Rites of passage By Sharon Olds Analysis


            Sharon Olds  is a famous poet of modern times who writes her poem with themes , usually personal, with great intensity that explore violence, sensuality, family and the physical body. She was born in San Francisco in 1942 and grew up in Berkeley, California.  She studied in Stanford University and got her Ph. D. at Columbia in 1972. Her style of writing reflects her own family life  and political events in the world, where she has won prizes most notably the National Book Critic Circle Award. She is candid in style of writing, erotic at times and exudes power to move her readers imagination. She knows where to touch her readers. Although she writes with great intense, the heaviness at times can be shocking, it does not affect her craftsmanship as a writer.

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            The mass appeal of her writings contributed to her success as a poet, particularly to women readers. Her choice of poetry language is plain and easily understandable to her readers. She dares to reveal emotions that are unexpected and could at times be startling. Her keen observance of people and the world is one of her greatest assets.  She is highly regarded in her field as a poet and has a stronghold of poem readership.  Her poems are simple yet speaks loud of her  personal observation.  She writes in accordance to her own vision. Olds’ poems are glimpses of her life. To her women readers, she is a mirror too of their life but to the men readers, she can be disturbing. Her thoughts are usually but reflections of her past.

            A very sensitive poet her writing are descriptive based on her own senses. Olds’ fascination in using the physical body is evident in their writings.  The body is a link to the language of her poetry. Her poems are physical, sexual yet artistic. They are narrative. Her choice of language is recognizable from the reader’s past.  In Rites of Passage, from childhood.  She uses her own life as a reflection of reality as a whole.  Thus she is called a metaphysical poet.  Her physical metaphors in her poems are but reflections of issues within herself.  Her poetry implies not just the physical body but of motherhood,family, relationships, sexuality, violence and childhood.  There is no denial, her language tend to shock the readers but its simplicity easily imaginable to the readers making them easier to relate to her poem.  Indeed, she is being recognized as one of the most powerful poet of her league .


            Sharon Olds’ “ Rites of Passage” tells about the stages of development a child goes through or undergoes to becoming masculine as seen through the eyes of a mother at his son’s first grade birthday party. The would-be transformation of the young boys to young adults was visibly predicted by the mother at the early stage of their development as they show aggressiveness in behavior and urgency of wanting to take control.  The potential danger of an aggressive behavior in the future is there when a child uses the phrases “  I could beat you” and “ I can kill a two year old” . A psychological analysis could be that the young mind is a reflection of a behavior that could lead to the same attitude when he grows up unless guided as one raises up a child to becoming  acceptable members of a society in accordance with his gender.

            In the poem at the party, the boys try to compete with one another and show off their masculinity with their peers.  In the room is the celebrant interacting with his guests and the mother observant of what is going on to the male dominated room full of young boys acting like adults.  As she listens to the conversation between guests, she dares not to interfere and continue to be just a spectator of young boys determined to prove and show off their manhood.


            The tone of the poem is ironic and humorous as it describes the boys behavior acting like old boys seemingly like that of bankers and generals.  Olds worded the poem with such ironic significance in her description of how her son’s party turned into a hostile situation as the boys acting and playing like adults showed warlike behavior as that of soldiers and generals with  the tendency to be in control and show confidence and refinery as that of bankers.  The poem is reflective of how the young boys were trained to act as would be expected of them in the future in accordance to the gender they belong to.  Their actions are gender specific and expected to be in preparation to gain acceptance to society.


            The imagery used by the author is so concise the reader easily get a mental image of how her son’s birthday party turned out to be a mirror of the future and the different truths about growing up and the development of masculinity in boys.  She uses images to convey a reality.  Describing the guests who arrives in her son’s birthday party, she uses images of short men with smooth jaws and chin. Then a small room full of bankers in folded arms and frowning. From the imagery of young boys she sets off to another image of a room full of adult-like bankers.  Towards the end of the poem, she repeats the changing of imagery where the party of young boys turned into a warlike zone of aggressive behavior with generals at the helm to take control.


            The author was very direct in her description of the young boys in the party.  It opens your mind to think with a certain degree of intensity that surprises a reader, such the prosody of the poem.  With sarcasm she liken the birthdays cake to that of turret which is use in military machines. Yet as she describes her son with chest narrow as a balsa keel of a model boat, the tone of sarcasm changes with admiration especially when his son speaks up as a host with clear voice saying  “ we could easily kill a two year old” that seems to have ended the ongoing squabbles by guests in his party.


            The dialogues in the poem “ How old are you?”, “Six.” , “I am seven” “So?” implies human interaction as with “We could easily kill a two year old”. They set the tone and action the author wishes to convey to her readers. The dialogues as naturally demonstrated in the poem has given life to the descriptions of the  author.

            The poem is lyrical in the sense it expresses the personal point of view of the author or poet nor does it has a definite form of stanza used or definite patterns of rhyming words and rhythm. It tells a story with emphasis  on imagery and tone. Olds uses free verse and conversational language (colloquial) perhaps for a natural flow and easy understanding  of her readers.

            It can be said the poem is interpretive, not only to bring humor to its readers but to let them look deeper and be aware of a facet of life we sometimes neglect to look into. How through the parent’s eyes unfold the future behavior of the different characters in her son’s birthday party.  She has become more aware of  her child’s actions and behavior in relating with others.

            Figurative language is use to make comparisons in metaphoric way in the birthday cake to a turret or “gun tower on a fort or battleship”, to let the readers play their imagination to see things as the poem depicts. Then she describes her son’s freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks.  His son’s chest narrow as a balsa keel of a model boat.

            The author’s point of view is dramatic as she narrates what she sees and heard over her son’s birthday party as a spectator only. Olds also leaves the reader the freedom to draw conclusions about the characters in the poem, her own son and his guests at the party on the basis of how they act and talk as overheard and seen by the mother, who is the author.

            The setting literally happens on the poet’s son’s celebration of his first grade birthday party, probably at the author’s home. The theme of the literary poem is with regards to understanding the phase of a child’s life where one is expected to act accordingly to the gender he belongs to.


            Rite of Passage is written to depict a character transformation of the the young boys to act like adults even at an early stage of life. The revealing tendencies of the young boys sounds horrifying to the mother as the aggressive tendencies shows up early in their childhood years. In reflecting on what she observes and overhears over her own son’s actions and words as with his other guests, she already establishes a perception of the future adults they will become making her feel the danger in her heart as a parent. To the mother that can be horrifying. As has been said this poem is a depiction about the passage from a stage of a boy’s life into another changing their childlike actions and behavior to those of grown up men. The poem showcases these changes and the impact of what society expects of the the men and how this affects the children in general. The poem can be entertaining in a sense it sounded humorous when Olds gives her narrative description of her observation in her child’s first grade birthday party. A poem can thus give entertainment yet opens a part of the mind to rethink and reflect on the realities that may come to life. A poet then becomes an instrument through her poems in giving society a view of life in much deeper manner.


Ostriker, Alicia. “American Poetry, Now Shaped by Women.” New York Times Book      Review 9 March 1986:27-28+.

Parras, John. 5 February 2004. “Sharon Olds”. The Literary Encyclopedia. Accessed 23 July      2008. <http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID3410>.

“Sharon Olds”. Accessed 22 July 2008. <http://www.lectures.org/olds.html#bio>.

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