‘THE CHANGES ARE THE THINGS YOU KNOW’: Poetry and the Telephone
Today, as the ‘phone’ in our smartphones is becoming increasingly vestigial and the voice-only call teeters on the verge of extinction, it’s easy to forget how much about daily life the telephone changed. Phones were an obsession for the entire twentieth century, a distraction and an abstraction, offering a seamless connection to a social world, especially among the alienated life of the growing cities. They were the predecessor of the internet, not just in terms of network infrastructure; things we would now just google were accessed via operators, hotlines, and automated menu systems. These methods could even be used to access poetry: during the 1970s and 1980s, people in New York City could place a local call to John Giorno’s Dial-a-Poem service and be connected to the likes of Allen Ginsberg or Anne Waldman reading a specially composed poem. This was fitting, because poets have always been fascinated by the phone; whether they adored it, feared it, or both, they were preoccupied with the appearance of a new method of word-delivery in the home. As information networks have transformed our lives, the poets have been there, scribbling on the message pad of history.
As the telephone proliferated in the early twentieth century, modernist writers began to discover its influence on the world around them. Jean Toomer’s ‘Her Lips Are Copper Wire’ (from his 1923 book Cane) figures the electricity between lovers using images of streetlamps and telephone wires that surround them in the city – voice and electricity are united, becoming ‘incandescent’. David Jones’ 1937 epic In Parenthesis sees telephone operators in the First World War erecting a makeshift military network which proved treacherous to soldiers moving around at night and transformed the ‘natural’ world of fields and woods into a man-made environment, the battlefield: ‘Telephonic buzzing makes the wilderness seem curious- / ly homely’. Before this line break, we’re led to believe that the wilderness is ‘curious’ (as in strange, but also thoughtful, alive) – but then the next line changes it, and we recognise that the buzzing makes the trench feel like home, like a city. These poets are not writing about telephone conversations yet, but about the atmosphere and affect created by the systems, by the feeling that there was now sonic power crackling all around, enhancing some things and tarnishing others, but transforming everything.
With the ever-presence of the phone in social life, new layers of meaning became attached to every moment of the phone call, and the poets were listening. Wole Soyinka’s ‘Telephone Conversation’ recounts a would-be tenant’s encounter with a racist landlady in which he has to explain that he is Black; the poem squeezes excruciating detail out of even the pauses in the call, describing her ‘Silenced transmission of / Pressurized good-breeding.’ The phone itself is not assigned blame for the white landlady’s actions, but it does provide her with an opportunity to police racial boundaries. At first, the caller uses the telephone to find out whether the landlady will rent him the room at all (‘I hate a wasted journey’), but over the course of the conversation he becomes more and more frustrated, finally managing to ask just before she hangs up, ‘would you not rather see for yourself?’ The poem ends there, not with an easy resolution, but with the phone call as a method of communication being abandoned – he will have an easier time reaching her in real life, and while there is no suggestion that she will abandon her prejudices, there is a glimmer of hope that they might be able to communicate better person to person. To a reader during the current internet-fuelled resurgence of right-wing violence, the idea that communications technology can be used to amplify racism is not in doubt, but even from the beginning, discrimination was finding ways to perpetuate itself across the new networks.
Although its flaws and inadequacies were becoming more obvious, the phone continued to fill more and more social niches. Even waiting by the phone became part of the landscape of a relationship; French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote that this impatient agony was ‘woven out of tiny unavowable interdictions to infinity’, and this meaning-infused gap in communication frequently fills up with poetry. US poet Bernadette Mayer’s sonnet ‘You Jerk, You Didn’t Call Me Up’ tells off a complacent, ‘bourgeois’ lover who would prefer sitting in front of the TV to romance, and compares him unfavourably with Catullus. The telephone call even began to supplant the love poem in the eyes of some; after all, as her fellow New York resident Frank O’Hara pointed out, ‘if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem’. And yet it seemed that poets remained poets even as they took to the phone, especially O’Hara himself – he collaborated with fellow poet Kenneth Koch over long evening calls in which they would read out their works in progress to one another line by line. In Anne Waldman’s elegy for him, ‘A Phone Call from Frank O’Hara’, he rings up the younger poet from beyond the veil to remind her to look around at the world: ‘I was in love with breath’, he says, ‘And dying is such an insult.’ At the end of the poem, in something of an understatement, Waldman realises that O’Hara is ‘more abstract’ than she remembered, wondering if she ‘really’ got the call or imagined it. For his near-contemporary Jack Spicer, the poet was a radio, vibrating to messages from outer space, but as the ideal telephone interlocutor, O’Hara’s poetic vibrations seemed to be transmitted into the phone network itself to haunt the Manhattan exchanges, awaiting a chance connection.
As phones for some took on this immaterial, transcendent quality, other callers started to recognise that they were becoming more than a useful tool, acquiring a will and life of their own. Sylvia Plath’s accidental discovery of her husband Ted Hughes’ affair took place over the phone; her horror of the ‘instrument’ becomes animated in ‘Words Heard, By Accident, Over The Phone’, where she describes the receiver as a ‘tentacle’, and it is a relief at the end of ‘Daddy’ when the ‘telephone’s off at the root’ and voices ‘can’t worm through’.* Likewise, Philip Larkin wrote in his ennui-afflicted ‘Aubade’ about how they ‘crouch, getting ready to ring’ as soon as the work-day starts. It seems that whenever phones are mentioned in John Ashbery’s work, it is in hopes that they will not ring – ‘one can live alone rejoicing in this’, he says in 1986’s ‘A Wave’ – or thanks when they stop: ‘It’s a wrong number, and your heart is lighter’, he sighs with relief in ‘The Ongoing Story’. Phones are, or contain, creatures of hidden meaning, unhooked from normal conversation or speech: you might say something on the phone that you wouldn’t, or couldn’t, say in person, and in a poem the ground of meaning shifting underfoot is felt acutely.
June Jordan’s ‘Realizing That Revolution Will Not Take Place by Telephone’ begins with waking up to find that the world has changed, and reluctantly comes to realise that she must transform with it and stop looking to the telephone for answers. Like Gil Scott-Heron’s more famous ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, Jordan’s poem was composed in the early 1970s, when the revolutionary fervour of the sixties was being dampened by racial capitalism’s alliance with the advancement and near-omnipresence of technology. The main thrust of Scott-Heron’s poem is a list of rejections of elements of consumer capitalism and life in the US in the late twentieth century, all centred around the way the television perpetuates them. The banality of advertising (‘The revolution will not go better with Coke’), the circus of electoral politics (‘NBC will not be able to predict the winner at 8:32 on report from 29 districts’), and the horror of anti-Black violence routinely reproduced on the news (‘There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay’) are all linked to the television’s hypnotic hold. But if the TV is a hypnotist, a mind controller, as we have feared since its inception, then the telephone has always seemed more benign – annoying sometimes, perhaps, but not a propaganda superweapon. After all, we’re usually only talking to one person on the phone, plus it’s active rather than passive; Mayer found it so annoying when her lover picked the TV over ‘calling her up’ because of his indolence and susceptibility to these messages. The phone would seem to be more wholesome, a tool of networking and connection.
And yet, Jordan finds that the phone has its own subtle powers of stupefaction. Unlike Scott-Heron’s, her approach is less itemised and more narrative, beginning with an allegory of the weather. In the first part of Jordan’s three-part poem, the world is becoming flooded during a great storm, and the characters are ‘reluctant to transform ourselves’; the relationship between water and signal gets closer with the ‘waves’ and ‘great rhythms’ in Part 2, until eventually in the third part she calls the Weather Bureau, who struggle to explain until eventually they switch to shouting in all caps: ‘ALL THINGS HAVE CHANGED / THE CHANGES ARE THE THINGS YOU KNOW’. The bottom line is the command: ‘GET OFF THE TELEPHONE!’ Having made this connection, we can go back and realise the relationship between poem and title: as social conditions change around us, we are still tempted to look to the systems represented by the telephone – hotlines for information, emergency services for help, the arms of the state and corporations for reassurance. But the idea that everything has changed, radically, starts with a sneaking suspicion and builds until finally she learns that the soothing voice at the end of the telephone is not going to be of any help any more.
The sentiments in Jordan’s poem are so transferrable to our present moment that it’s almost eerie, until we remember that the seeds of what is happening now had already been sown at that time. The ecological damage caused by capitalist society was already painfully obvious in the 1970s, and predictions of global warming were gathering credence. That Jordan’s natural disaster is a sea level rise (apparently global – ‘a world of water’) is no accident – the telephone, being everywhere, is vulnerable everywhere. As a replacement for the weather service they can no longer provide, the person on the other end of the phone shouts: ‘THE WEATHER AND THE WORLD ARE WHERE YOU ARE’. The caller knows better than the operator what is happening where she is – the poem resists the idea that grand systems of knowledge, accessed through technology, have a monopoly on truth. This too is prescient – in the last few years we have seen social media, live streams, and even text messaging apps become tools for spreading reactionary propaganda and conspiracy theories, as the desire for an overarching explanation that confirms our society’s worst prejudices takes over millions of minds.
‘The changes are the things you know.’ This line can be read in more than one way; what you think you know has to change is different from you already know what’s changed. Not only does it urge looking at the world without the veil of propaganda that Scott-Heron describes, it also affirms that the world we know, the world the telephone, television, and internet do not contain, is still out there. As the telephone cable (or microwave transmission) that wraps around more and more of our lives, avoiding it becomes not only less possible, but less desirable – it is as electrifying as it is in Toomer’s city, homely as in Jones’ trench, tentacular as on Plath’s hall table. What this hyper-connected life will become, and what the telephone is using us for, hovers on the edge of hearing, but the changes are the things we know.
- John Giorno, The Dial-a-Poem Poets (Giorno Poetry Systems, 1973), available at UbuWeb.
- Barbara E. Brown and others, ‘On “Her Lips Were Copper Wire’, available at Modern American Poetry.
- Roland Barthes, ‘Waiting’ in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (Hill & Wang, 1980).
- David Trinidad, ‘Collecting Sylvia Plath’, Poetry Foundation blog, 26.06.14.
- June Jordan, A June Jordan Portfolio, junejordan.net.