Dialogue in Poetry: One Side of an Imaginary Phone Call

by | May 21, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

This morning, my 3-year-old asked me to listen to her foot. I obliged by putting her foot up to my ear and improvising my side of a conversation with the foot. It was good practice for a later conversation I had with my 3-month-old, who is a very engaging interlocutor with a remarkably expressive face but whose actual words I don’t understand (coo coo gurgle gurgle coo). 

The improvisation of one side of an imagined conversation is, I think, what Frank O’Hara does in his poems. It’s not so much that the poems have dialogue in them as that they are, as a whole, one side of a dialogue. As he writes of a movement he founded in an eponymous essay called “Personism: A Manifesto,”

…one of [Personalism’s] 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. 

There’s often a bit of second person in O’Hara’s poems, which brings forward the conversational sensibility that underlies all his poems. In one poem, “[Lana Turner Has Collapsed],” he includes a line of dialogue with second person attribution, which makes it doubly conversational: 

you said it was hailing

but hailing hits you on the head

hard so it was really snowing

So the poem as a whole is addressed to someone, telling someone this story about seeing the headline “Lana Turner Has Collapsed,” and within that address, the poet quotes the person is addressing. 

Then, in the last line, O’Hara veers suddenly and funnily into addressing someone different, with an even more talk-y tone: “oh Lana Turner we love you get up.” These moments of dialogue really make the term Personism make sense. So much voice, so much person comes through these conversational moments. 

“Poem” by Rachel Zucker is a delight of a poem with dialogue. You have to read it. The breath of O’Hara is thick in this poem, the way Zucker drops in all these names of other poets and talks about a reading and recounts a conversation in this circuitous way. It hits harder than O’Hara’s poem. It’s about a conversation about happiness, and how people think differently about the matter of being happy or not, and it’s about how you can say you’re happy at one moment and then, in a different moment, when your kid is crying, that moment seems pretty far away. 

There’s lots of dialogue in the poem, and it’s funny and light and recursive:

In her office, a few minutes earlier, Deborah

had asked, are you happy? And I said, um, yes,

actually, and Deborah: well, I’m not—

all I do is work and work. And the phone

rang every thirty seconds and between

calls Deborah said, I asked Catherine

if she was happy and Catherine said, life

isn’t about happiness it’s about helping

other people. 

Individual lines of dialogue stretch across line breaks and stanza breaks, which lends movement and dramatic tension to the poem. Notice that Deborah is recounting what Catherine said. Catherine is not present in the poem. 

The last five stanzas have no more dialogue, and along with the dialogue goes the lightness, which raises the question of whether the poet follows the advice from Matt Rohrer that she quotes at the start of the poem and again toward the end: “the next time you feel yourself going dark / in a poem, just don’t, and see what happens.”

Perhaps dialogue is a way to avoid going dark in a poem. Perhaps dialogue is a way to see what happens.

Prompt

There are plenty of poems addressed to someone, but that doesn’t necessarily feel like dialogue. The difference with O’Hara’s work is that the poems really do seem like these transcripts of one side of an imaginary phone call. There’s art of course in that; it takes art to create that illusion in a poem (it doesn’t take much, on the other hand, to improvise dialogue that makes my 3-year-old laugh in great heaving fits). 

Try talking it out in a poem. Retain “love’s life-giving vulgarity” by keeping your poem conversational, as if you’re talking to someone on the phone and you’re recording your side of the conversation. So your poem should be written in your speaking voice, not your writer voice. 

You could even try doubling the conversation by recounting a conversation, conversationally. Like, think of a real conversation you’ve had, and then write a poem in which you are telling someone (on the phone, out loud) about that conversation. Or you could quote the person to whom you’re speaking back to themselves (you said). 

Rachel Zucker’s poem has these layers, too. Dialogue about other dialogues, all circling around this question of happiness. Maybe you could think of some ongoing conversation you’re having with a group of people, some debate. Write about it, with quotes. You said, I said, he said, they said. Name names.

Use enjambment, as Zucker does. Don’t contain a single line of dialogue within a single line, or even a single stanza. Circle back to the same conversation later in the poem. Include the ums and use italics to express intonation. 

Go a little wild, in dialogue in a poem. Let go a little and quote with abandon.