"Telephone Conversation" and "On the Subway"

Freshman (College 1st year) ・English ・APA ・4 Sources

Two poems, "Telephone Conversation" and "On the Subway," deal with racism and prejudice against black people by Caucasians. The poem "Telephone Conversation" by Wole Soyinka depicts a telephone conversation between a white woman and a black man. The man is looking for a home but is being turned down because of his skin color (Damodaran, 2011). In Sharon Olds' "On the Subway," the observer gains several insights after a brief encounter between two people of different races (The Poetry Essay, 2017).

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In "Telephone Conversation," the speaker is barred from renting the property due to prejudice against his skin color. Following the introduction, the speaker quickly begins his self-confession by warning the landlady that he is African, “I hate a wasted journey-I am African” (Moore, 1963). The landlady, though said to be polite, forces him to reveal how dark he is. She wants a quantifiable expression of his darkness so that she can categorize him. The landlady asks him for the overall measure of his skin color, making him feel sorry for his pigmentation. This treatment is ridiculous, as no one has control over their color of skin and should not be forced to feel sorry for it (Damodaran, 2011).
The observer in “On the Subway” is quite rough in her prejudice, “he is black, and I am white… The way he absorbs the murderous beams of the nation’s heart, as black cotton absorbs the heat of the sun and hold it” (Olds, 2013). She compares the black cotton to being the black person and the sun as being the white (The Poetry Essay, 2017).
Olds further utilizes a lot of racial stereotypes to show the distance between the characters, “he has the casual look of a mugger” and “he could take my coat so easily.” This kind of imagination develops the view of the speaker towards the boy as a possible threat because of his skin color. These stereotypes develop the theme of the ridiculousness of racism. People should not have all of these preconceived notions of individuals based on the color of their skin (The Poetry Essay, 2017).

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“On the Subway” is a poem about feminine ambition. It illustrates the inferiority and weakness of women which propels them to be ambitious and believe in their ability to overcome patriarchy. At the beginning of the poem images of gender division in society are shown, “we are stuck on the opposite sides of the car.” “Opposite sides” shows that men and women are socially constructed to occupy different sides even on a train. The narrator fears males, emphasized by the uncertainty of her safety in the car, “I didn’t know if I am in his power - he could take my coat so easily, my briefcase, my life” (Olds, 2013). There is, however, a shift in tone when the narrator questions who is in control of whose life in the car. She uses sharp words to overcome patriarchy, “or if he is in my power…and without meaning or trying to I must profit from his darkness” (Olds, 2013).
On the contrary, the landlady in “Telephone Conversation” does not show any sign of ambitious dreams to overcome male dominance. In fact, her portrayal is that of a possibly stupid woman. She asks the man to describe his skin color as either plain or milk chocolate, but he answers as West African sepia, confusing her. When she confesses to not knowing what that means and simplifying it to a brunette, he starts making fun of her by describing the colors of different parts of his body (Damodaran, 2011). The male speaker, on the other hand, is quite educated using words like ‘pipped’ ‘rancid’ and ‘spectroscopic’ in his diction (Line 9, 12, 23). The speaker’s intelligence is shown further through his use of sarcasm and parody in response to the landlady’s questions. He includes subtle meanings in his speech, claiming politeness the entire time (Damodaran, 2011). 

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Damodaran, R. (2011). Telephone Conversation. Slideshare.net. Retrieved on 3 April 2017, from: https://www.slideshare.net/drkppt/telephone-conversation
The Poetry Essay. (2017). Retrieved from https://d2ct263enury6r.cloudfront.net/IHFupKyAFag4HkSKSYg3Dv2GCYtYq57H68YlMaukmOPThXs9.pdf
Olds, S. (2013). Gold cell. New York: Knopf.
Moore, G. (1963). Modern Poetry from Africa (1st ed.). Penguin Books.

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