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Analysis of “I Go Back to May 1937”

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 specifically accurate in her poem “I Go Back to Might 1937”. Olds’ brash style guarantees that her message is clearly delivered but her original and occasionally unexpected use of imagery keeps that delivery fresh and entertaining. “I Go Back to Might 1937” is about a girl imagining her parents in a time just before she was born when they had been graduating college. In retrospect she understands the extent in which they have changed because “they [had been] dumb, all they know is they are /innocent, they would in no way hurt anybody” (lines 11-12). The reader contemplates warning them of the misery they will incur in the future and break up their wedding connection ahead of it begins but she cannot do this simply because it would terminate her personal life in the procedure. Resigning to acceptance, the speaker in the poem decides practically nothing can be carried out to adjust what has already occurred. Via the use of powerful diction and shocking imagery, Olds employs a special stylistic strategy to illustrate the time-old truth that one particular can never modify the past.

Olds begins her poem with a tone of impartial reminiscence, describing her father as “strolling out/ below 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 worry or reservation, the kind of starting a single would uncover 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-five). The bold use of diction when describing something basic 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 significantly the exact same manner: “I see my mother with a handful of light books at her hip standing at the pillar created of tiny bricks with the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its sword-ideas black in the Could 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 does not know if she is prepared to transition in between the two but. She is not standing behind a study strong “sandstone arch” like the speaker’s father but a delicately constructed pillar produced of tiny bricks consisting of myriad distinct pieces which could be a metaphor of her complexity of emotion about this crucial juncture in her life and uncertain future (Metzger).

The next few lines are the vital 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 youngsters, they are dumb, all they know is they are

innocent, they would never hurt anybody.

I want to go up to them and say Quit,

don’t do it—she’s the incorrect lady,

he’s the incorrect man, you are going to do issues (lines 10-15)

The speaker has a particular role in this poem she is omnipotent in the sense she can see and judge this couple, her future parents, due to the fact she sees their past and the choices that led them to make the mistakes along the way. She sees this graduation, this marriage, as getting on the cliff’s edge. The beginning of a lengthy fall down by way of 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 stop injury or harm, much like the capital cease on a stop sign on the streets (Galens).

Right 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 envision you would ever do,

you are going to do undesirable things to young children,

you are going to suffer in techniques you have not heard of,

you are going to want to die. I want to go

up to them there in the late Might sunlight and say it (lines 16-20)

The speaker is really decisive in how she feels about the marriage, describing it as the bearer of excellent sorrow and unhappiness. The speaker is enraged not only at the couple for enabling the relationship to develop into the monster that it became, but at herself for not becoming able to step in when she knows without a doubt what it is to turn into. The speaker is stuck with options that only bring far more issues. The speaker’s rage subsides when she realizes the hopelessness of the circumstance whilst exploring the couple in the subsequent couple of lines

her hungry fairly face turning to me,

her pitiful stunning untouched physique,

his arrogant handsome face turning to me,

his pitiful beautiful untouched body,

but I do not do it. I want to live” (Olds 20).

Olds’ use of diction is paramount to understanding the message she is attempting to send right here. She describes the faces of the lovers with a renewed sense or resolve. The woman’s face is “hungry,” displaying the need for new opportunities and life decisions to be produced, not often with careful contemplation. This is coupled with the man’s “arrogant” face, emphasizing the sheer extent in which they do not know the repercussions of the selections they are producing and if the reasons for generating these alternatives are the appropriate ones (Metzger). Olds employs syntax here to give the reader insight into the truth that their relationship is missing passion and love. Olds repeats the phrase “pitiful gorgeous untouched body” but separates them with the description of the man’s face. Olds desires the reader to know that despite the fact that they are receiving married, they are nevertheless separate and far from a single union (Galens). The speaker shows her resentment and helplessness once again right here at the end, when she says that though she knows they have these difficulties, that the marriage isn’t going to perform out, and the couple will hurt a lot of people along the way, she remains silent to preserve her personal future life. It is not till the final couple of lines that the speaker ultimately gives into the hopeless predicament and bargains with the hand she was dealt


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 inform about it” (Olds 25)

The paper dolls resemble her childish last-ditch work to play out an optimistic ending she knows will never ever come to fruition. The dolls are something she can handle she has their future in her hands, just like she has her personal. She accepts that the previous for her parents can not be changed she accepts that the present for her is a result of that, but ultimately decides to do something about the future. She knows that she can't generate the fire, that passion, that love by “bang[ing] them collectively at the hips” (line 27). She accepts that she is powerless in the affairs of her parents even though the consequences have an effect on her personal life drastically. She no longer hopes to adjust their ways or avoid future pain. There is a paradigm shift at the end when the speaker liberates herself not by solving all the unsolvable difficulties as prior to, but rather disregarding them all collectively, choosing rather to see them in a different light rather.

Functions Cited

Metzger, 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 Might 1937’.” Poetry for Students. Ed. David A. Galens. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.
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