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“On the Subway” Poem by Sharon Olds Essay

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Updated: Nov 25th, 2021

Introduction

The poem ‘On the Subway’ written by Sharon Olds is considered to be the literature masterpiece written in the free-verse form and reflecting the complex combination of global social problems. The depth of the poem is presented through its title characterizing the setting of events which are not described; the work is involving and thought provoking, embodying the concepts of tension, fear and uncertainty. It should be stressed that the author strived to disclose the atmosphere of fear and silence not through the characters, but through the title; the subway is not described in the poem, but all its features and echoes are depicted in the man and woman. The analysis of Sharon Olds’ poem is based on the evaluation of social problems tacked through centuries, which is brightly underlined by such stylistic devices and symbolism and imagery.

Main Text

Sharon Olds highlighted the theme of racial inequalities by contrasting the characters of the poem, their origin, apparent disparities and culture.

He is wearing / red, like the inside of the body / exposed. I am wearing dark fur… (Sharon Olds)

Symbolism appeared to be the key element in author’s demonstration of racial differences and class discrimination. It is necessary to underline the idea that such elements as ‘fur’, ‘white’, are the signs characterizing people of Caucasian origin, having had higher social position over the black nation for centuries. It is difficult to stress the central exposition of the poem; nevertheless, the woman, the narrator of the poem, provides a symbolic contrast between the interrelationships which can emerge between the people of two different cultures and origins.

I look at his raw face, / he looks at my fur coat, and I don’t / know if I am in his power— / he could take my coat so easily; my / briefcase, my life… (Sharon Olds)

The organization and structuring of poem lines is not only symbolically but philosophically presented; some lines have the symbols of uncertainty and narrator’s confusion in her considerations about racial problem of humanity.

I don’t / know is I am in his power…
Or he is in my power… (Sharon Olds)

The author concentrates on the boundaries between the representatives of various cultures; the role of skin color is especially stressed by ‘white power’ concept, which is considered to be symbolic barrier between man and woman described in the poem.

Sharon Olds sticks to imagery stylistic device as the key method of highlighting diminished role of observed black boy and exaggerated power of the observer.

…laced with white in a complex pattern like a / set of intentional scars. (Sharon Olds)

The ‘scars’ are considered to be alluding to black man discrimination living in the white society. The imagery helps the author to reflect personal predicament of blacks, though the inequality emphasis. The central message of the poem is concentrated on socially-aware perspective, which can be seen in figurative language delivering the Olds’ intention. It is important to note that the poem is not informative; it successfully reminds the readers about the problems of inequality and racial prejudices faced by the society. The description of privilege and woeful power in the society is underlined by lonely and dark subway which is disclosed through imagery. The contrast of the image is embodied in contradiction of black to white, in shoes, clothes, cars and power.

We are stuck on / opposite sides of the car… (Sharon Olds)

The permanent separation of the representatives of different races appeared to be the technique of global intercultural separation and isolation developed by human beings themselves, though sharpening class and ethnic inequalities.

Further on, the racial discrimination theme development is metaphorically expressed, reflecting the aspect of black people’s aggressiveness towards white men.

…life he could take so easily and / break across his knee like a stick the way his / own back is being broken (Sharon Olds)

This moment can be analyzed as the climax of the poem, while the narrator demonstrated the result of white power in black cruelty and violence formation. The concepts of aggression and repression are depicted as the barriers between two nations on their way to common dreams of peace and unity.

It is necessary to underline the fact that Sharon Olds managed to highlight the theme of social repression, racial prejudices and class inequality via contradiction of the representatives of different genders and origins. Closing the poem demonstrates human isolation resulting in loneliness and cruelty to each other. The final lines of the poem are the reflection of contemporary feelings of black people suffering prejudices throughout the world.

Rod of his soul that at birth was dark and / fluid and rich as the heart of a seedling / ready to thrust up into any available light (Sharon Olds)

Conclusion

Much stress was given to social awareness on the basis of symbolism and imagery techniques which helped to show the contrast, intercultural, racial and class, being one of the central modern obstacles to harmony and mutual understanding.

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IvyPanda. (2021, November 25). “On the Subway” Poem by Sharon Olds. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/on-the-subway-poem-by-sharon-olds/

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IvyPanda. 2021. "“On the Subway” Poem by Sharon Olds." November 25, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/on-the-subway-poem-by-sharon-olds/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) '“On the Subway” Poem by Sharon Olds'. 25 November.

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