Thursday, March 22, 2012

Analysis of Sharon Olds' "I Go Back To May 1937"

Poet Sharon Olds is known for her brash, realistic words and surprising imagery. Her poems often break boundaries and push the limits of traditional conceptions of the public by applying taboo subject matter to the most sacred things. Olds has used curse words to berate her father, she’s written about wanting to interfere with her parent’s first encounter, and even written a poem about the Papal penis. Olds tends to begin a poem in one place, making the reader believe he or she knows the poet’s feelings about the subject. However, as soon as the reader feels secure Olds undercuts herself with the opposite of what she’s already written, nearly creating an oxymoron out of her work. But, what this technique really does according to the deconstructionist perspective is further cement the true meaning of the poem by presenting the true range of human emotion is just a few lines and by allowing any audience member to intelligently analyze her work.

“I Go Back To May 1937,” originally written in 1987 and since published in many anthologies and other books, provides a perfect illustration of the classic style Olds employs to trick and excite her readers. In the work, Olds writes about wanting to go back in time to prevent her parents from meeting and eventually having her as their daughter. The poem begins with Olds describing how she sees her parents “standing at the formal gates of their colleges” as she approaches (Olds 664). What’s interesting is how she goes on to describe the surroundings and the metaphor she uses to do so. “The red tiles glinting like bent plates of blood behind his head,” is how Olds articulates the sight of her father walking through an archway outfitted with red tiles (664). The shocking use of the word blood to describe the tiles creates a feeling of uneasiness that breeds suspicions of what gruesome things may come later. The picture that forms in one’s mind is of a harshly tinted bright red color that seems as if it might be very out of place on a school campus, which by nature would most likely be designed to be benign and unnoticed.
The unnerving description of the brick is only one of the things that set this poem apart from most. If anything, those lines should serve to foreshadow the rest of the work, if that is at all possible. As the narrator, presumably Olds, observes her parents she cleanly places her finger at the exact point in the lives of these young people. “They are kids, they are dumb,” she says “all they know is they are innocent, they would never hurt anybody,” (664). At this point the audience may be wondering what Olds is referring to, and exactly who her parents are going to hurt? Whether it is their own children, themselves, or another unknown person, the narrator knows that the prospect of the union of these two individuals is not a good thing. “I want to go up to them and say Stop…you are going to do bad things to children…you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,” Olds explains further, speaking words to ears that are not tuned to them (664). Although she knows what will come to pass in the future, Olds cannot change the details of fate, and eventually accepts this when she writes “but I don’t do it. I want to live,” (664). What really may seem selfish on the surface is, in actuality, the realistic nature of Olds mind coming through. She knows she can’t change what has happened in the past, so she does not try because ultimately whatever events (both good and bad) occurred after the marriage of her parents led Olds to the place she is currently. Having the knowledge and experiences, hurtful or otherwise, makes her better off than never having lived at all.

What at first might seem like a simple progression of events from one to the next is actually a series of contradictory lines written purposely by Olds to turn convention on its head. The imagery described when Olds writes about the blood colored brick of the archway is “something so startling and frightening (and) is an abrupt and sharp contrast to the image of a bright, hopeful graduation day,” according to Matt Dubois (3). One can assume that the father and mother Olds writes about are graduating because they “stand with the wrought iron gate open behind” them as if they are finishing their time at school. Graduation is often associated with a happy feeling, a feeling of accomplishment, and when held outdoors, the day is bright and sunny. Compare a nice, sunlit day with the imagery of a blood stained wall and there is obviously something intentionally off balance intended for the reader to be aware of. As Dubois explains, “the poem’s promising and overly positive beginning seems to foretell a not-unhappy future for the two characters,” (2).

Although Olds destabilizes the initial uplifting feeling of the beginning of the poem by creating a new universe where the reader is not sure exactly what is going to happen, she quickly back tracks, if only for a moment, to assign another description to her parental figures. The narrator speaks of “her (mother’s) hungry pretty blank face…her pitiful beautiful untouched body,” and of her father’s “arrogant handsome blind face…his pitiful beautiful untouched body” momentarily taking away the negative connotations she has just placed into the readers mind (Olds 664). Indeed, “this description of the parents is one that Olds has designed to elicit further sympathy and compassion for the characters in the poem, as well as the narrator,” (Dubois 5). The way the narrator describes the future parents places innocence on them in a number of ways. First, they are both presumably virgins due to the time and place where they are described—it was taboo to have sex before marriage. Also, “Olds refers to her (mother’s) face as ‘blank’, which seems to imply innocence…age, care, and immeasurable suffering have not yet left their marks on this face,” (5). The same goes for the father figure who is also depicted as innocent because he is blind and does not know what troubles will bother him in the future.

By examining a writer’s work through the context of their life, one may gain many insights to the motivations and possible explanations of the literature. In fact, this is something that many have attempted to do with the poems of Sharon Olds, trying to figure out exactly which poems or what parts of certain poems may contain biographical facts about the poet. However, just like her poetry, Olds seems to contradict herself when talking about whether or not her poems are, at least in some part, biographical. “Olds has publicly wished she could writer better from different points of view than first person, (but) also believes it is honest for most poets to admit some part of themselves…in a poem,” (Miller 2). The fact is that most poets or even writers in general, incorporate some part of their actual life into their work, even if it is in the smallest details. But the reason that so many people want to actually know whether or not Olds’ work is truly based on select experiences from her life is because of the often shocking things that Olds writes about.

The notion of reader intrigue is explored by Melissa A. Goldthwaite in “Confessionals” where she briefly discusses an interview conducted with Sharon Olds. The interviewer, a woman by the name of Gross, questions Old about the biographical nature of her poetry. Olds turns the situation on her interviewer, much like she does her poetry on the reader, and asks why Gross wants to know which events are true and which are not. “Even after Olds insists again that she doesn’t wish to talk about her personal life, Gross continues to talk about Olds’ poems as if they were autobiographical,” (Goldthwaite 64). This desire to further assign a meaning to the poetry by knowing the detailed events behind the words will not enrich the poetry; it will simply provide extra fact to go with it. The best thing about literature, whatever the form, is the flexibility of the language to allow different readers to reach various conclusions based on the work.

“I Go Back to May 1937” is a poem filled with sharp imagery that at once gives the reader images of a turning point in life while at the same time creating juxtaposition with the knowledge of horrible future events to come. Sharon Olds is famous for creating such imagery that leaves the audience guessing about the true motivations of the poet, but as she herself has said, not all intent needs to be known by the audience. Leaving something open to interpretation is exactly what makes literature enjoyable, and over explaining the true meaning behind something only prevents a reader from making his or her own assumptions. Ultimately, the way Olds undercuts her own work within just a few lines highlights her brilliance as a poet and keeps her reader intrigued throughout the entire work, however long or short.

Works Cited

Dubois, Matt. "Literary Analysis: Assessing The Imagery Of Sharon Olds' Poetry." Associated Content. N.p., 22 Mar 2007. Web. 23 Nov 2010. ery.html?cat=38>.

Goldthwaite, Melissa. "Confessionals." College English 66.1 (2003): 55-73. Web. 22 Nov 2010. .

Miller, Cheryl. "Biography: Sharon Olds." Helium. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov 2010. .

Olds, Sharon. "I Go Back to May 1937." Literature: A Portable Anthology. Ed. Janet E. Gardner. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009. Print.


  1. Hey, Mr. Russell! thank you for the informative essay of yours on Sharon Olds poem. It was handy for me to brainstorm ideas for my college assignment.

  2. I'm glad it helped in some way! Thanks for reading!

  3. If Old's poem is NOT 'autobiographical' - it is in danger of being an 'imagined' scenario, done for 'effect'. To a reader who has suffered abuse, for example, the fictional representation of abuse is always in danger of inauthenticity, endangering the reader's own integrity in surviving their own abuse - especially where a non-surivivor seeks to tell you how to think, in effect. The reader may be trying to find clues about the context in order to psychologically protect themselves, judge the context for their own needs. So Old's refusal to talk about her personal life is a problem for some at least. I understand why Gross pressed the question.