Mar 9, 2010
"You lookin' at me?"
poetrymagazines.org.uk - On The Subway
Concerning Sharon Olds' poem "On the Subway," I began with this response to visitors’ comments here on March 4: “If I try to do justice to these comments, I'll end up with another post that's a mish-mash of responses to visitors. That would be fine with me, but I don't know if anyone else is interested. So unless you ask to keep this going, I'll let your commentary here stand as is—meaty, good stuff that it is.”
Well, I kept going, let it grow into another MishMash, and it still only scratches the surface of your interesting comments.
I must say I'm surprised at the tepid (at best) response to the poem itself. I just read it one more time and continue to find both the ideas and the images pretty riveting. Yes, they tend toward stereotyping—of both characters—but which parts of the stereotypes are false in any important way?
There will be exceptions, of course, but isn't the overall pattern of black-white and male-female relationships laid out pretty accurately? “A stranger rode into town” has been called one of the only two plots in all of fiction, and that’s what we’ve got here, a stranger who seems the menacing outlaw rather than the savior on the white stallion. (For the life of me, I cannot find or remember that other plot, or the writer who made the comment; well, one is more than zero).
Also, as Paula points out about "church-think" (my term, don't blame her), don't we tend rather easily, instinctively, toward facile judgment, stereotyping, and therefore facile fear and hostility?
Isn't our first response to any of the many versions of "The Other" more or less fight or flight? Fear, judgment, aggression? I've heard that argument applied to evolution itself: if you don't first fear the unknown, then The Unknown, The Other, might eat you. Suspicion is healthy, intelligent. Trust is for babies. Something in our reptilian brains better recognize that we are not reptiles, or we might end up as breakfast for the crocodile we were trying to pet, with whom we wanted to become Best Friends Forever. I never like agreeing with a former colleague who was fond of saying, "If the lion's got to lie down with the lamb, I wanna be the lion." And yet . . . .
Of course, at the other end of that line of thought lie Hitler and his little friends, such as: Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Stalin, Genghis Khan, and the hundreds of their kind. (Why does Spell Check not recognize Idi Amin?).
But if someone wants to argue that a stranger who appears different—at least for a few seconds or maybe for decades—does not seem more threatening than strangers who appear similar to the perceiver . . . well, let's hear it.
What I'm talking about is not our good self, the self we want to be and in some areas do become. But to deny that this bad self sits in there, a lizard, is willful blindness as well self-destructiveness. And isn't that approximately the idea about which the poem is unusually candid? How many people can say aloud that they've never had this thought about some important Other: "I wish you well, but don't ask me to trust you"? Isn't Olds' poem a confession, at least by the speaker, of that unwanted, unseemly, but essentially human reflex? (Well, I suppose Beck, Limbaugh, Inc. wouldn't call it unwanted or unseemly. I find the thought or impulse sad and embarrassing, but I won't deny its existence.).
Now, as for that pesky poet-speaker distinction . . . How do we know if the events, thoughts and emotions in a poem have actually happened to the author? How many of the details must be proven accurate in order to declare that Sharon Olds is the speaker?
I think there's no verifiable answer to those questions, and that's the case with any piece of writing. We tend to think of Robert Frost as some avuncular agrarian, probably in even his most bitter poems. But from the bits I know of his biography, he was a pretty nasty guy, at least in some ways. One of the great ironies of art and of intellectual history is that we receive what we call wisdom from our lunatics. A line I’ve always loved is, “Society creeps ever forward on the backs of its neurotics.” Sorry, can’t remember or locate the source.
So, yes, we can probably get some overall sense of the soul or psyche of a writer, but in any one piece, looking for certifiably autobiographical info is perilous. Writers lie and writers die. Who knows how much of Poem X or Story Y is factual, or even what the writer thought about the experience a year after he wrote it down?
Hence The New Criticism's "Biographical Fallacy" and "Intentional Fallacy." (Banjo52, August 19, 20 and Nov. 3,4, 2009). We cannot know that this or that piece of an author's life has found its way into a story, no matter how similar the experiences are. And we cannot know what the writer intended; we can only try to interpret the words on the page and their relationship to each other as they build character, setting . . . and beauty, we hope, even if it’s tragic.
I doubt that Sharon Olds or her speaker is a racist, but in any case, she has captured some age-old responses about the history of race in America, even as the facts of the topic continue to change almost daily.
And by the way, do not try to argue that the U.S. is the only spot where tolerance of The Other is a problem.
And that, friends, was an attempt to avoid a lengthy piece . . . . Shall we continue?