Sample Poetry Essays for AP English Literature
Following are two actual student essays followed by a rubric and comments on each.
Student Essay A
The three sections of "On the Subway" by Sharon Olds express the complicated relationship between Caucasians and African-Americans. In the first section the author presents an exposition that contrasts a white person with a black (lines 1–13). In the second, the speaker begins to develop the apparent disparities so that interrelationships emerge (lines 13–20). In the third, the narrator gains insight into how this scene is representative of American culture at large (lines 20–34).
The imagery Olds uses in the first section emphasizes the difference between the white woman who is the narrator and the observer and the black boy, who is the observed, as they ride the subway. The shoes he is wearing are black "laced with white" (line 3). The speaker describes the white zigzags as "intentional scars" (line 4). The scars allude to the discrimination against the black man by white society. The adjective "intentional" denotes that whites purposely harm blacks. The image contrasts whites with blacks: whites are powerful; blacks are subservient. Similarly, the two characters are described as being "stuck on opposite sides" of the subway car; they are separated permanently from each other (lines 4–5). The description of the clothing is a third contrasting element. Here, the black man is "exposed," while the speaker is covered in fur (line 11). This image reinforces the opposition between the white woman and the black boy.
The second section sees a shift in tone. Where the first section is composed of finite physical descriptions, the second is more philosophical and indicates the speaker's apprehension. She is uncertain and writes that "I don't / know if I am in his power … or if he is in my power" (lines 14–15, 18). Such a statement is important because it illustrates that the boundaries between whites and blacks are not as clearcut as they may seem. Perhaps the speaker begins to realize that the image of the subservient black and the powerful white presented in the first section of the poem is incorrect. The repetition of the word "Life" is another way the interconnection between the two characters is developed. The narrator cannot decide whether her wealth usurps the power of the black man or whether his potential aggression usurps her power. (lines 17, 19).
The tone, again, shifts in the third segment. Here, it is clear that the speaker is trying to gain an understanding of the relationship between the white world and that of the black boy. At first, she realizes that they are different because "he is black and I am white" (lines 21–22). The image of the "black cotton" alludes to slavery, once again referring to the scars, or distinctions, imposed by the white society. Yet, at the end of this section, the differences between the two people are strangely reconciled. This is accomplished using the technique of repetition. Instead of repeating a word as in the second section, an image is repeated. Lines 29–31 state that the black man could hurt the white woman; he could "break [her] across his knee the way his own back is being broken." In other words, both whites and blacks can hurt; both races can be injured by either repression or aggression, and so they are connected through their pain and unrealized dreams.