18 pages 36 minutes read

Sharon Olds

I Go Back to May 1937

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide


Sharon Olds’s free verse poem, “I Go Back to May 1937” was first published in her 1987 collection, The Gold Cell. Over her forty-year career, Olds has often explored, in stark fashion, dysfunctional family dynamics, particularly the abuse of children by parents. “I Go Back to May 1937” shows Olds’s typical unflinching look at childhood trauma. This study guide contains references to child abuse and its consequences on children.

A slightly altered version of the poem appeared in Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002. In the 2004 revision, the words “blank” (Line 21) and “blind” (Line 24) are removed from the description of the parents’ faces. In addition, the description of the gate’s “sword-tips black in the May air” (Line 9, 1987) was changed to “sword-tips aglow in the May air” (Line 9, 2004). This version is the most widely distributed version and is referenced here in this study guide unless noted otherwise. “I Go Back to May 1937” is one of the poet’s most recognized poems. Widely anthologized, it also featured prominently in the 2007 film, Into the Wild.

Poet Biography

American poet Sharon Olds was born Sharon Stuart Cobb on November 19, 1942, in San Francisco, California. When she was three, her family moved to Berkeley, where she was raised. Although her family was financially stable, her upbringing was difficult. Her father, a steel salesman, was a strict Calvinist, and television and movies and other pleasures were forbidden. He was also abusive to his three children: her older sister, Olds herself, and her younger brother. Her mother did not protect the children from their father, participating in the abuse herself at times.

Throughout her childhood, Olds read widely, and Olds and her older sister attended the elite all-girls Dana Hill School in Wellesley, Massachusetts. There, she found poetry captivating, particularly the works of William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Upon graduation, she returned to California to earn her undergraduate degree from Stanford in 1964. After her marriage to David Olds in 1968, she pursued a Ph.D. in English at Columbia University in New York, specializing in the works of the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. She graduated in 1972 and began writing poetry in earnest at this time. She published her first collection, Satan Says, in 1980 at the age of thirty-seven. This collection received positive attention, and Olds won a National Endowment of the Arts grant as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship in the early 1980s.

Olds has a deep understanding of the Bible due to extensive religious study in her childhood and she draws inspiration from psalms and hymns in her poetry. Olds is often labelled a confessional poet because of her vivid self-reflective work. She is aligned with poets like Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) and Anne Sexton (1928-1974) who also vividly described the abuse they endured in their poetry. Until 2008, Olds was hesitant to label herself an autobiographical poet, but she has since been more open about how she draws from her own life experience. “I Go Back to May 1937” also uses memory in ways that are reminiscent of Walt Whitman, one of Olds’s major influences.

Olds has been a controversial figure. Her poetry is very personal and graphic in topic and language. Critics note—and sometimes condemn—her candor about bodily functions, sex, birth, aging, and abuse. Many critics compare her to Plath and Sexton, although Olds has said that her major influences are American poets Muriel Rukeyser and Galway Kinnell, who was a close friend. She has been criticized for being sensationalist and self-indulgent, one critic even going so far as to call her work pornographic. However, others have noted her honest sensitivity to life’s painful twists and turns, lauding her imagistic renderings of emotion, the accessibility of her style, and her first-person narratives regarding the physicality of the body. She is one of the best-selling poets in the United States.

After the success of Satan Says (1980), Olds wrote The Dead and Living (1984), which won a National Book Critics Circle award, and The Gold Cell (1987) which contains many of Olds’s most famous poems, including “I Go Back to May 1937.” In 1991, she published Sign of Saturn, and the following year, The Father was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She followed this success with Wellspring (1996). During this time, Olds co-founded New York University’s creative writing program with Galway Kinnell, serving as the program’s director after Kinnell’s death. From 1998-2000, she was the New York State Poet laureate. In 2002, she published The Unswept Room and in 2004, her selected poems, Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002 won the National Book Critics Circle Award. From 2006-2012, she was the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. During this time, she published One Secret Thing (2008).

In 1997, Olds and her husband divorced, and this event inspired Olds to write several poems which she vowed she would not publish until a decade had passed. In 2013, Stag’s Leap, the collection exploring her divorce and the grief around won both the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize. Olds also received the 2014 Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry in 2014 and the Wallace Stevens Award in 2016. That same year, she published Odes, her twelfth book of poems. In 2019, she published Arias, and Balladz is forthcoming in 2022.

Poem Text

Olds, Sharon. “I Go Back to May 1937.” 2004. Poetry Foundation.


The speaker visualizes their parents in their youth in May 1937. In the speaker’s imagination, their father strolls from underneath an arch on his college campus while their mother stands with a few books in front of a gate. The speaker imagines both parents as young and innocent, unable to hurt anyone, “about to graduate” (Line 10) and get married. The speaker shows sympathy for the young couple, describing them as “kids” (Line 11) and “innocent” (Line 12). They are about to “graduate” (Line 10) into adulthood and “get married” (Line 10), believing they would “never hurt anybody” (Line 12).

Then, the speaker asserts a longing to say to their parents, “Stop, / don’t do it” (Lines 13-14) in order to prevent their marriage and their fall into trouble. The speaker knows that the young couple cannot know that “she’s the wrong woman, / he’s the wrong man” (Lines 14-15). They “cannot imagine” (Line 16) what they “are going to do” (Lines 17-19) nor that they “are going to suffer” (Line 18) to the point they will “want to die” (Line 19). They are, the speaker explains, ill-suited for each other, and they will go on to harm children as well as suffer themselves from their own personal misfortune. The speaker also acknowledges that the union of their parents enables the speaker’s own existence, and ultimately, the speaker notes “I want to live” (Line 25).

Although the speaker is sympathetic, the speaker is also judgmental of the couple. They are “dumb” (Line 11), willfully ignorant and mute to the coming disaster. The speaker finds their bodies “pitiful” (Line 22, Line 24), indicating a waste of potential. In their descriptions, the speaker defines the mother as “hungry” (Line 21) and the father as “arrogant” (Line 23), characteristics that set them up for failure. Eventually, the speaker compares their parents to “paper dolls” (Line 27) and states a desire to hit them together like “chips of flint” (Line 28) to make fire. The speaker imagines telling their parents to “[d]o what you are going to do” (Line 30) and that the speaker will “tell about it” (Line 30).