Mar 4, 2010

Sharon Olds, "On The Subway"

Sharon Olds' name has come up before here, and she is one of the best known living poets in the U.S.

Before we leave racial issues for awhile, let's have a look at "On the Subway," which appeared in her book The Gold Cell.

Click here. - On The Subway

         For now, I'll ask only three questions:

1. I've had students who said the poem itself--meaning Olds, not just her speaker--is racist. What do you think?

2. As for the speaker, is she racist, or just unusually honest about her preconceptions?

3. Can somebody explain Sharon Olds' line breaks? I've seen other poets handle lineation in a roughly similar way, but I do believe Olds is the champ at ending lines with articles, prepositions, and other relatively minor words in order to befuddle readers named Fiddlehead and Banjo.

A student once said Olds is putting the important words at the beginnings of new lines, rather than letting them sit at the ends of the old lines, and I was surprised at how much sense that made. I've also wondered if she's going for a bit of suspense by making us wait for the new line before we hear the next important word, usually a noun or verb.

In terms of our conversations here a few months ago about poetry versus prosaic conversation, I think Sharon Olds walks that line more successfully than most others who try it. "On the Subway" never leaves me doubting that it's a poem and deserves to be--in fact, needs to be--broken into lines, in spite of the fact that it's a somewhat narrative work. - On The Subway

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Anonymous said...

I don't care for this one particularly. The only thing it made me think is: how does she know he's poor and desparate? If it's because he's not well dressed, most kids aren't. (I was assuming this was the poet's voice, but maybe not. I don't really care.)

Jeff M said...

Yeah, the narrator certainly underestimates herself. Racist? A bit, but perhaps she is simply the conduit, the mouthpiece, for a conventional way of looking at people and things. Perhaps. Personally, I'm not impressed with this poem. No, not a bit.

Brenda's Arizona said...

1. Is there a way to tell if Olds is the speaker? I would think this conclusion could only be drawn by someone who knew/knows her or by an interview she granted where she discussed such issues.

2. The speaker could be racist - maybe we just jump to that conclusion. She certainly makes observations that we all would, followed by many that most of us would observe but never breathe out loud. And then she just plain old goes over the top.

3. Her line breaks...hmmm. At first I thought it just flowed better, that her breaks allowed for inhaling. But upon reading it again, I found it much easier to read as a short essay. Then I didn't worry about the poetry part of the story.

I felt some of her observations were common - the clothing differences and the skin tones, etc. She'd make a good witness in court (I must watch too much Law & Order). But then she starts speculating... and my resentment to her grows. I mean, I know it is human nature to speculate about people (by their appearance or where they are, etc.). She even speculates what he is speculating...

Interesting, SisterWoman, that you don't care for this poem. When I read your comment, I went "hmmm". It was hard not to speculate on it.

And one think I have found - speculation is EVIL. I wish we had 'off' switches for it. My workmates all are speculators - and I scream (inside my head) at their constant false assumptions!

Banjo52 said...

So nobody's gonna touch the sexual motif?

By the way, it used to be, and still is, as far as I'm concerned, REQUIRED to separate the speaker from the poet. That might seem an artificial cop-out at times, but all too often it proves useful or necessary. That leaves us within an inch of the New Criticism again . . .

I'll say more later, if you and the legions who follow you will just behave.

Brenda's Arizona said...


Banjo52 said...

Yeah, that was entirely too vicious :)

Jeff M said...

"Separate" in what way? Do you mean the poet is not and cannot be the person or people conveying the poem? Intrinsic or extrinsic text reading? "On The Subway" reads very personally, as if the artist (always present in all forms of art) is working something out and presenting something personal in a broad stroke so all the world can hopefully understand. An artist cannot remove his/her from the work, unless the artist is a cyborg.

PJ said...

I think she's channeling our typical assumptions. For all we know, he could have been mugged himself before getting on the train. This leads me to a problem I have with being part of a mainstream church. Members feel that it's OK to harshly judge others outside our group - I can't say I'm entirely guilt free in this - because they feel safe to do so. It's insular and I think the poem is too.

Also, why should he care about being a seedling, how many men/boys think like that? I think it's a fantasy piece.

PS Right now I'm reading the "Virgin of Bennington" by Kathleen Norris. You might like it because of its historicity regarding the Academy of American Poets. If you can't get a copy I'll send you mine - if you like. It's pretty wonderful.

PPS Be nice to the ladies.

Anonymous said...

Was he trying to kick us Sister Woman, just 'cause we didn't like his ratty old poem?

Banjo52 said...

Well, you've done it again--spoken so interestingly, thoughtfully here that you've forced me into another MishMash response post on March 9. And even it is grossly surface-scratchy.

Thank you?

Lovers' Lane