Mar 9, 2010

"On the Subway," 2. Visitor Comments. MishMash.

"You lookin' at me?" - 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?

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Anonymous said...

Oh, I can't even read this to the end because you made me mad, and I think you did it intentionally. (I'm easy that way.)

To say that this supercillious, scared, will-be/wanna-be victim of a woman represents the distaff side of almost all relationships makes me throw things in your general direction.

Banjo52 said...

Wow. Remind me not to move to California. And if the Sister Wimmin join you, I might not even be safe in the Midwest.

Before I move and change the locks, I'll re-read what I wrote . . .

Brenda's Arizona said...

Well, me for one, didn't think you wanted a post. At least not mine!

Fear? Flight? NO!

You make me scream.

Banjo52 said...

What is going on here??????????

Brenda's Arizona said...

Just a lot of Wimmin codetalk.

Anonymous said...

Even, or maybe especially, in the reptilian brain I don't think men and women fear each other. I think we fear earthquakes and tidal waves and hurricanes and sharks and public speaking and broccoli, but not each other.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Well said, Karin.

Pierre said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog.

If your latest post is only referring to fear of physical harm caused by another, I would agree with your critics. However, there is also the emotional factor. Can two strangers really trust each other even if there is no apparent outward threat? One could viciously attack another verbally.
We all fiercely guard out hearts.

Banjo52 said...

Pierre, welcome and thanks for pitching in. Hope you return.

So, you others, on the subject of The Other . . . let's take the racial element out of it. Let's say you're white, you're alone, and your car breaks down on a back road at night in rural Illinois, down by the Ohio River, down in the hills. The battery on your cell is dead.

A large white guy in a decrepit vehicle pulls up beside you. He is tall and broad-shouldered. He needs a muffler; he needs a shave; he needs clean overalls. He spits tobacco and asks if you need help, ma'am. He seems to grin or wink or offer some other unusual gesture--maybe it's sinister, maybe it's just a cultural thing, but you don't know.

Are you trying to tell me you don't have flash of fear before you try to convince yourself he's a pillar of the local Grange and sings in the Baptist choir and might be a good sitter for your kids and pets?

That last stuff of COURSE might well be true. But look me in the eye and tell me that's your FIRST reaction, your gut reaction, your animal reaction.

And tell me it would be the same reaction if this Samaritan, good or otherwise, were a woman.

Anonymous said...

I'd actually be relieved if it were a man. I stereotype. Men generally are better with cars, especially the hick-type as opposed to the poet-type.

In truth, Banjo, and I'm looking you in the eye, I'd be relieved someone stopped to help. I'm not afraid of strangers. You know most murders happen in the bosom of the family, don't you?

Brenda's Arizona said...

A man - or a woman- has the power to intimidate, to manipulate. Even in being nice, one might be manipulating.

But fear? If I woke up to a fire in my house, I'd be afraid, horribly afraid. A fire does not intimidate or manipulate.

Maybe all this is just a play on words.

Banjo52 said...

A.Hiker, first, let me applaud your confession of a fear of broccoli. More timid souls would have kept that in the closet.

And Pierre, thanks for raising the issue of that other kind of fear, which is indeed probably more common than fear of physical harm--though I'd want data from professionals before agreeing.

A.Hiker, yes, I'm aware of the stats on murder or abuse in the home (though I don't mean I can cite them). Also, last I heard, 10% of those abuses were inflicted by the female upon the male.

What you say about our Ohio River lad makes sense, and I've had somewhat the same experience, though there were other factors involved.

I still don't entirely trust "the kindness of strangers" as anyone's first instinct, but I suppose neither of us will know unless it happens. Surely someone has written a dissertation or a plain old book about this?

New questions arise. First, for the folks like you, and a portion of me, who trust strangers (they might help or they simply might be interesting), where does that confidence come from? Is it as instinctive, as built into our wiring, as the fight or flight syndrome (which, by the way, seems to be a scientific fact, not some Banjo invention)?

Or is that confidence or lack of anxiety conditioned in one's early years? (I'm betting on the latter).

How come our children's tales and now the TV news and cop-dramas are so full of the fear of strangers? Apparently, writers over centuries have thought they were tapping into a universal human fear of the unknown, narrowed down to boogie men.

On the other hand, there ARE boogie men out there. It's not that ALL butchery is committed by family. (Do you happen to know the stats?)

Secondly, would you agree that your thoughts about the helping stranger are just that--THOUGHTS, a cognitive process, more than a raw instinct?

Third, which category has more members, those who trust strangers or those who don't? And to repeat, what accounts for the difference?

And A.H., Brenda, what is it about this subject that made you want to throw things at me, made you want to scream? I understand disagreement, but "why the heat?" (I realize, or hope, that some of the heat was playful. Still, nerves were touched, and I'm not sure why . . . .).

Finally, to anyone reading this, this is the kind of conversation I hope for here. I hope no one thinks s/he should refrain because the subject is touchy. Let's just stay away from "deliberate cruelty" to each other, if I may stick with Blanche DuBois lingo for another second.

Anonymous said...

I'm still surprised you don't understand the heat. You made women sound fearful and helpless, and that my lad is an insult.

Clearly Brenda has traveled far more than I, but I've been all over the US and Europe by myself. There was no one to meet but strangers, and 90% of them were lovely. The couple of times I miscalculated and found myself in a sticky wicket, I kept my head and got out of it.

I think the tendancy is for humans to turn towards each other, not away.

Banjo52 said...

Where did I make women sound fearful and helpless? When I referred to "ma'am" in the broken down car example? Sorry.

Apparently I'm not supposed to say so out loud, but as a male, I might have felt fearful and helpless in that situation. In fact, as a mechanical moron, who is a male, I PROBABLY would have.

Are you disallowing all women AND all men from feeling fear or helplessness? Fearlessness is the NORM for both genders?

In my most recent comment here, I made several statements and asked several questions (BIG questions, I thought) that were (I thought) gender-neutral. It SEEMS that all you heard was an insult to women on the grounds that they are human and have vulnerabilities, like other humans (I guess that means men).

Or are you mad at me for liking the Sharon Olds poem?

Anonymous said...

Hey, a little off topic, but I just read the best piece of criticism evah. "The United States of Huck," by George Saunders (collected in The Braindead Megaphone). Love for you and Sister Woman to read it and give your take. Of course, I'm partial. Huck Finn is on my top ten list, maybe top five.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I like the Olds poem. I identified with some parts, but maybe because I read them differently?

I have not been insulted by anything written, and I hope I haven't insulted anyone in return.

I tend to see trust too soon. The twist in the Olds poem kinda opened in my eyes, when she starts seeing him as a potential bad guy. I can see looking at someone and running thru the encyclopedia in my head: is he a mugger? is he a kid on a way to a job? is he a father? is he a student? is he friendly? Hmmm, maybe I will ask? I do that all the time in the grocery store - I talk to the people behind me. If the person is an older man, I see him as a gentleman and I want to know more. Usually women don't talk back - they look at me like a burden. But old men? They always talk back. Teenagers usually talk, too. I think they are curious why an adult is talking to them!

Anyway, my point is, if someone sees the fear in Olds' poem, I can't discount it. But I can rejoice that I still have the optimistic hope in me. If someone sees the sexual twist in the poem, well I didn't and I blush when it was pointed out. If someone is angry that Olds is a bigot, I didn't see it. I saw a bus rider who observed many things and put her spin on them. I read the comments as even more ideas and spins that I didn't have.

I don't want to guard my heart, as Pierre posted. I want to use my heart to gather more knowledge. Just as a brain is a sponge, a heart can be, too.

My trust of strangers? Nurture, I think. Taught as a kid that everyone has a story. For that alone, I trust 'em. Tell me a story that is twisted into victimhood, well, I listened once. I don't trust people with the victim mentality. I don't even like them.

I do think that 'mob mentality' can sway the trust. I wonder if I had been in the Kitty Genovese neighborhood, would I have ignored the screams because it seemed like the thing to do? I don't know... I don't want to know.

Living in India with such extreme poverty, everyone said to ignore it, that you can't cure it. As a 13 year old, I tried to make a difference - but you know what? I couldn't cure it. I couldn't even change that one beggar child's life.

I think I am ready for another poem, Banjoman.

Brenda's Arizona said...

AH, I see our local library has The Braindead Megaphone available... am on my way there soon this afternoon!

Banjoman, it is interesting what everyone's take on this poem would be if the 'antagonist' where an obese person eating candy bars while on the subway. Why is a young black man 'frightening' but someone with an addictive habit (of choice) not so much? I have more problem 'being kind to' one with addictive personality/habit than I do skin tone.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Make that 'self-destructive personality' instead of addictive.

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