Tyne Daile Sumner

Poetry, Privacy, Paranoia: (Wire)tapping into the American Dream

[Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words.]

That little microphone
In our teeth
Between our thighs
Or anyplace.[1]


By the 1950s in America, open-plan and split-level housing, combined with the widespread introduction of large glass picture windows, had put the ideological power of looking at the forefront of collective consciousness. At the same time, Americans became increasingly aware that communication technology, so promising in what it appeared to be able to deliver, could be employed to manipulate ideology and culture. The crucial point at which mass culture and technology in America coalesced with a growing surveillance society was in relation to a widespread shift from the focus on “overseeing” to that of “overhearing.” The lyric has always been associated with overhearing. Northrop Frye’s influential insistence on the lyric as “pre-eminently the utterance that is overheard” looks back to John Stuart Mill’s classifications (“we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard”) and continues to dominate discussions of lyric poetry that come after it (249; 12-13). Poems that invoke the concept of overhearing—otherwise called poems of address or apostrophic poems—are notably common among American poetry published after World War II. In particular, confessional poetry frequently employs apostrophe in explicit ways to create the effect of intimacy or authenticity, especially when biographical truths are nowhere to be seen. Yet while twentieth-century American poets were clearly interested in poetic address and the appeal in lyric poetry to absent others, when critics discuss apostrophe they usually do so by referring only to the Romantic lyric.

In this paper I want to highlight the significance of confessional poetry as a site upon which the intensifying privacy crisis of the twentieth century in America comes to a close by radically breaking with prior lyric modes; especially by channelling the performance of voice.  Just as confessional poetry signals a liminal point between the modern poems of the early twentieth century and the new modes that followed, wiretapping (also known as eavesdropping or bugging) is a technology that sits at the crossroads of twentieth and twenty-first-century surveillance. That is, wiretapping represents the beginning of a shift towards more sophisticated, less perceptible and far more insidious forms of invasive surveillance. These new technologies had the capacity to invoke widespread paranoia and they continue to be recognisable today in the form of Internet tracking and mass data collection.

Confession is, above all else, an auditory practice. This idea can be traced most clearly in Foucault’s theorisation of confession as an act concerned primarily with domination and power. For Foucault, the empowered is not the confessing subject but rather the interlocutor who hears (or overhears) the confession and therefore possesses the power to absolve.

The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner …

Foucault’s model emphasises a feature of confession that is central to all discussions of the lyric: “the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but requires the confession.” Moreover, the concept of a listener or “presence” who, as Foucault describes it, “intervenes in order to judge” is indicative of the intrusive nature of wiretapping, in which surveillance is conducted paradoxically by being both near and far away at the same time. The wiretapping listener (because unseen) could be listening in at any given time although it can never be known precisely when the eavesdropping takes place. Ann Keniston has drawn a useful connection between Sylvia Plath’s apostrophe in lines such as those from “Daddy” and Foucault’s model of confession outlined above. She notes that Plath’s figure of “Daddy is, like Foucault’s listener, ‘not simply the interlocutor but the authority.’ The poem works to appropriate ‘the agency of domination’ seemingly possessed by Daddy” (36). Plath writes, for example:

And a love of the rack and the screw.

And I said I do, I do.

So daddy, I’m finally through.

The black telephone’s off at the root

The voices just can’t worm through (CP 224)

In these lines, like others from “Daddy” and many of Plath’s later poems, the lyric generates the effect of someone confessing. In the stanza above, the speaker terminates a confession; jams the telephone’s wires. Yet despite cutting the conversation off, the speaker still allows the interlocutor to overhear and in so doing, grants power to that listener. In turning away from the eavesdropper (“So daddy, I’m finally through”), the speaker nevertheless sustains the confession; the turning away turns attention to the other listener present: the reader of the poem.

[1] “A Short Essay of Affirmation Explaining Why (With Apologies to the Federal Bureau of Investigation),” The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, 21.