Telephones, like railways, don’t offer the same scope for poetry collections as, say, flowers or forests. They simply haven’t had the ‘run up’. But in the last century or so, poets have written about phones – poems that are by turns funny, moving, thoughtful, satirical, and true. Here are six of the best phone poems.
Langston Hughes, ‘Madam and the Phone Bill’. A woman is charged for a long-distance phone call from her beloved, and when she phones up the phone company to complain, she’s told she agreed to accept the charges – something she denies. Such a commonplace piece of red tape – an everyday problem – sounds like unpromising material for a poem, but in the hands of Langston Hughes, the leading African American poet of the Harlem Renaissance, this seemingly ‘unpoetic’ topic is rendered into a fiercely comic piece of verse.
Gail White, ‘Ballade of Indignation’. For the last few decades, people have been lamenting the fact that the ‘youth of today’ – or a certain portion of them anyway – don’t appreciate the beauty of nature all around them, or that they neglect social activity like dining out together, because they’re too busy on their mobile phone or cell phone. Here, White (b. 1945) offers an impassioned tirade against such people, with the refrain at the end of each stanza – about putting your cell phone down – becoming more and more urgent and angry with each repetition…
Sylvia Plath, ‘Words Heard, by Accident, Over the Phone’. Plath (1932-63) was greatly interested in finding original ways to describe the actions and impact of words – see her poem, simply titled ‘Words’ – but this poem, about words heard over a telephone, is less famous than some of her other poems about this subject. Here, words plop like mud, as ‘thick as foreign coffee’. Meanwhile, the phone is an ‘instrument’ with a ‘tentacle’.
Tony Harrison, ‘Changing at York’. We find ourselves in a phone-box in York in northern England for this wonderful Meridithian sonnet from Tony Harrison (b. 1937), one of Yorkshire’s finest contemporary poets. ‘Changing at York’ focuses on the poet’s phoning home late one night to break the news to his father that the poet’s mother has died, and how he heard his father ‘for the first time ever, crying’. Like many of Harrison’s poems about the death of his parents, this one is brilliantly observed, and very moving.
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Text’. This poem might be the first great poem written about texting and text messages. It appeared in Duffy’s 2005 collection Rapture. The poem seems straightforward, and it largely is. But in a poem (another form of ‘text’, of course) that is about how the speaker or poet fails to get her meaning across to the addressee (who is the recipient of not just her text messages but of the poem itself), it is fitting that several moments in the poem are ambiguous, the meaning less clear. Consider the simile ‘like an injured bird’ in the second line, which first and foremost refers to the delicate cradling of the mobile phone in one’s hand as if one were handling an injured small bird, such as a sparrow. But given the colloquial meaning of ‘bird’ to refer to ‘woman’, the phrase also carries the potential to be read as a reference to the speaker’s own state of hurt or emotional bruising: she is the ‘injured bird’ tending her mobile.
Jordan Davis, ‘Text Messages’. As Carol Ann Duffy has shown, you can write a good poem about something as recent as texting. To conclude this selection of great poems about phones (mobile or otherwise), we have this delightful poem from the contemporary poet Jordan Davis (b. 1970), an American poet who was part of the short-lived ‘Flarf’ movement at the beginning of the present century. An assemblage of text messages ranging from the bizarre to the banal, ‘Text Messages’ reminds us that, when shorn of their context, text messages are often mysterious and gnomic little missives, ripe for misinterpretation …