The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

Quincy Troupe’s “Conversation Overheard” is an extended free-verse diatribe using indention rather than spacing to mark the breaks between sections of the single, continuous stanza. The speaker observes the repetition and stagnation of routinized American life, characterized as a “treadmill” that does not allow forward progress. Images from popular culture, especially television (“idiot tube”) images and advertisements, are used as symbols of meaningless, unprogressive experience. The speaker of the poem is asked by his “love” to consider the absurdity of commercialization and misinformation on television, exemplified by the political situation of the day: the corrupt activities of U.S. president Richard Nixon’s administration, particularly of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who is mocked and accused of being a liar and who manipulates public opinion through television. Agnew’s disingenuousness is compared to the false television commercials that glorify the success of sports figures.

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The speaker continues with an extended critique of football star O. J. Simpson and his portrayal by advertisers. The mockery of Simpson is achieved through brief descriptions of commercials he made for Chevrolet automobiles. The image of Simpson running with a football and attempting to outpace a Chevrolet Corvette is juxtaposed with Simpson’s early intention to be a social worker. Simpson’s name is manipulated—“overjoyedsimpson”—and the football is described as “tucked under [his] brain” rather than under his arm. The poem is prophetic in that it foresees Simpson’s future as a film star but also warns that race may be a factor in the kinds of roles he will receive—preference will be given to Joe Namath, “broadway joe,” another highly talented football player who, as a white star, is more likely to be cast in romantic roles.

The repeated metaphor of the treadmill moves the poem toward a comparison of the wealthy and the “starving” masses. The images of wealth focus on excess of material possessions and vapid intellectual pursuits—“spacious/ bookshelves with no books on those shelves.” Other Hollywood figures are ridiculed and questions of judicial correctness are raised. The plight of well-known white figures is contrasted to the dilemmas of black political prisoners, especially the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. The media is also indicted by the poet, who sees an obvious injustice in the treatment of black groups such as the Black Panthers as compared to the treatment of white racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Minutemen, and the John Birch Society. These injustices are symbolized by police actions during the 1967 Detroit riots and the infamous 1960 incident in Sharpsville, South Africa, in which black protesters were killed by white police officers. The poem concludes with an unanswered question concerning the continuation of the treadmill as well as the inefficacy of the “truth seeking poet,” implying that the author, whose recourse is the “street corner” and lovemaking with his “woman,” escapes from his ability to act and therefore contribute to changing the inequities addressed in the poem.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

The poem is written in a free-verse form that is conversational in tone and structure. The poet is situated in relation to his “love” who, like the poet, questions the truths presented on television, which some assume to be a “bible,” a metaphor that refers to the alleged veracity of television statements. Certain metaphors and devices of language give structure to the poem, which uses satire to ridicule various personalities from popular culture and politics. The treadmill metaphor suggests the meaningless routine of American life, and expressions found in commercials are modified to achieve a mockery of the jargon of absurd television messages (for example, “no money down all we want is your life!”).

In the conversation between the poet and his “love,” the questions challenge the way the general public reacts to the hypocrisy of Nixon (“tricky dick nixon”), a symbol of deceit. The poet manipulates language to create patterns fashioned from the joining of words and the alteration of spelling: “ohjaysimpson,” “orangejuicesimpson,” and “overjoyedsimpson,” each based on the use of the letters o and j. In addition to the satirical symbolism of Simpson, the poem uses Joe Namath to discuss racism in typecasting.

The treadmill metaphor is also used to refer to those wealthier members of American society who, like the common folk, are also caught up in a relentless pursuit. The images of excess expressed through hyperbole—“five cadillacs,” “25 diamond rings,” “1000 silk suits,” and “2000 pairs of alligator shoes”—imply that striving for material success, especially in the context of Hollywood, is an exaggeration of reality. Figures from Hollywood are used as symbols of emptiness and superficiality. Hopalong Cassidy, the cowboy character from popular Western films of the 1930’s and television of the 1950’s, is joined to descriptions of overabundance and fakery. The pretense of Hollywood creations is equated with the political falsehood represented by developments in the “test tube in washington,” a metonymy that echoes the earlier references to Nixon and Agnew. Additional Hollywood personalities such as Zsa Zsa Gabor and Elizabeth Taylor are satirized, but Troupe also introduces Linda Kasabian, the coconspirator of Charles Manson, who induced a number of men and women to commit murder; Kasabian became a film personality in a production about the Manson murders.

The treadmill metaphor is used to conclude the poem, as is the questioning device. The poet’s frustration is represented in the use of both exclamation marks and question marks to emphasize the principal trope: “why are these people dancing and singing on this/ treadmill!!??” The suggestion of social stagnation and the lack of progressive political or cultural development is linked to images of celebration, implying that those who are “dancing and singing” are oblivious to the underlying reality of “the chess game,” a metaphor indicating control of world economies and political activities by a select few.

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Themes