Posted 9 months ago by John

The conversation poem has a long and distinguished history. It can draw on many sources, including the Socratic dialogues’ pursuit of truth. There are striking modern examples, such as ‘What is He?’ by D. H. Lawrence. Here is its beginning.
What is he?
- A man, of course.
Yes, but what does he do?
- He lives and is a man.
Oh quite! But he must work. He must have a job of some sort.
Because obviously he’s not one of the leisured classes.
- I don’t know. He has lots of leisure. And he makes quite beautiful chairs.
And here is the start of ‘Conversation with a Poet’ by Miroslav Holub:
Are you a poet?
            Yes, I am.
How do you know?
            I’ve written poems.
If you’ve written poems it means you were a poet. But now?
            I’ll write a poem again one day.
In that case maybe you’ll be a poet again one day.
It’s clear why Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s finest exponent of the form, was drawn to translate ‘Murder’ by Federico García Lorca, in which ‘Two voices at dawn in Riverside Drive, New York’ are overheard.
- How did it -?
- Scratch on the cheek,
that’s all. Claw
pouncing on a green
shoot. Pin plunging
to meet the root of the scream.
And the sea stops moving.
- But how – how?
- Like this.
There is no limit to what you can converse with. Wisława Symborska’s poem, ‘Conversation with A Stone’, begins:
I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.
I want to enter your insides,
have a look around,
breathe my fill of you.”
“Go away,” says the stone.
“I’m shut tight.
Even if you break me to pieces,
we’ll all still be closed.
You can grind us to sand.
We still won’t let you in.”
Or you may hold a conversation about someone’s mystery hair (?), like the one I wrote along with students on a creative writing course, in an exercise exploring the conversation poem:
What is that?
- It's hair of course.
Yes, but what does it do?
- It sits there, pretending to be hair.
But how does it not fall off
and slither down the side of his head
to come to rest on his shoulders
like a small curled up cat?
- Because it has History.
- It has been in situ for so long
it has forgotten other options.
- What is the difference then
between his hair and, say, a nest?
- You would really have to ask the birds,
but it could be (I'm no expert)
something to do with construction.
- Well, you know how a nest is
tightly woven and has
a clear definition?
- Well, his hair, if you observe,
has strange, loosely woven cliff-
edges and other 
extraordinary features.
Such as the colour?
- Yes, well spotted. That range
of colours comes from exotic
mosses and lichens flown in
from the Isles. Roots are Important.
It certainly adds to its
nest-like quality.
- Doesn't it just? And look!
Four eggs have just hatched there.
What great timing!
Cheep cheep, says pomposity
Cheep cheep, says ignorance
Cheep cheep, says unkindness
Cheap cheap, says the last, Cheap cheap
The form can be a lot of fun (use post-its, swap postcards!), as we can see in this poem, specially written for National Poetry Day by Diana Hendry and Hamish Whyte. They have collaborated on many occasional poems over the years; each time producing, ‘in conversation’, a poem infused with warmth and wit. As in ‘Questions About Truth’.

What colour d’you think it is?

The colour of bright nasturtiums in autumn.

Where might you find it?

Down Alice’s rabbit hole.

How much do you have of it in yourself?

One pica, next to the slice of ice in my heart.

Who does it live with?

See above.

What might it look like?

A feather on the breath of God.

What sort of animal would it be?

One with feathers.

Diana Hendry is the award-winning author of many books for children and young adults and of several poetry collections. The Seed-box Lantern, Selected Poems, was published in 2013. Her most recent collection is The Watching Stair. Hamish Whyte runs the renowned Mariscat Press and is a fine poet in his own right, most recently with Things We Never Knew (2016). 


Tom Pow


Share This Conversation: