Themes and Meanings
The overall theme of the poem concerns the complacency of Americans, corruption within national politics, the inanity of television, and blatant injustices of the criminal justice system, especially relating to racial issues and African American activists. The poet also questions his inability to be an agent of social transformation. Although the principal satire is directed toward certain figures of popular culture and politics, the poet concludes with an ironic note concerning his own reaction to the unresolved dilemmas of popular culture and social justice. The mockery is based on the satirical treatment of personalities from the political arena, television, and the commercial world of Hollywood. Satire is achieved through exaggeration and ridicule.
The indictment of American culture of the late 1960’s includes the mockery of Nixon and Agnew; the White House is a symbol of deception and trickery. However, political corruption is not the only form of deception: Corruption in the form of false advertising can be found in the marketing devices of television commercials, as in the image “selling suntan lotion with foul breath.” The central absurdities of television are found in the methods of selling products. The satire of popular culture mocks not only white images but also the pretensions of black personalities such as O. J. Simpson. The critique of Simpson directs the poem toward racial themes such as the upward mobility of black athletes and their manipulation by the Hollywood system. Simpson is portrayed as a black sellout who is unaware of the racial implications of Hollywood typecasting and who lacks intellectual depth. Beyond Simpson’s role in deceptive advertising lies the larger dilemma: the huge profits garnered by certain people involved in the television and film industry while “millions of people are starving.” The social conscience of the poet is implicitly anticapitalist, and he condemns profligacy and the accumulation of status symbols (as opposed to intellectual development). Acquisition of numerous material possessions affects the “soggy brains” of the wealthy. Images of beauty symbolized by Hollywood women of public renown are presented as grotesque and constructed.
“Conversation Overheard” also protests inequities in the criminal justice system, particularly the differing treatment of black and white groups and individuals. The falsification of truth through television coverage is linked to images drawn from controversial and politically oriented coverage of Charles Manson, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers. The focus on racial bias in the criminal justice system is part of the overall criticism of American culture. The poem also attempts to explain the social upheavals of the 1960’s as complicated by a racist social order. Especially important are the white organizations known for their hatred of African Americans—“the minutemen/ the white citizen’s committee, the birch society”—groups that have not been subject to police action. The interrelated themes of corruption, deception, economic inequities, and injustice point to the imbalance of a world order sustained by a minority of the powerful. The poet ultimately blames the international power structure and suggests a worldwide conspiracy of manipulation.