaker tries to answer the questions, the deeper the exchange slips into irony as the speaker answers the woman with cool logic that clouds rather than clarifies the situation. At first comparing himself to chocolate, for instance, the speaker settles on describing himself as "West African sepia," a term he knows will further confuse his listener.
As the speaker's ironic tone takes hold of the conversation, he begins to describe various body parts, from his hair to the soles of his feet, in an effort to explain to her that he is, like all people, several different colors. The final lines of the poem carry a double-edged message. The first is clear: making a judgment about a person's character based solely on the color of their skin is the key absurdity of racial prejudice. The second layer of the closing lines underscore the meeting of absurdity with additional absurdity, an approach Soyinka often brings to his explorations of such situations, as the speaker invites the woman to "see" for herself all of the varied colors of the body parts he catalogues.
"Telephone Conversation" is a dramatic dialogue in which a person of color responds to the racial prejudices of a woman with whom he is trying to negotiate rental accommodations. As the poem begins, the speaker's well-educated and polished voice, as heard on the telephone, make him acceptable to the landlady, but when he turns to the crucial moment of "self-confession," the truth of racial conflict comes to the foreground. The landlady clearly does not want a tenant of color, yet at the same time is trapped by the code of civil conduct that will not allow her to acknowledge what might be considered an uncivilized racial prejudice. The cluster of assumptions articulated by the well-bred landlady gather into an almost textbook definition of racism. She is xenophobic (exhibiting an irrational fear of foreigners, such as the African caller). She engages a vocabulary of racial stereotypes (making hasty generalizations based on skin color or ethnic background), and her unwillingness to rent to a man of color reinforces a policy of racial segregation or what has been called ghettoization (the practice of restricting members of a racial or ethnic group to certain neighborhoods or areas of a city).
But even as she weaves her way through a series of deeply prejudicial questions, ranging from "HOW DARK?" to "THAT's DARK, ISN'T IT?" the woman reveals the confused underside of racial attitudes. At no point in the poem does the speaker internalize the sense of inferiority that is being projected upon him, nor does he react in anger to her narrow-mindedness. Instead, he engages language in a calm and highly sophisticated manner, elevating the poem from diatribe or attack to a much more effective end of allowing readers to see the world through the absurd lens of racial prejudice.
Poetry and Politics
Although the school of New Criticism struggled to keep the worlds of politics and poetry at arm's length, a poem such as "Telephone Conversation" is a reminder that poets in some parts of the world, or of certain ethnic or racial backgrounds, do not get to choose one side of that divide or the other. Their very existence is politically charged. For a speaker like the one in Soyinka's poem, the politics lingering behind such seemingly benign words as "dark" and "light," for instance, are partly the pressures that threaten to fragment a community and that resist a spirit or imagination that might want to promote a sense of wholeness or integration. Words, especially when used as labels, divide the world of Soyinka's poem in the same insidious and powerful ways as any political agenda might.
It is this potential for divisiveness that the poem's speaker attempts to undercut in the closing lines of the poem, when he effectively breaks down the landlady's powerful (but unstated) fixation with the word "dark" through his own list of the various shadings that might clarify for her the abstraction of darkness. As the speaker notes, he is simultaneously a man who is "brunette," "raven black," and, in a wonderful twist, "peroxide blonde" on the palms of his hands and soles of his feet.
Satire is a technique that uses humor and irony to undercut misguided behaviors or to censure social and political attitudes. From its origins in the writing and culture of the ancient Greeks, satire has remained a powerful tool of moral judgment. The tone of satiric literature ranges from the detached irony of Soyinka's "Telephone Conversation" to fully expressed anger and vehement contempt. Given that most satire relies heavily on balancing humor and word play with criticism, it is appropriate that irony is one of its chief tools.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Given that the tensions explored in Soyinka's poem stem in large part from the collision of British (colonial) and African (colonized) cultures, research the history of the colonization of an African country of your choice. Construct a timeline that traces the major shifts in colonial presences, the key dates and events that led to the various shifts, the shifts in both geographic (borders) and cultural (language, religion) makeup, as well as any other aspect of the history that you feel is significant.
- "Telephone Conversation" is a poem that is full of colors, not only of skin but of voices and buses, for instance. Write an essay in which you discuss the meanings of each of the colors mentioned, and the importance of what or whom they are attached to.
- Write a poem or series of poems that attempt to capture the subtleties and complexities of some of the political or social issues that dominate your community or your country.
- Set up a formal debate in your classroom that takes this proposition as its starting point: "Poetry is an effective medium for making people aware of racial prejudice and social injustice."
The satiric voice in Soyinka's poem is put in place through a series of linguistic and thematic juxtapositions. While the speaker notes that the landlady to whom he speaks is of "good-breeding" with a voice that is "lipstick-coated, long gold-rolled," he is also quick to attach a series of words to her that carry an overabundance of negative connotations. She is described as "clinical" and as having a "light impersonality" to her demeanor. Elsewhere in the poem readers are told that her accent "clang[s]" and that her silences are "ill-mannered." All of this takes place in a setting that is itself a circumstance that contributes to the satire, being described variously as "rancid" and as appealing as the sound and feel of "squelching tar."
At its best, satire reveals a sophisticated versatility of speech, a strong moral center through which one might speak to social and cultural improprieties. Put simply, satire is defined, in large part, by many of the same traits that readers can attribute to "Telephone Conversation."
The figure of the speaker in "Telephone Conversation" is clearly positioned as an observer of his own situation. He is not a victim nor is he angry, despite the blatant racial prejudice that he is forced to negotiate throughout his telephone exchange with the landlady. Oscillating between humor and irony, the speaker deploys his words with a cool and logical double edge. More specifically, the speaker brings literal and intended meanings into opposition during the course of the conversation, as when he attempts to clarify the situation by comparing himself to chocolate or, in the closing lines, when he asks the woman "wouldn't you rather / See for yourself?" It is in the opposition of these meanings (the man certainly does not want himself likened to a food, for instance) that Soyinka unleashes the criticism of the poem. Standing back from the immediate emotions of the moment, the speaker effectively illuminates the woman's racial assumptions, hidden usually behind what Tanure Ojaide, in his book The Poetry of Wole Soyinka, catalogues as "her sophistication, affectation, and artificiality." Indeed, it is the cool logic of the speaker's response that at once establishes the woman's social status and gives readers an insight into the confused politics and insensitivity of the landlady.
Colonialism in Africa
The history of European dominance of Africa through military and economic strategies is a long and often bloody one. The 1880s marked the intensification of conflicts between European countries for control of the regions of Africa. Especially prominent countries in the imperial project for the last part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were France (especially in West Africa), Great Britain (East and South Africa, the Gold Coast), Belgium (the Congo), Spain (the Western Sahara), Italy (North Africa), and Germany (East Africa). The struggle for control of African territories was driven in part by the rich natural resources of the various regions of the continent as well as by a desire to control crucial routes for overseas trade. The political and economic tensions that circulated just below the surface of the struggle for Africa informed many of the international crises that led to World War I. The rush to colonize the Congo, the rebellions that threatened the building of the Suez Canal, and the seemingly perpetual battles over control of the Nile headwaters are three examples of many crises provoking incidents that are usually recognized as precipitating the political tensions that erupted into war in 1914.
Furthermore, the cultural impact of Colonialism was immense. The varied cultures of each African locality were subsumed by the culture of the country occupying that locality. In short, native Africans were treated as second-class citizens by the ruling class of European colonists. Thus, it is important to note that though Soyinka's poem explores the speaker's experiences of racism and displacement in a foreign country, that speaker would likely be subject to similar experiences in his own birthplace as well.
Immigration to Britain
In Britain, prior to the 1900s, there was often tension arising over governmental and cultural attitudes towards immigration. Originally these tensions grew from hostility towards peoples of a different culture and appearance, most notably towards members of the growing Jewish community and later towards immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. Due to the tensions and concerns created by immigration, the British parliament decided to restrict immigration in 1905, a decision that has repercussions even today as the country continues to maintain very strong legislative control of immigration levels.
Following World War II, Britain suffered through a slow and often debilitating return from the economic hardships of the previous decades. The economy was able to rebuild, albeit slowly, and the signs of recovery proved a beacon to immigrants who were seeking refuge or a better lifestyle in the United Kingdom. Under the British Nationality Act of 1948, the British Government decided to embark on a major change in the law of nationality throughout the Commonwealth. All other Commonwealth countries, with the exception of Ireland, had their own British subject nationality status. Since the middle of the twentieth century, racial tensions have ebbed and flowed in Britain, driven in part by the economic climate of the day and by the realization that the large populations of different nationalities, notably South Asians, Africans, East Asians, and Eastern Europeans, have reconfigured Britain into a country populated predominantly by people with a foreign heritage.
Racism in Britain
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, racial policies and trade practices were a central mechanism for controlling a disenfranchised work force comprised largely of Scottish and Irish workers. As immigrant populations expanded through the early twentieth century, so did the discriminatory conduct, which had to take into account the presence of an increasing number of workers of Jewish heritage as well as immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1960s: When the speaker mentions pushing "Button B, Button A" he is referring to the fact that in old style British public payphones a caller had to press a series of buttons once coins were deposited in order to maintain a connection with the person on the other end of the phone.
Today: Public payphones in Britain allow callers a number of options (standard, text, and email) as well as accepting a full range of payment methods, including credit and debit cards.
- 1960s: The speaker refers to himself as "African," which is a reductive and overly simplistic term that underscores the nature of the racial stereotypes that saw the whole of the African continent as an undifferentiated continent lacking any form of ethnic, social, or cultural distinctions.
Today: Although such racial stereotyping still occurs in Britain and elsewhere, the language has changed slightly to reflect national or regional distinctions. The term African would be replaced, for instance, by a more regional (South African) or national (Nigerian) reference.
- 1960s: African immigrants in Europe and African-Americans in the United States mostly live and work in segregation.
Today: While racial segregation is not as explicit as it once was, it still exists to some degree on account of economic inequality.
Britain was also amongst other early capitalist societies to utilize the slave trade, which positioned itself neatly to benefit economically from the dramatic African migration that came to define the 1950s. African immigrants provided a cheap labor force that could support the post-war recovery. Despite these obvious and far-reaching economic benefits, African communities within the larger metropolitan areas were subordinated and often reviled, their members treated as second class citizens. Racial tensions, fueled by a growing sense of powerlessness, increasingly public and vocal discrimination, and a sputtering economy, reached a flash point in the 1980s, a decade marked by rioting in various parts of the country. It was reported by the "Joint Campaign Against Racism" that there were more than 20,000 attacks on non-indigenous peoples living in Britain in 1985 alone. More recently, racism continues in forms of public displays of racial intolerance, a rise in racially motivated crime, and increasing tensions between immigrant populations and local law enforcement agencies.
In his retrospective study of The Poetry of Wole Soyinka, Tanure Ojaide notes that as one of Soyinka's earliest poems, "Telephone Conversation" differs substantively from his later poems. "In the early poems," Ojaide argues, Soyinka "is interested in individuals in society, and there is a psychological and social bias" that is clearly articulated. Additionally, he "presents the characters and their mental attitudes for ridicule, sympathy, and amusement. The voice" of these early poems "is critical," the language "simple, and the major poetic devices" brought into play include "sarcasm, irony, hyperbole, and repetition."
Significantly, Ojaide goes on to state, this is a poem in which "the voice of the poet is distinct. There is no bitterness in the voice, no sense of urgency in the light criticism, no vision of inhumanity as in the later poems." This is a poem that focuses on the absurdity of an individual who behaves badly and whose own ignorance of the racial diversity in which she lives leaves her out of touch with society.
It is the reconnection to the realities of a world divided on political and racial lines that many other critics comment on when considering Soyinka's poetry. In his article "Poetry as Revelation: Wole Soyinka," critic D. I. Nwoga, for instance, celebrates Soyinka's poetry for its power to establish for readers "a new reality," providing "a new background to [an individual's] understanding and judgement of particular things, actions and situations." Moreover, Nwoga continues, these are poems that redirect "our wills and planning for the future." Writing for Transition, Stanley Macebuh bends this critical emphasis in a slightly different direction, arguing in his article, "Poetics and the Mythic Imagination," that Soyinka's "abiding concern" in his poetry has always "been with myth" rather than with history or politics, and more specifically with developing a kind of mythic "significance for contemporary life in Africa." Soyinka is, as Alan Jacobs asserts in "Wole Soyinka's Outrage: The Divided Soul of Nigeria's Nobel Laureate," "a writer of spectacular literary gifts" who has made his mark on contemporary literature in part due to his profundity as "an acclaimed lyric and satirical poet."
Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has published extensively on fiction, poetry, film, and television. He is also a freelance university teacher, writer, and educational consultant. In this essay, he discusses Soyinka as a poetic historian whose "Telephone Conversation" can be read as an unambiguous attempt to trace the roots of racial prejudice through the exploration of language as a cultural and political tool.
To many critics and scholars, Soyinka is the preeminent African activist-writer of the twentieth century, and, when turning to his poetry, a writer who clearly favors the dramatic over the experimental or the lyric. While these labels do celebrate Soyinka's skill and passion as a writer, they do, ironically, shortchange one aspect of his writing: his skill as a kind of poetic historian inspired and challenged into unambiguous attempts to trace the roots of racial prejudice in the textures and meaning of language itself. His often anthologized poem "Telephone Conversation" is not so much a record of yet another instance of misguided prejudice as it is a demonstration of the manner in which such attitudes are deployed and sustained within a culture. Prejudice, in this sense, can be reimagined as both a pattern of social attitudes as well as a product of language itself.
To recognize Soyinka's preoccupation with the racial overtones of language itself is to discover one of the sources of his creative energy. At times, Soyinka's poetry is defined by a dignified simplicity that appeals to ease of access and the immediate recognition of readers. Read from this angle, Soyinka's language is almost casually serene, a marker of "good-breeding" and "lipstick-coated." In the opening lines of "Telephone Conversation," Soyinka's speaker sees the cost of his own subservience to the "pressurized" constrictions of language as "reasonable," and his own expectations when entering into the negotiations are "indifferent." As the poem opens, readers experience an African man willing to accept the language of "good-breeding" and the veneer of attitudes and politics that can be best described as "gold-rolled." There is a political and spiritual complacency to these opening lines, an unwillingness to upset the cultural expectations that lead to this exchange. Language is not expected to be problematic in the opening stages of this conversation, and, for a few lines at least, it remains comfortably polite.
Despite the apparent complacency of these opening lines, Soyinka is pointing to the link between the assumptions of language and the conceptual framework from which prejudice receives its power. The once-colonized African speaker is, despite his civility, acutely aware of his unwillingness in the moment to deploy language back against itself and, in turn, back against these assumptions. Put in other words, the speaker plays the language game with confidence and with a learned (or is it instinctive?) understanding of the powers of silence. When faced with a breach in protocol, as in the moment of his "self-confession," the speaker expects and receives a moment of silence.
Moving through this silence, Soyinka's speaker begins to delve deeper into the language of the moment, and to illuminate its power to function as a tool of both the civilized veneer and the apparatus of prejudicial politics. In the moments following the silence, the language of the poem becomes less serene, less able to conceal the frustrations building within the speaker and the landlady. This point is amply illustrated by the sudden shift from the world of the civil and the polite to a world defined by the "stench / Of rancid breath" and the cacophony of "squelching tar." Even silence has been reconfigured in this new world, pushed to the limits of the "ill-mannered" and the incomprehensibility of the "dumbfounded." Language, only moments earlier the marker of civil discourse, becomes an invitation to what the speaker calls "revelation" in an instant of silence.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Soyinka's Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World (2004) explores the political and human rights implications in what he calls the current climate of fear. In a book that has been called a defining work of our age, he discusses the international conflict between power and freedom, the motives behind unthinkable acts of violence, and the meaning of human dignity.
- Equally valuable is Soyinka's The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (1999), a series of three lectures delivered at the De Bois Institute of Harvard University. Intensely political and powerfully lyrical, these pieces are a seminal exploration of the role of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
- Racial conflict and the complex issues surrounding the politics of color are central to M. G. Vassanji's The Book of Secrets (1994), an outstanding historical novel set in East Africa. The best of M. G. Vassanji's early novels, it transforms the history of South Asians in Kenya and Tanzania from 1913 to 1988 into an absorbing narrative that is part love story, part war story, part mystery, part national history, and part journey of self-discovery.
- Chinua Achebe's Collected Poems (2004) is a powerful collection from the writer often considered one of the founding fathers of African literature in English. Drawing on three books of poetry, and including seven previously unpublished poems, this collection, like the poetry of Soyinka, explores an intimate poetic engagement with politics, war, and culture. Writing in tones that are at once ironic, generous, and tender, Achebe draws deeply on mythic traditions and promised futures by way of confronting the contemporary world's harsh reality of violence and exploitation.
Failing to grapple with the political and racial realities that overwhelm the conversation, the landlady struggles to find her own linguistic bearings. Her voice, once "lipstick-coated" and "cigarette-holder tipped" veers suddenly toward the "clinical" tinged with a "light / Impersonality." If simplicity and accessibility were the defining characteristics of the poem's opening lines, the middle portion of the poem leads the speaker to opt for confusing ideas rather than support an ease of understanding. Describing himself as "West African sepia," the poet sends his listener spiraling into a new type of silence, one that stands in, confusedly, "for [a] spectroscopic / Flight of fancy." Reader and landlady alike are left scrambling to decode the metaphor and to unravel the now confused meanings of the speaker's language.
Significantly, it is in this moment of confusion that truth "clang[s]" hard against the faux civility of the landlady's earlier words. And it is in this collision that language itself cracks open, revealing its deeper political and cultural implications. Once confident in her control of words, the landlady finds herself suddenly rewritten into a position of weakness, forced to "conced[e]" that she does not understand this new and poetic turn of phrase. "DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT IS" she responds curtly. Coincidentally, in this moment of realignment, grammar itself is revisited. First-person pronouns slide into silence, and the contracted form of "do not" pushes the exchange toward the colloquial and even the vulgar. To make this point doubly clear, Soyinka has her repeat both idea and syntax in her next line: "THAT'S DARK, ISN'T IT?"
With this combination of concession and question, the landlady exposes the prejudicial underbelly of language itself. The political impact of race and discrimination is let loose in the poem, shredding the veneer of civility that had once contained the misconceptions of the woman's worldview. From this point onwards, the friction of the poem increases, as the speaker, a man of eloquence and calm, dismantles both the word darkness (dismembering it into various shadings) and the landlady's prejudice (dragging it into the full light of articulation).
And with this friction, the poem shifts dramatically from being an exchange that foregrounds the sense of hearing (and listening) to a foregrounding of the sense of sight. "You should see / The rest of me" the speaker tells the landlady, offering to provide her with the optic proof of his race and of her intolerance. Forced to see for herself the collapse of her language, her civility, and her control, the woman moves to the fourth level of silence explored in the poem: she moves to terminate the conversation by hanging up. The speaker, in his last and most ironic challenge to her former reliance on the shadowy language of racial prejudice, offers to breach the distance separating them as conversationalists and as people. "Wouldn't you rather / See for yourself," he pleads. The verb "see" resonates through the poem, meaning both see the speaker for herself (and study his various shades of darkness) and see for herself the error of her misguided prejudice.
"Telephone Conversation" engages in a moral indictment of language itself, and more particularly in the surreptitious slippage between meaning and prejudice. This is not a poem that seeks serenity in language but demands transformation, change, and most of all awareness.
Source: Klay Dyer, Critical Essay on "Telephone Conversation," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2008.
In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Soyinka's work.
Many critics consider Wole Soyinka Africa's finest writer. The Nigerian playwright's unique style blends traditional Yoruban folk-drama with European dramatic form to provide both spectacle and penetrating satire. Soyinka told New York Times Magazine writer Jason Berry that in the African cultural tradition, the artist "has always functioned as the record of the mores and experience of his society." His plays, novels, and poetry all reflect that philosophy, serving as a record of twentieth-century Africa's political turmoil and its struggle to reconcile tradition with modernization. As a young child, Soyinka was comfortable with the conflicting cultures in his world, but as he grew older, he became increasingly aware of the pull between African tradition and Western modernization. Eldred Jones stated in his book Wole Soyinka that the author's work touches on universal themes as well as addressing specifically African concerns: "The essential ideas which emerge from a reading of Soyinka's work are not specially African ideas, although his characters and their mannerisms are African. His concern is with man on earth. Man is dressed for the nonce in African dress and lives in the sun and tropical forest, but he represents the whole race."
Ake, Soyinka's village, was mainly populated with people from the Yoruba tribe and was presided over by the ogboni, or tribal elders. Soyinka's grandfather introduced him to the pantheon of Yoruba gods and to other tribal folklore. His parents were key representatives of colonial influences, however: his mother was a devout Christian convert and his father acted as headmaster for the village school established by the British. When Soyinka's father began urging Wole to leave Ake to attend the government school in Ibadan, the boy was spirited away by his grandfather, who administered a scarification rite of manhood. Soyinka was also consecrated to the god Ogun, ruler of metal, roads, and both the creative and destructive essence. Ogun is a recurring figure in Soyinka's work and has been named by the author as his muse.
Ake: The Years of Childhood, Soyinka's account of his first ten years, stands as "a classic of childhood memoirs wherever and whenever produced," stated New York Times Book Review contributor James Olney. Numerous critics have singled out Soyinka's ability to recapture the changing perspective of a child as the book's outstanding feature; it begins in a light tone but grows increasingly serious as the boy matures and becomes aware of the problems faced by the adults around him. The book concludes with an account of a tax revolt organized by Soyinka's mother and the beginnings of Nigerian independence. "Most of ‘Ake’ charms; that was Mr. Soyinka's intention," wrote John Leonard of the New York Times. "The last fifty pages, however, inspire and confound; they are transcendent." Olney was of a similar opinion, writing that "the lyricism, grace, humor and charm of ‘Ake’ … are in the service of a profoundly serious viewpoint … . Mr. Soyinka, however, does this dramatically, not discursively. Through recollection, restoration and re-creation, he conveys a personal vision that was formed by the childhood world that he now returns to evoke and exalt in his autobiography. This is the ideal circle of autobiography at its best. It is what makes ‘Ake’ in addition to its other great virtues, the best introduction available to the work of one of the liveliest, most exciting writers in the world today."
Soyinka published some poems and short stories in Black Orpheus, a highly regarded Nigerian literary magazine, before leaving Africa to attend the University of Leeds in England. There his first play was produced. The Invention is a comic satire based on a sudden loss of pigment by South Africa's black population. Unable to distinguish blacks from whites and thus enforce its apartheid policies, the government is thrown into chaos. "The play is Soyinka's sole direct treatment of the political situation in Africa," noted Thomas Hayes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1986.
Soyinka returned to Nigeria in 1960 shortly after the country's independence from colonial rule had been declared. He began to research Yoruba folklore and drama in depth and incorporated elements of both into his play A Dance of the Forests, which was commissioned as part of Nigeria's independence celebrations. In his play, Soyinka warned the newly independent Nigerians that the end of colonial rule did not mean an end to their country's problems. It shows a bickering group of mortals who summon up the egungun (spirits of the dead, revered by the Yoruba people) for a festival. They have presumed the egungun to be noble and wise, but they discover that their ancestors are as petty and spiteful as any living people. "The whole concept ridicules the African viewpoint that glorifies the past at the expense of the present," suggested John F. Povey in Tri-Quarterly. "The sentimentalized glamour of the past is exposed so that the same absurdities may not be reenacted in the future. This constitutes a bold assertion to an audience awaiting an easy appeal to racial heroics." Povey also praised Soyinka's skill in using dancing, drumming, and singing to reinforce his theme: "The dramatic power of the surging forest dance [in the play] carries its own visual conviction. It is this that shows Soyinka to be a man of the theatre, not simply a writer."
After warning against living in nostalgia for Africa's past in A Dance of the Forests, Soyinka lampooned the indiscriminate embrace of Western modernization in The Lion and the Jewel. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer called this play a "richly ribald comedy," which combines poetry and prose "with a marvellous lightness in the treatment of both." The plot revolves around Sidi, the village beauty, and the rivalry between her two suitors. Baroka is the village chief, an old man with many wives; Lakunle is the enthusiastically Westernized schoolteacher who dreams of molding Sidi into a "civilized" woman.
In Introduction to Nigerian Literature, Eldred Jones commented that The Lion and the Jewel represents "a clash between the genuine and the false; between the well-done and the half-baked. Lakunle the school teacher would have been a poor symbol of any desirable kind of progress … . He is a man of totally confused values. [Baroka's worth lies in] the traditional values of which he is so confident and in which he so completely outmaneouvres Lakunle who really has no values at all." Bruce King, editor of Introduction to Nigerian Literature, named The Lion and the Jewel "the best literary work to come out of Africa."
Soyinka was well established as Nigeria's premier playwright when, in 1965, he published his first novel, The Interpreters. The novel allowed him to expand on themes already expressed in his stage dramas and to present a sweeping view of Nigerian life in the years immediately following independence. Essentially plotless, The Interpreters is loosely structured around informal discussions among five young Nigerian intellectuals. Each one has been educated in a foreign country and returned, hoping to shape Nigeria's destiny. They are hampered by their own confused values, however, as well as the corruption they encounter everywhere. Some reviewers likened Soyinka's writing style in The Interpreters to that of James Joyce and William Faulkner. Others took exception to the formless quality of the novel, but Eustace Palmer asserted in The Growth of the African Novel: "If there are reservations about the novel's structure, there can be none about the thoroughness of the satire at society's expense. Soyinka's wide-ranging wit takes in all sections of a corrupt society … . He is careful to expose [the interpreters'] selfishness, egoism, cynicism and aimlessness. Indeed the conduct of the intellectuals both in and out of the university is major preoccupation of Soyinka's in this novel. The aimlessness and superficiality of the lives of most of the interpreters is patent."
Neil McEwan pointed out in Africa and the Novel that for all its seriousness, The Interpreters is also "among the liveliest of recent novels in English. It is bright satire full of good sense and good humour which are African and contemporary: the highest spirits of its author's early work. … Behind the jokes of his novel is a theme that he has developed angrily elsewhere: that whatever progress may mean for Africa it is not a lesson to be learned from outside, however much of ‘modernity’ Africans may share with others." McEwan further observed that although The Interpreters does not have a rigidly structured plot, "there is unity in the warmth and sharpness of its comic vision. There are moments which sadden or anger; but they do not diminish the fun." Palmer noted that The Interpreters notably influenced the African fiction that followed it, shifting the focus "from historical, cultural and sociological analysis to penetrating social comment and social satire."
The year The Interpreters was published, 1965, also marked Soyinka's first arrest by the Nigerian police. He was accused of using a gun to force a radio announcer to broadcast incorrect election results. No evidence was ever produced, however, and the PEN writers' organization launched a protest campaign, headed by William Styron and Norman Mailer. Soyinka was released after three months. He was next arrested two years later, during Nigeria's civil war. Soyinka was completely opposed to the conflict and especially to the Nigerian government's brutal policies toward the Ibo people who were attempting to form their own country, Biafra. He traveled to Biafra to establish a peace commission composed of leading intellectuals from both sides; when he returned, the Nigerian police accused him of helping the Biafrans to buy jet fighters. Once again he was imprisoned, this time held for more than two years although never formally charged with any crime. Most of that time, he was kept in solitary confinement. When all of his fellow prisoners were vaccinated against meningitis, Soyinka was passed by; when he developed serious vision problems, they were ignored by his jailers. He was denied reading and writing materials, but he manufactured his own ink and began to keep a prison diary, written on toilet paper, cigarette packages and in between the lines of the few books he secretly obtained. Each poem or fragment of journal he managed to smuggle to the outside world became a literary event and a reassurance to his supporters that he still lived, despite rumors to the contrary. He was released in 1969 and left Nigeria soon after, not returning until a change of power took place in 1975.
Published as The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka, the author's diary constitutes "the most important work ever written about the Biafran war," believed Charles R. Larson, contributor to Nation. "‘The Man Died’ is not so much the story of Wole Soyinka's own temporary death during the Nigerian Civil War but a personified account of Nigeria's fall from sanity documented by one of the country's leading intellectuals." Gerald Weales's New York Times Book Review article suggested that the political content of The Man Died is less fascinating than "the notes that deal with prison life, the observation of everything from a warder's catarrh to the predatory life of insects after a rain. Of course, these are not simply reportorial. They are vehicles to carry the author's shifting states of mind, to convey the real subject matter of the book; the author's attempt to survive as a man, and as a mind. The notes are both a means to that survival and a record to it." Larson underlined the book's political impact, however, noting that ironically, "while other Nigerian writers were emotionally castrated by the war, Soyinka, who was placed in solitary confinement so that he wouldn't embarrass the government, was writing work after work, books that will no doubt embarrass the Nigerian Government more than anything the Ibo writers may ever publish." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer expressed similar sentiment, characterizing The Man Died as "a damning indictment of what Mr. Soyinka sees as the iniquities of wartime Nigeria and the criminal tyranny of its administration in peacetime." Many literary commentators felt that Soyinka's work changed profoundly after his prison term, darkening in tone and focusing on the war and its aftermath.
In the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1986, Hayes quoted Soyinka on his concerns after the war: "I have one abiding religion—human liberty … . conditioned to the truth that life is meaningless, insulting, without this fullest liberty, and in spite of the despairing knowledge that words alone seem unable to guarantee its possession, my writing grows more and more preoccupied with the theme of the oppressive boot, the irrelevance of the color of the foot that wears it and the struggle for individuality." In spite of its satire, most critics found The Interpreters to be ultimately an optimistic book. In contrast, Soyinka's second novel Season of Anomy, expresses almost no hope for Africa's future, wrote John Mellors in London Magazine, commenting that the author seemed to write the book "in a blazing fury, angry beyond complete control of words at the abuses of power and the outbreaks of both considered and spontaneous violence … . The plot charges along, dragging the reader (not because he doesn't want to go, but because he finds it hard to keep up) through forest, mortuary and prison camp in nightmare visions of tyranny, torture, slaughter and putrefaction … . [M]urder and mutilation, while sickeningly explicit, are justified by … the author's anger and compassion and insistence that bad will not become better by our refusal to examine it."
Like Season of Anomy, Soyinka's postwar plays are considered more brooding than his earlier work. Madmen and Specialists was described as "grim" by Martin Banham and Clive Wake in African Theatre Today. In the play, a doctor returns from the war trained as a specialist in torture and uses his new skills on his father. The play's major themes are "the loss of faith and rituals" and "the break-up of the family unit which traditionally in Africa has been the foundation of society," according to Charles Larson in the New York Times Book Review. Names and events in the play are fictionalized to avoid censorship, but Soyinka has clearly "leveled a wholesale criticism of life in Nigeria since the Civil War: a police state in which only madmen and spies can survive, in which the losers are mad and the winners are paranoid about the possibility of another rebellion. The prewar corruption and crime have returned, supported by the more sophisticated acts of terrorism and espionage introduced during the war." Larson believed that, in large part, the play was a product of the time Soyinka spent in prison as a political prisoner. "It is, not surprisingly, the most brutal piece of social criticism he has published," Larson commented.
In a similar tone, A Play of Giants presents four African leaders—thinly disguised versions of Jean Bedel Bokassa, Sese Seko Mobutu, Macias Ngeuma, and Idi Amin—meeting at the United Nations building, where "their conversation reflects the corruption and cruelty of their regimes and the casual, brutal flavor of their rule," commented Hayes, in whose opinion the play demonstrates that, "as Soyinka has matured he has hardened his criticism of all that restricts the individual's ability to choose, think, and act free from external oppression … . [It is] his harshest attack against modern Africa, a blunt, venomous assault on … African leaders and the powers who support them."
In Isara: A Voyage around "Essay," Soyinka provides a portrait of his father, Akinyode Soditan, as well as "vivid sketches of characters and culturally intriguing events that cover a period of fifteen years," Charles Johnson related in the Washington Post. The narrative follows S.A., or "Essay," and his classmates through his years at St. Simeon's Teacher Training Seminary in Ilesa. Aided by documents left to him in a tin box, Soyinka dramatizes the changes that profoundly affected his father's life. The Great Depression that brought the Western world to its knees during the early 1930s was a time of economic opportunity for Africans. The quest for financial gain transformed African culture, as did Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia and the onset of World War II. More threatening was the violent civil war for the throne following the death of their king. An aged peacemaker named Agunrin resolved the conflict by an appeal to the people's common past. "As each side presents its case, Agunrin, half listening, sinks into memories that unfold his people's collective history, and finally he speaks, finding his voice in a scene so masterfully rendered it alone is worth the price of the book," Johnson claimed. The book is neither a strict biography nor a straight historical account. However, "in his effort to expose Western readers to a unique, African perspective on the war years, Soyinka succeeds brilliantly," Johnson commented. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that, in addition, "Essay emerges as a high-minded teacher, a mentor and companion, blessed with dignity and strong ideals, a father who inspired his son to achievement."
In his 1996 work, The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, Soyinka takes an expansive and unrestrained look at Nigeria's dictatorship. A collection of essays originally delivered as lectures at Harvard, The Open Sore questions the corrupt government, the ideas of nationalism, and international intervention. The book begins with the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa. For Soyinka, his death, along with the annulment of the elections in 1993, signaled the disintegration of the state. According to Robert D. Kaplan in the New York Times Book Review, Soyinka "uses these harsh facts to dissect, then reinvent not just Nigeria but the concept of nationhood itself."
In 1998 Soyinka ended a self-imposed exile from Nigeria that began in 1993 when a democratically elected government was to have assumed power. Instead, General Ibrahim Babangida, who had ruled the nation for eight years, prohibited the publication of the voting results and installed his deputy, General Sani Abacha, as head of the Nigerian state. Soyinka, along with other pro-democracy activists, was charged with treason for his criticism of the military regime. Faced with a death sentence, Soyinka went into exile in 1994, during which time he traveled and lectured in Europe and the United States. Following the death of Abacha, who held control for five years, the new government, led by General Abdulsalem Abubakar, released numerous political prisoners and promised to hold civilian elections. Soyinka's return to his homeland renewed hope for a democratic Nigerian state. When confronted following a series of lectures at Emory University in early 2004 with questions about why he continues to struggle against almost overwhelming political odds, Soyinka was quoted by Richard Halicks in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as commenting: "My conviction simply is that power must always be defeated, that the struggle must always continue to defeat power. I don't go looking for fights. People don't believe this, I'm really a very lazy person. I enjoy my peace and quiet. There's nothing I love better than just to sit quietly somewhere, you know, have a glass of wine, read a book, listen to music, that really is my ideal existence." However, just months after that comment, Soyinka was tear gassed and again arrested, albeit briefly, while protesting the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo for what he and other human rights activists called, according to Andrew Meldrum of the Guardian, "a civilian dictatorship." Following his release, the almost-seventy-year-old Soyinka vowed to launch new antigovernment protests, which simply confirmed a statement he made several months before the arrest, quoted by Halicks, that seems to sum up his undaunted commitment to human liberty: "In prison I had lots of time to ponder, ‘Why do I do things that get me into trouble?’ I didn't find an answer. I also, to my surprise, didn't incur any internal suggestion that, when I get out of this one, I will stop. It has ever occurred to me to stop."
Soyinka's work is frequently described as demanding but rewarding reading. Although his plays are widely praised, they are seldom performed, especially outside Africa. The dancing and choric speech often found in them are unfamiliar and difficult for non-African actors to master, a problem Holly Hill noted in her London Times review of the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Death and the King's Horseman. She awarded high praise to the play, however, saying it "has the stateliness and mystery of Greek tragedy." When the Swedish Academy awarded Soyinka the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, its members singled out Death and the King's Horseman and A Dance of the Forests as "evidence that Soyinka is ‘one of the finest poetical playwrights that have written in English,’" reported Stanley Meisler of the Los Angeles Times.
In 2005 Soyinka published Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World, a series of lectures that were initially presented at London's Royal Institution. The lectures discuss all of the current political and environmental forces that create a ‘climate of fear’ and posit that the true function of fear is to rob of dignity, and that the function of robbing of dignity is to dehumanize. Although Derek Hook, writing in Theoria, called the lectures "important critical contributions," he also noted that they are "frequently offset by an unfortunate mode of psychologism." Hook was perhaps more laudatory when he stated "insofar as Soyinka's discussion retains a balance … it holds something of promise." A Kirkus Reviews critic was more positive, commenting that the "gracefully stated" volume "wanders the boundary between memoir and political essay." Interestingly, Soyinka's You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir, was released shortly after the publication of Climate of Fear.
Soyinka has continued to publish valuable work throughout his forty-year career. Hayes, in a summary of Soyinka's literary importance, once stated: "His drama and fiction have challenged the West to broaden its aesthetic and accept African standards of art and literature. His personal and political life have challenged Africa to embrace the truly democratic values of the African tribe and reject the tyranny of power practiced on the continent by its colonizers and by many of its modern rulers."
Source: Thomson Gale, "Wole Soyinka," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay, Ojaide explores the early poems of Soyinka, of which "Telephone Conversation" is one. The critic notes that the voice in these early poems is lighter, more playful, and less bitter than that of Soyinka's later poems, plays, and novels.
"The Immigrant," "And the Other Immigrant," "My Next Door Neighbour," and "Telephone Conversation" are among Soyinka's early poems. Though the first three appeared in Black Orpheus in 1959 and the fourth in Modern Poetry from Africa in 1963, these poems, from evidence of subject-matter, style, and social orientation in an alien environment, seem to have been written between 1954 and 1959. This was the period Soyinka studied at the University of Leeds and worked in England. I use early to refer to these poems written in England as distinct from the very early college poems written in Nigeria, which I have chosen not to include in this study.
These early poems are different from the later poems, Idanre and Other Poems and A Shuttle in the Crypt, written in Nigeria, and obviously based on the poet's experience of his own culture and the nation's turbulent sociopolitical happenings. In the early poems, the poet is interested in individuals in society, and there is a psychological and social bias. He presents the characters and their mental attitudes for ridicule, sympathy, and amusement. The voice is critical, but playful—light, ironic, refined, and cool. The language is simple, and the major poetic devices are metaphor, sarcasm, irony, hyperbole, and repetition. These poems in their humorous portrayal of characters and the witty use of language apparently belong to the same early period in which Soyinka wrote such light satirical plays as The Trials of Brother Jero and Before the Blackout.
In these early poems the voice of the poet is distinct. There is no bitterness in the voice, no sense of urgency in the light criticism, no vision of inhumanity as in the later poems; what is present, rather, is a characterization of individuals who behave strangely and foolishly in society. The poet is an observer, not the victim he is later to become. Unlike the satirical voice of the prison poems, which is maudlin and pathetic, the voice of the early poems is playful if satirical, exuberant, and not infrequently humorous as the poet sympathizes with some of those he satirizes—such as the immigrants—and is amused by others, for example, his next-door neighbour.
The speaker of "The Immigrant" describes a black man in London, who is refused a dance by a white girl and, feeling that she has snubbed him only because he is black, goes into the street to seek a white prostitute on whom he plans to carry out his revenge. The speaker distances himself from the subject of the poem, describing the immigrant in sarcastic terms. The immigrant knows
That this equation must be sought
Not in any woman's arms
But in the cream-laid
Of the native girl herself.
The "equation," reinforced by "paired" and "reciprocal," suggests the immigrant's desire for equal relationship, though he possesses neither integrity nor confidence in himself. The poet satirizes him with comments such as "Though he will deny it" and "scans the gaudy bulbs / (For the fiftieth time)." Besides, "his swagger belies" his desperation. The immigrant only draws from the girl he asks for a dance a "bored appraisal," and she refuses him the dance without the "usual palliative / False-bottom smile."
The speaker finds the black immigrant and the white girl equally matched. She is fashionably dressed but her body is "foolish"; in other words, she is ugly and foolish. As for the immigrant, he wears a "flashy incredible tie." They are so well-matched that:
Her face exchanges
For his uncouthness.
And the plumb of their twin minds
The parallel syntactical and verbal expressions, "vulgarity" and "uncouthness," describe their identical appearance; they are twins. The girl's "barbed" dismissal hurts the black man like a wound which has grown "septic." It is the immigrant who interprets the girl's eyes as saying: "You? Not for any price!" The man's psychological hurt is represented physically to show its painful effect on him. He has the urge to knife her so that she will feel the same wound on a physical dimension; but he has become nervous and disarmed:
The blade remained
In the sweat-filled pocket.
The immigrant is so obsessed with what he regards as an insult that he feels the other people are aware of his disgrace, and they seem to "jeer at his defeat." Because the girl is white and the couples he sees are white, he projects his humiliation as coming from them:
He knew now the fatality
Of his black, flattened nose.
Wanting revenge in one form or another, the immigrant checks his pocket for money and goes into the street for a white prostitute to have
Lusts for the act
Of degradation of her sex and race.
The repeated "seeks" emphasizes his desperation and continued nervousness, for he "makes his choice at random / Haggles somewhat at the price" and goes with her to pass the night "In reciprocal humiliation." The immigrant is further humiliated because he is unable to find a native girl of mutual equality, but pays to be paired. The street girl is humiliated because she accepts him for the money he will pay her and not for love. So there is similarity between the immigrant and this prostitute in their shared humiliation. He is as much like the girl who rejects him as the one who accepts him.
The speaker's voice is casual, but satiric. The poet uses simple and effective words; for instance, the immigrant has a "little brain," which explains his distorted reasoning. The speaker interjects sarcastic and belittling comments to portray the immigrant in a negative light. The poet's techniques involve subtle use of words, compound words, metaphor, hyperbole, British idiom ("He ran a gauntlet …"), repetition, and subtle sound patterns. The poem is a social and psychological exegesis. The poet sees the black immigrant as tending to see personal humiliation as racially motivated, and in an attempt to respond to discrimination, driving himself into a deeper psychological mess. The immigrant is not right in judging the girl who refused him a dance as a white person rather than as an individual. The poet's viewpoint seems to be that people should be judged individually and not on race lines.
Because the poet is more interested in describing a scene in "The Immigrant," he is reportorial and less intense than in "And the Other Immigrant," in which he wears a mask and speaks in the first person. The speaker of "And the Other Immigrant" personally reveals his self-conceit. The language is mainly sarcastic and ironic and undercuts his claims to dignity. The poet is amused by this other immigrant whom he satirizes.
The other immigrant finds his dignity sewn "Into the lining of a three-piece suit." His Van Heusen collar is crisp, stiff, and "Out-Europes Europe" in its whiteness. "Stiff" is negative in spite of the speaker's feeling that he is well-dressed. The poet is being sarcastic and hyperbolic in making the immigrant admit that the whiteness of his dress "Out-Europes Europe." The poet makes him repeat "three piece suit" and "dignity" to draw attention to his narcissistic personality. Because he feels he is well-dressed, he considers many workers "riff-raff," who will "wilt at the touch of ice;" that is, his so-called social inferiors fear him, and his cold contempt hurts them. This immigrant is so arrogant that he thinks he can "do without them," a claim to self-sufficiency which is false because he buys things on hire-purchase.
He keeps to his "kind," presumably his fellow members of the black elite:
For I condemn
All whiteness in a face.
He is a racist. He identifies himself with African nationalism, and authoritatively asserts:
But only fools can doubt
Philosopher's stone attributes
Ironically, it is only fools who believe there is a "Solve-All / Philosopher's stone" in any movement. The philosopher's stone, the key to turning base metals to gold and a panacea that will ensure longevity (and even physical immortality), was satirized by Chaucer and Ben Jonson as an illusion. Soyinka also uses it satirically in this context to show that the immigrant is deceiving himself. It is ironic that the immigrant who disdains white faces employs western philosophical concepts to express himself The poet is satirical of nationalist claims that all African problems will be solved at independence.
The date of this poem's publication, 1959, is significant. By 1959 a few African countries had become independent. The following year Nigeria and some dozen other countries became independent. It was a time of nationalism in Africa. Nasser, who seized power from King Farouk, was the symbol of African nationalism after the Suez Crisis. The immigrant is trying to boost his ego by associating himself with a heroic African; he is a pseudo-nationalist. The poet is sceptical of the immigrant's claim to nationalism.
The immigrant's slogan is "Négritude," a movement Soyinka has consistently castigated as unnecessary. Soyinka must be throwing jibes at Negritude intellectuals, who proclaim "blackness" and African authenticity but wear three-piece suits and embrace many western social and cultural ways. If the immigrant is a genuine nationalist and negritudinist, he ought not to gloat over his suit but dress in a traditional African way. His claims to nationalism and black cultural pride would be more in tune with a sokoto or an agbada, traditional African outfit, than a three-piece suit. There is a tension in him between public assertion of blackness and a private admiration of himself as acceptable to the upper class in a white society. This conflict reinforces his hypocrisy and debunks his claims to negritude. He sees himself as living well in the foreign society, but buys his three-piece suit, the source of his dignity, on hire-purchase. He lives a thrifty life to survive. His expectation of material advantages when he goes to his home country reveals his selfishness and the hollowness of his nationalism. Ironically, at home he will be the "one-eyed man" who is "king."
The technique of the poet is to make this immigrant ludicrous in dress, behaviour, and speech so that he can be perceived as the opposite of a dignified personality. To the poet, it is not what you claim you are that matters, but the impression you leave with society from your views, behaviour, and action. The poet puts into his mouth words which in their dissonance refute his claims. All along, the poet deflates him as a black prig in an English society who is arrogant and vain, hypocritical, snobbish, and undignified. Like the earlier immigrant discussed, he has a psychological problem. While this immigrant feels he is hurting others, the earlier one feels hurt by a white girl. While this immigrant feels superior; the first one feels treated like an inferior. One rejects, the other is rejected. Soyinka uses similar techniques of irony and sarcasm, exaggeration, indirection, and repetition to portray them in their antithetical but similar psychological problems. …
The race problem which has been treated with levity in the immigrant poems is treated from the poet's personal experience in "Telephone Conversation."
"Telephone Conversation" involves an exchange between the black speaker and a white landlady. This poem more than any other is enriched by Soyinka's experience of drama. It appears that the speaker is so fluent in the landlady's language that she is unable to make out that he is black and a foreigner. But he, knowing the society for its racial prejudice, deems it necessary to declare his racial identity rather than be rejected later when she discovers that he is black. When he tells her that he is African, she seems stunned and there is "Silenced transmission of / Pressurized good-breeding." When she speaks, her voice is
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
These details are evidence of her sophistication, affectation, and artificiality. The poet establishes the lady's social status so as to make her mental attitudes ironic.
The lady asks the speaker, "HOW DARK?" which he is at first too confused to answer: "Surrender pushed dumbfoundment to simplification." He suspects that she is trying to humiliate him because "Her accent was clinical, crushing in its light / Impersonality." The alliterative verse musically represents the sense of crushing. The man prepares himself for a verbal confrontation and replies, "West African sepia." The landlady seems confused over this shade of darkness and becomes silent, an interval described as "Silence for spectroscopic flight of fancy"; and admits "DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT IS." He explains, "Like brunette," which the lady conceives as dark, but for the speaker, "Not altogether." The poem ends as the speaker elaborates on the diverse colours that make up his body, a display which apparently exasperates the lady and makes her drop the receiver. She is made to feel narrow-minded and simplistic, and she loses the verbal battle in her own language to an outsider.
The satiric voice is established through many devices. The poet uses words with negative connotations to portray the lady. She "swore," and her accent is "light," insensitive. There is a pun on "light" because she has preference for "light" people, and her voice is light. There is an abundance of descriptive epithets ranging from "indifferent," "silenced," through "pressurized," "lipstick coated," "long goldrolled / Cigarette-holder tipped" to "rancid," "clinical," "light," and "peroxide." The speaker's own bottom is "raven black." The dramatic exchange relies on wit, humour, irony, hyperbole, compound words, scientific vocabulary, closely-knit expression, suggestiveness, and dialogue interspersed with narration and comments. The speaker is highly versatile in his expression. The poet successfully debunks colour discrimination in society and, indirectly through the speaker's performance in the exchanges, extols the individuality of human beings in spite of colour differences.
The voice and viewpoint are influenced by the environment, poetic aims, and techniques of the poet. The voice in Soyinka's early poems is satirical, but light and playful, quite distinct from the voice in the later poems informed by harsh personal experiences and a national crisis.
Source: Tanure Ojaide, "Early Poems," in The Poetry of Wole Soyinka, Malthouse Press, 1994, pp. 15-22.
Amuta, Chidi, "The Ideological Content of Soyinka's War Writings," in African Studies Review, Vol. 29, No. 3, September 1986, pp. 43-54.
Boyle, Elizabeth Heger, "Gesture without Motion? Poetry and Politics in Africa," in Human Rights Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, October-December 2000, pp. 134-39.
George, Olakunie, Relocating Agency: Modernity and African Letters, State University of New York Press, 2003.
Jacobs, Alan, "Wole Soyinka's Outrage: The Divided Soul of Nigeria's Nobel Laureate," in Books & Culture, Vol. 7, No. 6, November-December 2001, pp. 28-31.
Jeyifo, Biodun, Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, Postcolonialism, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Macebuh, Stanley, "Poetics and the Mythic Imagination," in Transition, Vol. 50, October 1975-March 1976, pp. 79-84.
Nwoga, D. I., "Poetry as Revelation: Wole Soyinka," in Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka, edited by James Gibbs, Three Continents Press, 1980, p. 173.
Ojaide, Tanure, The Poetry of Wole Soyinka, Malthouse Press, 1994, pp.15, 21.
Soyinka, Wole, "Telephone Conversation," in Perrine's Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, edited by Thomas R. Arp, Greg Johnson, and Laurence Perrine, Thomson, 2006, pp. 1006-07.
Wright, Derek, Wole Soyinka: Life, Work, and Criticism, York Press, 1996.
An exploration of the role of the poet in times of political unrest and social uncertainty, Egar's book takes three poets from two countries as representatives of the power of poetry to resist oppressive politics.
Fraser, Robert, West African Poetry: A Critical History, Cambridge University Press, 1986.
While many studies of African poetry tend to concentrate either on its political content or on its relationship to various European schools, Fraser's book explores West African poetry as a unique literary form with roots set deep in oral poetry in the vernacular.
Jeyifo, Biodun, Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, and Postcolonialism, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Jeyifo explores Soyinka's works with regard to the author's sensibilities to the representational ambiguity and linguistic exuberance found in Yoruba culture. More significantly, the analyses of this study emphasize the context of Soyinka's sustained engagement with the violence of collective experience in post-independence, postcolonial Africa and the developing world.
Ojaide, Tanure, "Two Worlds: Influences on the Poetry of Wole Soyinka," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 22, No.4, Winter 1988, pp.767-76.
A detailed discussion of the influences that have shaped Soyinka's poetry, with particular attention to the marriage of tribal and modern qualities in the poems.