‘Please Hold’ by Ciaran O’Driscoll is a 52 line, two stanza poem, that is constructed from lines of varying lengths and repeating words and phrases. The poet has chosen to return to a number of words throughout this piece that are the most important to its overall theme.
For instance, words such as, “account,” “number” and “nothing,” are repeated over and over again. This creates a pleasing rhythm, as well as a system for holding the poem together from beginning to end.
Summary of Please Hold
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he is waiting on the phone to receive an answer to a question about his “account.” He is speaking, or attempting to speak, with an automated robotic answering system. This system is not giving him what he needs, it does not provide him with the answer he called for.
Nevertheless, to his frustration, he knows he will have to pay for this time he was on the phone. In anger he yells to be transferred and the call is dropped. Eventually he is put back on hold again, contemplating the fact that this is what he has to look forward to in the future. This way of living, “is the future.”
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Please Hold
The poem begins with a line that will become a refrain throughout this piece. The phrase, “This is the future,” will repeat a number of times, each instance serving to remind the reader that this current state of being and operating is not going anywhere anytime soon.
The first line is spoken by the speaker’s wife. She does not play a major role in this short narrative expect to say this mournful, and by the end, angering, line. It is unclear at first what exactly “is the future,” or why it needs noting. Things become more obscured in the second and third lines as the narrator states that,
We are already there, and it’s the same
as the present.
Whatever state the speaker and his wife are existing in is not going anywhere anytime soon, they will be forced to continue to live this way. “Your future,” the wife points out to her husband, as he is talking into the phone.
The next lines set the tone for the rest of the poem. The speaker is on a call, attempting to reach a business, the reason for which is never made clear. He is stuck on the line speaking to a robot. The recipient of the call has some kind of automated voicemail with which the speaker has trouble communicating.
He is, “talking to a robot on the phone,” and it is giving him, “countless options.” This should be relatable to a large number of readers as it is now nearly impossible to call a business without having to go through a “robot.” This particular robot is asking for additional information, a “telephone number” and an “account number.” The robot thanks the speaker for giving it the information and the poem continues.
The narrator repeats back, mockingly, what the robot said. That he has “wonderful” and “great” numbers. This may be the case, and the robot may be attempting to connect with him on some human level, but it is not providing him with the information that he needs.
The speaker pauses in his frustration with the automated voice to describe the handling of his finances. He understands that when the robot asks for his account number, it’s really the robot’s account. Due to the total automation of all parts of our lives, the account which can only be accessed through the phone or internet, belongs more to the robot than it does to the speaker.
He also describes his money. He speaks on how he is not receiving anything from the robot, but is paying, via his telephone bill, for this “nothing.” His money is going,
…to pay for nothing.
I’m paying a robot for nothing.
The robot seems to infer what he’s thinking at this point and seeks to remind him that the call is free, although in reality it is not. He shouts his frustration into the phone,
Yes but I’m paying for it, I shout
Out of my wonderful account
Into my great telephone bill.
He is once more using the same adjectives that were put forth by the automated voice, turning it’s mockery of human interaction back at the phone.
Lines 22- 31
The poem continues in the vain and the narrator struggles to communicate with and get what he wants out of the robot. HIs wife once more adds her two sense, stating, “This is the future.” The robot also has more to add, reminding the narrator that he is able to say,
I’m sorry, I don’t understand…
…Yes or No.
This stripping of words down to the bare minimum, shows a breakdown in human interaction that is consistent with contemporary society. The speaker is also able to say, “Agent” if he so chooses. But this option is not any more alluring as the “agent” will be as robotic as the automated voice. He screams, “Agent!” Into the phone and is “cut off.” The call is dropped and he is back where he began before the poem picked up.
The refrain is repeated once more.
The speaker goes on to address his wife’s refrain and the fact that he is now living in the future. It is not the hopeful one that he may have dreamed of when he was a child, but a frustrating, useless one.
As this section of lines continues the speaker gets more and more angry until he uses an expletive to curse at the hold music that plays on the phone. The line, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” is repeated three times. This is the name of a musical composition composed by Mozart. This song is playing over and over again as he waits on “hold.”
Lines 41- 49
In the final two sections of the poem the speaker is back on the line with the robot and is transferred to, unsurprisingly, another robot. The line speaks to him saying,
Your call is important to us…
But the speaker knows that in reality his call is,
…not important to them.
The refrain is used once more here, and the speaker’s inner voice tells him that no matter the accomplished life one might have led, everyone is going to be stuck on the phone waiting.
The last set of lines, which also stands alone as a second stanza, is different from all the sets of lines which preceded it. In this section the speaker continues his repetition and the mundane frustration of the phone stretches itself to all parts of his life. He sees himself being controlled by technology. He is made to “do what [he is] told” and “Grow old…cold” while he wants on the line. He will always be holding, because, “This is the future.”
About Ciaran O’Driscoll
Ciaran O’Driscoll was born in 1943 in County Kilkenny, Ireland. He is the author of eight volumes of poetry as well as a memoir, titled, A Runner Among Falling Leaves. He has received various awards, such as, the Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry.
His most recent book, Life Monitor, was published in 2009. He currently lives in Limerick in Republic of Ireland.