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I Go Back to May 1937

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by

Taylor St. Germain

on 8 September 2014

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Transcript of I Go Back to May 1937

Poem and Social Context
In the 1930's marriage was seen as confining and mandatory, not about love or romance.
Setting of the Poem
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
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
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,
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. 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.
Summary of Poem
Author is reflecting on a photo of her parents at their college graduation.
I Go Back to May 1937

Background
Hell-fire Calvinist
Became an atheist at 15
Was abused in her childhood by her miserably married parents. Her mother then apologized 37 years later.
I Go Back to May 1937
by Sharon Olds
Laura Bush invited her to the National Book Festival, but she disagreed with the presidency and rudely declined in an open letter
Admired Sylvia Plath, but did not want to follow in her footsteps
Attended Stanford and then received a PhD from Columbia
Not a lot of information about life; kept private besides in poetry
Writing stemmed from family, sex, and abuse
Fascination with dark side of family life
Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for
Stag's Leap
(Collapse of 30 yr marriage)
T.S. Eliot Prize in 2012 for
Stag's Leap
The poem was written in 1987, but reflects back on her parents in 1937.
The author is writing the poem while looking back on a photograph of her parents.
This was during the era of the Great Depression.
Her father is walking out underneath a university arch with her mother
They are about to get married. Olds wishes she could of prevented the union because she knows that in the future their marriage would lead to nothing but misery.
Olds' changes focus to the negative outcome of their marriage and all of the things that have gone wrong.
She then undergoes inner turmoil when she realizes that without the marriage, she would not be alive.
That source of conflict is also where the section of the poem splits.
In the poem, there are 3 characters: the mother, the father, and then Olds as the narrator.
Olds uses dark imagery, often sinister to describe her parents.
"at the formal gates of their colleges"
"red tiles glinting like bent plates of blood behind his head"
"wrought-iron gate still open"
"sword-tips back in the May air"
This line sets up the image. The reader can see how their love to begin with was purely formal and not about love.
This line has a very sinister connotation. Tiles are normally seen as a common item, but Olds has turned them into an evil and dark object to show her distaste at their relationship.
When the reader hears "wrought-iron gates," it immediately makes them think of prison. The imagery is used to show how their love is imprisoning them as a couple, but also how it will imprison their children in the future.
The sword-tips symbolize how their love was truly a battle and only violence will arise from it. In the future, the relationship will lead to abuse.
Point of View
"I want to go up to them and say Stop"
"you are going to do things you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of, you are going to die."
"but I don't do it. I want to live."
This is from the perspective of the daughter in the future. She wishes she could have prevented their marriage as she knows how unhappy it has made the entire family.
The use of parallelism in this line, helps to illustrate all of the poor things that have come from the marriage. She knows more than her parents did at the time and is now reflecting on the present and what has become of their relationship.
Olds wishes she could tell her parents this, but at the same time realizes she would not be alive if she did.
Tone/Theme
Example of an aspect of the author's life
A bitter and mysteriously dark tone is used through words used like: wrong man, wrong woman, bad things, suffer, die, blank face, arrogant, blind face, pitiful
Tone depicts themes of: consequences of rash decisions, inevitable grief, the dark side of life, futility of man
"I want to go up to them and say stop...but I don't do it. I want to live." (inevitable grief)
"...you are going to do bad things to children, you are going to suffer in ways you've never heard of, you are going to die." (mysterious tone, dark side of life)
"I take them up like male and female paper dolls and bang them together at the hips like chips of flint as if to strike sparks from them..." (Futility, uselessness, of man through inability of love and inability to fix it, fire on paper destroys the paper showing the inevitability of the darkness this situation provokes)
Poems inspired by her true life
Shows her disapproval of her parents relationship because of the harm and damage it has caused her
Personal conflict between wanting to live and the grief from the consequences
The effect the family has on Sharon Olds and her dark perception of the world

Techniques
Parallelism, as previously mentioned
Repetition to emphasize the naivete of her parents when they decided to get married:
"her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind faced turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body"
Dehumanization/objectification, gives parents qualities of inanimate objects to show her emotional distance:
"I take them up like male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them"
Contrast to show the progression of her mother and father into adulthood
"they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are innocent, they would never hurt anybody"
vs.
"you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of"
Importance of Themes
Important in Literary History or Trends
We've seen similar themes in books such as Snow Falling on Cedars.
Futility of man and inability to escape fate are popular and common themes because they can be found in almost every book.
Relatable because poem focuses on rebellion, but also the inability to rebel.
Olds can be viewed as a rule-breaker because her poems broke boundaries and limits on subject matter
Hailed but also condemned for writing about taboo subject matters, called self-indulgent and borderline pornographic
One of contemporary poetry's leading voices
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