Rebecca Lindenberg wrote Love, an Index (McSweeney’s 2012) and The Logan Notebooks (Center for Literary Publishing, 2014). She’s the recipient of an Amy Lowell Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Grant, and several Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prizes, and residencies from the MacDowell Arts Colony and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah, and currently lives in Berlin, Germany.
Some Notes on the Conversation Poem
I’m pretty grateful to the people who make them that there are lots of different poetries in our time – formal or conceptual or documentary, a wild kind of lyric, minimalism, contemplative verse, prose poetry, or the poem I see a lot of in submissions – long, un-stanzaed narrative verse, flush left and frequently with a capital letter at the start of each line. Happily, all of these exist, and many more varieties of text experiment, sounding the possibilities of the page. I can get excited by all of this. But there are things I find myself returning and returning to, and one of them is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called (and now I’m running with it, like scissors) the “Conversation Poem.”
He used it as part of the title for “The Nightingale” but that has come to be grouped as such with similar poems (“Frost at Midnight,” “This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison,” “To William Wordsworth,” and more). Critic George Harper described what they have in common, claiming all are “made with fine particularities to certain places,” “occasioned by definite events,” and above all noting that “even when they are soliloquies, the sociable man who wrote them could not even think without supposing a listener.” The places are ordinary – a sitting-room, a back-garden; the events are personal, a winter night, a minor accident with some boiled milk that prevented him from taking one of his famous walks, a talk with a friend. And they are probably the purest expression of Wordsworth’s Romantic notion that poetry should be written in “the real language of men.” Their tone is intimate, the language (while exceptionally thoughtful and original) is unpretentious. They seem, as poems, to belong to one of the most exquisite uses of poetry: To relieve loneliness.
Coleridge’s eponymous pieces form just one example, of course, in a long and storied tradition of what could all be called “Conversation Poems,” from Catullus (probably before) to the great Frank O’Hara (and beyond). In his splendid lyric manifesto, “Personism,” O’Hara writes:
“Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity…It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.”
Conversation poems aren’t light verse, though (as with Catullus, or our own contemporary Joe Wenderoth) they can be terrifically bawdy. They aren’t confessional, though (as with the Frank O’Hara of, say, “Having a Coke With You” or “The Day Lady Died”) they can feel deeply familiar. If they can, at times, seem naive or under-wrought, it is a deliberate aspect of their tender invitation. What they are not, which makes them special, is defensive.
Now, I myself got a lot out of poetry workshops, but I was frequently lucky in who was in charge of those workshops, and above all, who else was in them. Rather than someone asking, “Well, does the poem really earn this line?” or “What’s at stake here?” I got asked stuff like, “Rebecca, why did God create the universe?” Which, really, is a bigger question for a poet to contend with, and bigger questions usually give way to more interesting poems. But I’ve noticed that one consequence of bringing work to be scrutinized, vetted, critiqued, analyzed, or possibly even dissed by a group of one’s peers (and even competitors) mediated by an admired elder, well. It doesn’t always create a fertile environment for joy.
And I think Conversation Poems, even when they’re bawdy or cheeky or quietly contemplative or struck through with pain or incandescent with grief, they’re kind of joyful. Because conversation is, in itself, kind of joyful. It’s a transit between two human imaginations, showing us ourselves in others and others in ourselves. I have always been pretty firmly of the opinion that compassion is creativity’s finest enterprise. I think that’s an aspect of the Conversation Poem I most cherish – the permission to partake of someone else’s questions.
I guess you could say Conversation Poems are a species of the lyric, though I know that is a troublesome little word. But I’m after this theory that what we mean by “lyric” nowadays has less to do with poetry’s attachment to music, or even its charged defiance of epic values, and more to do with a certain kind of logic – one that moves not by the narrative force of then-now, nor the analytical force of if-then, nor the argumentative force of then-this, but by a kind of hopscotch across associations. Maybe Pound’s “logopoeia” is what I’m reaching for here, “the dance of the intellect among words.” But what Conversation Poems bring to this movement, which I think is why they feel kind of joyful, is a splendid measure of velocity. All poems have to move; some move sort of laboriously, which is sometimes okay but sometimes, you know, laborious. (Perhaps a consequence of being weighed down with too much polish, or too heavily armored against critique.) Conversation poems, which are directed right at their interlocutor, like a blown kiss or like a right hook or like a pie in the face, kind of sail. And I like to sail.