Poetry for Students

I Go Back to May 1937

I Go Back to May 1937

Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds's poem "I Go Back to May 1937" is included in her collection The Gold Cell, published in 1987. Like much of Olds's poetry, "I Go Back to May 1937" is concerned with exploring the relationship between wife and husband, parents and children. In this poem the speaker travels back to a time just before her parents' marriage so that she might warn them of the mistake they are about to make. Although the speaker knows her parents will face pain, she cannot stop their union, since to do so would deny her own existence. She wants to live and so these people must be permitted to marry.

Olds has been unwilling to provide information to critics and readers about her personal life, including information about her parents. Many critics search her poems hoping to find some autobiographical truth about her, but Olds has made clear that she is trying to separate her life into two spheres, what she calls "the life of art and the life of life." Accordingly, it is difficult to know exactly what inspires the content of this poem. Is it the speaker's own unhappy childhood or is she responding from the experience of a child of divorce? The reader cannot know and is instead forced to find meaning in the words, separate from finding meaning in the poet's autobiography.

For her readers, Olds's poems seem very personal, including "I Go Back to May 1937." Many of her poems are concerned with the speaker's relationship with her father, as she seeks to understand his alcoholism, his abandonment of his family through divorce, and his painful death. The exploration of her parents' marriage—beginning as this poem does, just prior to their wedding—presents the essential paradox. The speaker wishes her parents had never married, had never made one another's lives so miserable. She wishes her own childhood had been spared the torment of her parents' unhappiness, and yet to eliminate their marriage would be to eliminate the speaker. This paradox gives the poem a unique tension.

Author Biography

Sharon Olds was born November 19, 1942, in San Francisco, California. She received a bachelor's degree from Stanford University (1964) and a Ph.D. from Columbia University (1972). Many years ago, Olds decided she would not speak about her family, and so little is known about her personal life. For instance, Olds's poetry focuses on relationships, especially the relationship between father and daughter, but there is no information about Olds's parents, such as who they are, if they are still alive, or what her childhood was like.

Olds's poem "I Go Back to May 1937" explores the meeting of two people, whom the speaker would rather stay apart. Readers may assume the poem is about Olds's parents, though Olds has eliminated such easy analysis of her work by limiting public knowledge of her family life. What is known is that Olds married and that her two children were born while she was still a student at Columbia. Olds has also spoken frankly about the influence of religion on her life, noting that she was brought up to be a Calvinist Christian, with strong beliefs in punishment and hell.

Although Olds began writing poetry while still in her twenties, she was thirty-seven before her first collection of poems, Satan Says (1980), was published. This collection won the 1981 San Francisco Poetry Center Award. Her next collection of poems, The Dead and the Living (1984), was a 1984 Lamont Poetry selection of the Academy of American Poets and won a 1985 National Book Critics Circle Award. Two more collections of poetry followed in 1987, The Gold Cell and The Matter of This World. Olds's poetry collection The Father was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize in England and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. The Wellspring: Poems (1996) and Blood, Tin, Straw (1999) were also well received. The Unswept Room is due for publication in September 2002.

Olds's work has also been published in several anthologies, including The Norton Anthology of Poetry (2001), Maverick Poets: An Anthology (1988), The Heath Introduction to Poetry (2000), The Bedford Introduction to Literature (2001), and The Longman Anthology of American Poetry (1992). In addition, Olds's work has been included in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses on six occasions. The Pushcart Prize collections are considered prestigious anthologies, featuring the best of American literature each year.

Olds teaches poetry for the graduate creative writing program at New York University in New York City. She was selected to be the New York State poet laureate from 1998 to 2000. Augmenting her professional accomplishments, Olds gives back to the community as the founding director of the New York University workshop program for the physically challenged at Goldwater Hospital in New York.

Poem Summary

Lines 1–9

In the first line, the speaker refers to "gates" and "colleges." The plural form of these words signals there are differences between the two adults being described. They are distinctly separate people, each coming from a different background and location. In the second and third lines the man emerges from under an ochre sandstone arch, which creates an earthy image of clay walls, tinted dark yellow or reddish brown, in the reader's mind. Combine the image of the sandstone arch with the "red tiles glinting like bent plates of blood," and an image of the southwestern United States emerges. Red ceramic tile roofs are a common architectural feature of Arizona and southern California, as are earthy brown walls. The "glinting" tiles suggest the sun's glare off the roof, which could also indicate the Southwest, a region known for its sunny, warm climate.

Media Adaptations

  • Sharon Olds: The Lannon Literary Series is available on VHS. This 1991 production is sixty minutes long and includes Olds reading from The Dead and the Living and The Gold Cell as well as from unpublished work. This video also includes an interview with Olds by Lewis MacAdams.
  • The Power of the Word with Bill Moyers, is a six-part, 1989 Public Broadcasting series, with a running time of 360 minutes. It includes interviews with many contemporary poets, including Sharon Olds. This series is available on VHS.
  • The Best of NPR: Writers on Writing is a ninety-minute audiocassette with contemporary writers, including Sharon Olds, talking about their work.
  • Poets in Person (1991) is a fourteen-part audio series featuring more than a dozen contemporary American writers discussing their poetry and how they composed some of their favorite poems. Sharon Olds talks about turning real life into poetry. Each cassette is thirty minutes in length.
  • In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry (1996) is a four-CD boxed set featuring poets reading their own work. Many of the selections included are old recordings, some from as early as the nineteenth century, but this set also includes many contemporary poets reading their work. Sharon Olds reads her poem "Wonder."

In contrast to the man's location, the woman stands at a "pillar made of tiny bricks," her books carried against her hip. A wrought-iron gate is behind her. While the man emerges from his college by passing under an arch, the woman must pass through the gate to begin her new life. The bricks and wrought-iron gate suggest a different location than that of the man's. The woman's college may be in the northeastern United States, perhaps New England. Her location, then, would be the opposite of the man's. And while she emerges with books, he is empty-handed.

These basic differences alert the reader to the divisions that separate the man and woman. They are not only separated by gender, but by location and culture as well. And although he leaves the books of academia behind; she still grasps her books to her body.

Lines 10–12

The speaker now establishes the man's and woman's innocence. She tells her reader that the couple is about to graduate from college, and so the reader imagines the man and woman are young, probably in their early twenties. To reinforce the image of youth and inexperience, the speaker relates, "they are kids, they are dumb." The speaker also says they would "never hurt anybody." They are so innocent that the man and woman fail to see that their wedding might someday lead to pain. They see only the movement from their single college days into a new married existence. They are too young to consider their marriage might be a mistake. But the speaker is aware of the disaster awaiting the couple. She writes from the future, having seen the past, and knows that the couple stands on the precipice of a serious action, one that will affect others.

Lines 13–19

The speaker considers the actions she might take to prevent this tragedy from occurring. She considers stopping the man and the woman. She wants to "go up to them and say Stop." The capital letter at the beginning of "Stop" suggests the red sign along the road, an absolute message for any driver. The speaker wants the couple's movement toward marriage to be blocked, and so she adds the imperative "don't do it" to emphasize her need to stop the marriage. The speaker does not tell them they are too young. Instead she says, "she's the wrong woman," and "he's the wrong man." The speaker warns that because they are wrong for one another, they will do things they cannot imagine. To strengthen her emphasis, the speaker continues, "you are going to do bad things to children." The reminder here is of the pain an unhappy marriage can cause children. The next lines make clear that not only the children will suffer, but the man and woman will suffer as well "in ways you never heard of." The reader is informed the misery is going to be particularly extreme, so severe that the man and woman "are going to want to die." The picture painted in these few lines is one of great unhappiness, a marriage so destructive that the children will carry the scars for a lifetime and the parents will find solace in wishing for death.

Lines 20–25

These lines suggest the depth of the speaker's anguish. The speaker tells the reader how she would like to have warned the man and woman, how she might have tried to stop their marriage, but that she could not do so. Once again the speaker speaks from the future. She has the omniscience of a god, having seen the end result of this couple's union. As she did in the first line, the speaker again establishes the time: at graduation in late May. It is another reminder, two-thirds of the way through the poem, of the couple's youth, of their innocence that day in 1937 when they emerged from college. The woman's face is "hungry," ready to seize upon new desires and opportunities, but the blankness of her face also suggests she is unable to comprehend the risk she is taking. The blankness may also suggest the lack of experience with which the woman greets the world; nothing is written upon her brow, and her eyes lack the knowledge that pain will soon bring.

In contrast, the man is described as "arrogant," a clear allusion to his unwarranted pride, which was emphasized earlier when "he strolled out" and away from his college. The man did not simply "walk," he "strolled," suggesting the sort of leisurely walk of a supremely confident individual. The man's "blind face," however, tells the reader the man is as limited and unable to see as the woman.

The parallelism and repetition of the lines, "pitiful beautiful untouched body," suggest the emptiness of the marriage, but these are words that also hint at great loneliness and loss. …