Wole Soyinka

Here we are with our third challenge.  This time the poem is longer and a bit more difficult as far as the language is concerned.  At this stage I do not want to spoil your pleasure of reading this poem so I am not giving you any "language support."  If I did, I would jeopardize one of the aims Soyinka wants to achieve.  So try to answer this question first: why do you think the language is so refined?

Next week I will pose some guiding questions, which will help you focus on certain key elements.  I hope you will like this poem as much as I do.  Enjoy it!

The following poem  is a realistic piece which the Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka wrote and performed in London in 1959, when citizens from the Commonwealth could freely move into and around Britain.  It tells of a black person in London looking for an apartment to rent.


Wole Soyinka (1934-)

Telephone Conversation (1959)


The price seemed reasonable, location

Indifferent.  The landlady swore she lived

Off premises.  Nothing remained

But self-confession.  “Madam,” I warned,

“I hate a wasted journey – I am African.”

Silence.  Silenced transmission of

Pressurized good-breeding.  Voice, when it came,

Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled

Cigarette-holder pipped.  Caught I was, foully.

“HOW DARK?…” I had not misheard, … “ARE YOU LIGHT

OR VERY DARK?” Button B. Button A. Stench

Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.

Red booth.  Red pillar-box.  Red double-tiered

Omnibus squelching tar.  It was real! Shamed

By ill-mannered silence, surrender

Pushed dumbfoundment to beg simplification.

Considerate she was, varying the emphasis –

“ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?” Revelation came.

“You mean – like plain or milk chocolate?”

Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light

Impersonality.  Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,

I chose.  “West African sepia” – and as afterthought,

“Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic

Flight of fancy, till truthfulness changed her accent

Hard on the mouthpiece.  “WHAT’S THAT?” conceding

“DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” “Like brunette.”

“THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?” “Not altogether.

Facially, I am brunette, but madam, you should see

The rest of me.  Palm of my hand, soles of my feet

Are a peroxide blonde.  Friction, caused –

Foolishly madam – by sitting down, has turned

My bottom raven black – One moment madam!” – sensing

Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap

About my ears – “Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather

See for yourself?”

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7 Responses to Wole Soyinka

  1. anonimo says:

    I think it is a beautiful poem, but I appreciate most the second poem you posted. In my opinion it is hard to understand and I had to look up a lot of words in the dictionary.

    I think the language is so refined for various reasons: first of all the author wants to underline the differences between black and white people. I mean that he wants to highlight how the white english lady reacts when she understands that the man at the telephone is black. She seems to be incredulous and all her words are written in capital letters. When I read the poem I imagine, by seeing the capital letters, that maybe the lady speaks with a loud tone of voice, as if she were a bit hysteric and nervous, and she can’t believe that the interlocutor is a black person.

    Then I think that Soyinka used a refined language with an ironical purpose. He wants to show us how a foreign language is difficult to understand and learn for a person who comes from another country. I think it was the same thing when people from Italy emigrated in USA or Canada (I have relatives in Toronto) in the early twentieth-century.

    The refined language and some technical words create a sense of uncertainty. Then I think also that the lady behaves in a racist way because when she realized that the man is black, she wants to know “how dark” he is, as if the nuance of his skin was really important. Paola

  2. canda98 says:

    Dear Paola,

    The challenge of this poem lies not only in the subject matter but also in its language. I had already pointed out that the language would be difficult for you, so do not feel frustrated by it. If you looked up words in the dictionary it implies you were interested in knowing the meaning of certain key words unknown to you. In other words, you felt the urge to understand the poem better and this implies that you liked it, or at least you were intrigued by it. You point out some relevant elements of the language, but a key aspect is missing: why do you think the black man speaks such a refined language? He uses terms the white woman does not understand, and he is using her mother tongue!!! Think about this and try to see what the purpose of Soynka is. What is the final ironical statement the black man makes that the white lady does not seem to understand?

  3. anonimo says:

    I can really say that this poem is very difficult to understand, maybe because I don’t like poems that are “too realistic”..in my opinion a poem should help the reader to escape from reality and make him/ her dream..but, here I am, so I’ll try to do my best to understamd and analyze the composition!

    First of all I think it’s very important to observe,like the title clearly suggests,that the poem is written in the form of “telephone conversation” and I think that this is an element that gives reality to the poem itself. The main characters are the “landlady” who “lived off premises” and the “West African sepia” who is looking for an apartament to rent.

    As we can see through the lines, the language is really refined, accurate and precise, as if Soyinka had all the words then used, hidden in her mind even before she wrote the poem.

    In my opinion the language can also be defined a “climatic language” because it seems to me (but probably I’m wrong!) that the author uses different kind of words, which are increasingly outdated. I identified two parts in the poem (and probably this sort of division can be truthful for Italian people who read English poems and who tend to make continuous comparisons with their own language): the first part in which Soyinka uses “daily” terms like “price, location, indifferent, journey, transmission, voice, breath…” and a second part in which refined words (like

    “ dumbfoundment, varying, afterthought, rearing..” and technical expressions (like “omnibus squelching tar” and “ silence for spectroscopic flight of fancy”) are used.

    However, I think that the historical background in which the poem has been written has a big relevance if we really want to understand the reason why Soyinka has chosen this kind of language: as a matter of fact, the composition dates back to 1959, when citizens from the Commonwealth could freely move into and around Britain. So, I think that, through the language, the author wants to give evidence to the feeling of superiority that, without any reason, was perceived by “local people” towards strangers, especially if they were “West African sepia”. This kind of behaviour characterizes the landlady who, to me, is a

    “ostentatiously pious”, superficial and meddler woman who represents, in the best possible way, the epitome of the worst kind of racist; she keep asking the black person how dark he/she is..but I don’t think the information will change her life!

    I also think that the landlady’s reaction at the end (“ […] her receiver rearing on the thunderclap about my ears”) is a precise stance against the black person, which shows us all her contempt towards the “West African sepia” she spoke with.

    Another important aspect is that the lady addresses the man/woman only with questions, like a ruthless inquirer.

    The language is rich in adjective and imagery: I can perfectly see the “lipstick coated” landlady with her “long gold rolled cigarette-holder” and “the West African sepia” as it is written “down” in his/her “passport”.

    It’s also important to remember that Soyinka is a Nigerian poet and maybe she identifies with the black person: this aspect can be deduced by the use of words like “ brunette” and “peroxide blonde” which, in my opinion, Soyinca uses in order to give human connotations to the “West African”; the landlady makes exactly the opposite: she treats him like an infected person, who must be avoided.

    The last aspect that I observed consists in the use of capital letters for the landlady’s speech: I think that this is a technique which the author uses in order to represent the scarce inclination (that can be seen like a big wall), which is typical of white people, towards black, or in general stranger, people who came from different social and cultural backgrounds.

    So, at the end “my experimental” has been successful: I liked reading the poem because it gives many ideas for possible reflection and discussions because, unfortunately, the one of racism is still a relevant problem in our society (and we are in the 21st century!!) and I think that this is one of the many reasons we should be ashamed of.

  4. anonimo says:

    oops..the name!!the comment posted at 15.30 its mine..and I am Smarty!sorry!

  5. anonimo says:

    ” The title of poem is very original… I never read a “Telephone conversation”. I like it because it’s another way to “make”poem. I think that the language is refined, because the author would describe an ironical conversation: He choses some words like “sepia” for example to distinguish black colour; or when the man says that soles of his feet are “a peroxide blonde”.. The black person appears very quiet when madame tells him if he’s black or white. Soyinca pays attention to describe the people’s behaviour, above all madame.There are a lot of adverbs and adjectives like “ ill-mannered silence, clinical assent, light impersonality, truthfulness”.

    I wish I would write next week if there is time…..In the meantime I thank P.ssa Ziraldo because this activity helps me to use language and it’s a good exercise for writing. Ele

  6. canda98 says:

    Dear Smarty,

    WOW, you said you did not like this “kind” of poems, but you seem to have appreciated it a lot. Mind you, before I start giving you feedback, that the poet is a man, not a woman! I’m sure he would grin if he read yoru comment! I am very happy to read your long comment, because this proves how contemporary this poem still is and how effective it is, since it causes great reactions upon most readers. You were mentioning the difficulty of the language. There is a reason in that: he is using the language of the “colonizer” better than the colonizer himself (in this case a woman, who shows him disrespect with her blatant racism). He possesses the language to the point he can play with it. He uses scathing irony and the lady become victim of it, she is ridiculed in the eyes of the reader, who pities this woman and understands her racism: it springs from ignorance.

    Now I will update the comments you wrote with further information for everybody to read and appreciate (if possible!)

  7. canda98 says:

    Dear Ele,

    I am happy you appreciate what we are doing together, even though most of your classmates do not seem to be interested in this beautiful poem. Just a limited bunch of students read it and this worries me. This is a poem that protests, cries out a worrying behaviour that unfortunately still pertains and characterises our time. It is so relevant that when I frist read it I thought it beautifully rendered the issue of racialism that is still a plague in our society. As to your need to write and express your ideas in English, you know I am happy to write to you and I am happy to read what you want to write! Keep on going, girl!

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