Analysis of “I Go Back to May 1937”

June 10, 2019 by Essay Writer

Sharon Olds is renowned for keeping her readers on their toes and changing the direction of her poems drastically and without warning (Galens). This remains especially true in her poem “I Go Back to May 1937”. Olds’ brash style ensures that her message is clearly delivered but her original and sometimes unexpected use of imagery keeps that delivery fresh and entertaining. “I Go Back to May 1937” is about a girl imagining her parents in a time before she was born when they were graduating college. In retrospect she understands the extent in which they have changed since “they [were] dumb, all they know is they are /innocent, they would never hurt anybody” (lines 11-12). The reader contemplates warning them of the misery they will incur in the future and break up their wedding relationship before it begins but she cannot do this because it would terminate her own life in the process. Resigning to acceptance, the speaker in the poem decides nothing can be done to change what has already happened. Through the use of powerful diction and shocking imagery, Olds employs a unique stylistic approach to illustrate the time-old truth that one can never change the past.Olds begins her poem with a tone of impartial reminiscence, describing her father as “strolling out/ under the ochre sandstone arch” (line 2-3) in front of the gates of his college. Her father is portrayed with confidence, walking to face his future head on without any fear or reservation, the kind of beginning one would find in an optimistic coming of age tale. Olds’ tone takes a drastic twist when she describes “the red tiles glinting like bent/plates of blood behind his head” (lines 4-5). The bold use of diction when describing something simple like the campus architecture is painting a gruesome portrait of the speaker’s father to foreshadow the events to come. The speaker’s mother is described in much the same manner: “I see my mother with a few light books at her hip standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its sword-tips black in the May air” (lines 5-9). In clear juxtaposition to the speaker’s father, her mother is not confidently walking to her future. She is stationary in front of an open gate. She sees her past and her future but she doesn’t know if she is ready to transition between the two yet. She isn’t standing behind a study solid “sandstone arch” like the speaker’s father but a delicately constructed pillar made of tiny bricks consisting of myriad different pieces which could be a metaphor of her complexity of emotion about this critical juncture in her life and uncertain future (Metzger).The next few lines are the critical point in the paper. The speaker verbalizes her feelings about the future union of her parents; they are about to graduate, they are about to get married, they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are      innocent, they would never hurt anybody. I want to go up to them and say Stop,      don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman, he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things (lines 10-15)The speaker has a special role in this poem; she is omnipotent in the sense she can see and judge this couple, her future parents, because she sees their past and the decisions that led them to make the mistakes along the way. She sees this graduation, this marriage, as being on the cliff’s edge. The beginning of a long fall down through pain and misery has its roots here in this decision. Olds capitalizes the word “Stop” in line thirteen to add emphasis. This suggests an absolute stop needed to prevent injury or harm, much like the capital stop on a stop sign on the streets (Galens).After establishing the innocence of her parents, the speaker transitions to an unyielded warning to them about the cruel reality that their future beholds; you cannot imagine you would ever do, you are going to do bad things to children, you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of, you are going to want to die. I want to go up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it (lines 16-20)The speaker is extremely decisive in how she feels about the marriage, describing it as the bearer of great sorrow and unhappiness. The speaker is enraged not only at the couple for allowing the relationship to grow into the monster that it became, but at herself for not being able to step in when she knows without a doubt what it is to become. The speaker is stuck with options that only bring more problems. The speaker’s rage subsides when she realizes the hopelessness of the situation while exploring the couple in the next few lines; her hungry pretty face turning to me, her pitiful beautiful untouched body, his arrogant handsome face turning to me, his pitiful beautiful untouched body,     but I don’t do it. I want to live” (Olds 20).Olds’ use of diction is paramount to understanding the message she is trying to send here. She describes the faces of the lovers with a renewed sense or resolve. The woman’s face is “hungry,” showing the desire for new opportunities and life decisions to be made, not always with careful contemplation. This is coupled with the man’s “arrogant” face, emphasizing the sheer extent in which they don’t know the repercussions of the choices they are making and if the reasons for making these choices are the correct ones (Metzger). Olds employs syntax here to give the reader insight into the fact that their relationship is missing passion and love. Olds repeats the phrase “pitiful beautiful untouched body” but separates them with the description of the man’s face. Olds wants the reader to know that although they are getting married, they are still separate and far from a single union (Galens). The speaker shows her resentment and helplessness again here at the end, when she says that although she knows they have these problems, that the marriage isn’t going to work out, and the couple will hurt a lot of people along the way, she remains silent to preserve her own future life. It isn’t until the final few lines that the speaker finally gives into the hopeless situation and deals with the hand she was dealt; I take them up like the male and female paper dolls and bang them together at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to strike sparks from them, I say Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it” (Olds 25)The paper dolls resemble her childish last-ditch effort to play out an optimistic ending she knows will never come to fruition. The dolls are something she can control; she has their future in her hands, just like she has her own. She accepts that the past for her parents can’t be changed; she accepts that the present for her is a result of that, but finally decides to do something about the future. She knows that she cannot create the fire, that passion, that love by “bang[ing] them together at the hips” (line 27). She accepts that she is powerless in the affairs of her parents even though the consequences affect her own life drastically. She no longer hopes to change their ways or prevent future pain. There is a paradigm shift at the end when the speaker liberates herself not by solving all the unsolvable problems as before, but rather disregarding them all together, choosing rather to see them in a different light instead.Works CitedMetzger, Sheri E. “Critical Essay on ‘I Go Back to May 1937’.” Poetry for Students. Ed. David A. Galens. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.Olds, Sharon. “I Go Back to May 1937.” Poetry Foundation. N.p.. Web. 29 Oct 2012. .”Overview: ‘I Go Back to May 1937’.” Poetry for Students. Ed. David A. Galens. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.

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