‘Please Hold’ is a satirical poem by Ciaran O’Driscoll, taking a critical view of modern life through the form of a conversation with an automated telephone system. O’Driscoll is an Irish poet, whose work includes eight books of poetry, and has won numerous awards. He is also well known for the sense of humour in his poems and is often described as satirical by readers and critics, with ‘Please Hold’ being no different.
This poem is part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, meaning that it is important to study, understand and revise this poem. Click here to see all the prescribed poems from the ‘Poems of the Decade’ collection.
Interpreture gives ‘Please Hold’ a difficulty rating of 3, meaning that it is deemed to be of average difficulty. The meaning of this poem is relatively easy to understand, however there are some more complex themes and ideas that can be interpreted which makes identification of them perhaps more difficult than may be initially expected. The structure is a very important aspect of this poem, but is also more challenging than the language due to the less obvious effects.
The title of this poem is interesting because it actually infers a range of information, and accurately reflects the poem to a large extent because the phrase is synonymous with phone calls and customer support helplines. In addition, the poem title is repeated throughout the text as part of the poem, which is unusual when compared to many other poems within the Poems of the Decade anthology. It also conveys a sense of action, which helps to gain a readers attention more so than if it was passive, and generates the strong emotional and frustrated tone of the poem.
‘Please Hold’ has a very clear structure when viewed on the page, with one long stanza with a short second stanza at the very end. The ‘narrowness’ of the poem is quite unusual, with the short lines likely to be noticed by a reader, as it could be interpreted as giving a ‘never ending’ feeling with there being line after line of text; reflecting the feeling when phoning a customer service helpline. This repeated reference to common experiences when dealing with these phone systems makes the poem very effective because the majority of readers would have experienced something similar themselves. The choice of this structure could also be interpreted as showing the stereotypically long wait dealing with robotic replies, before finally getting through to an actual person for only a short period of time.
To help conform to the ‘never ending’ feeling, there are consistently short lines in the poem. While this is achieved by splitting sentences over multiple lines, short and monosyllabic words are also used so as to still convey a reasonable amount of meaning. These two combined techniques could be seen by a reader as reflecting the breakdown of developed communication, as the narrator is even instructed to use less complex words, such as “Yes” and “No”. Not only would this help a reader to accurately follow what is happening, it also reflects a typical frustration with these phone lines, so the choice by O’Driscoll to use this technique is very effective.
In keeping with the general theme of broken down communication, repetition is used to emphasise key ideas and also make the poem feel more monotonous to a reader. Along with simple words such as “Yes” and “robot” being repeated, notable phrases such as “this is the future” and “Please hold” are also consistently reintroduced, with the former being repeated five times. This would be very noticeable to a reader considering that the poem is not an overly long read, so this could create a sense of wariness and apprehension for the potential of this negative and frustrating future.
Satire is arguably the most important element of ‘Please Hold’ with the poem built around this style. Satire is frequently used to highlight the shortcomings of people, companies or organisations, and while often associated with politicians, it is still used in other daily situations. A common extension of satire is caricature and hyperbole, where individual aspects are over exaggerated for often comedic effect. Many readers would immediately recognise this to be a satirical poem, which may make them view the poem more positively as they are able to recognise and anticipate its humour, while also considering a typical annoyance of everyday life.
Pronouns become a central aspect of the interactions the narrator has with both the telephone system and his wife. This starts with “my wife” to form a personal and human connection, contrasting against the less personal description of “the robot”. There is also the use of “your future” which not only addresses the narrator, but also the reader, helping to draw them in to the poem and its satirical message about the increasingly impersonal world. The frequent use of “I” also helps to make the poem more personal towards a reader and build empathy through encouraging them to consider when they have experienced a similar situation.
By the end of the poem the sense of frustration has reached its peak, and while this partially makes way for apprehension, the use of plosives ensures that the negative and emotional feelings of the poem still continue. This is most notable in the second stanza and through the repetition of ‘please’ with the ‘p’ sound very effective, but also the ‘d’ sound from the -old word endings. Some readers may interpret this highly concentrated set of plosives to sound like static or interference on a telephone line, or alternatively a further breakdown in speech and thoughts, particularly as the ending feels like a ramble of different emotions.
“This is the future”
A reader’s interpretation of this phrase would likely change over time thanks to repetition throughout the poem; initially it may be seen as informative, but as the poem goes on this phrase can be interpreted as becoming increasingly negative and creates a sense of wariness and anxiousness. However, other readers may interpret this phrase as being sarcastic and critical of the new phone systems.
“he is giving me no options // in the guise of countless alternatives”
This oxymoron could be seen as one of the key points within the poem because it could be interpreted as a clear indication of the potential sinister nature of increasing automation and reduced human interaction. This is mainly through the idea of appearance and reality in the use of “guise” as this indicates a deliberately misleading presentation.
“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”
This is a direct reference to Mozart’s piece which translates to ‘A Little Serenade’ / ‘A Little Night Music’, a classical composition which may be reminiscent of waiting songs which are frequently played while waiting to speak to a human support assistant. Many readers may find this humorous, particularly with the expletive in the third repetition of the song name, highlighting the frustration of the narrator.
‘Please Hold’ Key Themes
- Society and Culture: O’Driscoll considers the key societal and cultural issue of technology and how this is having an impact on people, particularly in regards to human interactions with other people. He poses the question through the frustration of the telephone line whether robots and automation is actually helpful for society or not.
- Language and Truth: The breakdown of language and communication shows an interesting perspective on the impact of technology. Language is also used to help express the emotion that the narrator is feeling, including through satirical phrases.
- Power: ‘Please Hold’ can be seen to have power as a key theme because of the way that power transfers between the narrator, the robot, and to a certain extent the narrator’s wife. The narrator is powerless to stop the march of technology, and also powerless to actually speak to another person.
Quick Focus Questions
- How does the structure impact the rhythm of ‘Please Hold’, and how is this effective?
- In what ways does the cyclical nature of the poem through the use of repetition help to convey meaning?
- What impact would the removal of satire from this poem have on a reader’s interpretation?
While ‘Please Hold’ may seem to be a fun poem on the surface, it raises a range of concepts and ideas that ask a range of societal questions, which would be very effective at ensuring it is memorable for a reader. This would be interesting to compare with other poems that pose similar questions, such as ‘Look We Have Coming to Dover!’ or ‘The Deliverer’. There is also the idea of referencing works by others with Mozart’s music, in a similar way to ‘A Minor Role’ or ‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’.