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“Rites of Passage” by Sharon Olds

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Sharon Olds’ “Rites of Passage” is about the hidden adults in the children that come to her son’s birthday party. All the children are boys and display male adult personality traits that remind the speaker of small mighty Generals of war. The tone comes across sad, ironic and disillusioned about the future of the children, like they are doomed to follow in the war mongering footsteps of their forefathers. The imagery used complements the idea of war and the poetic form comes across somewhat unorganized, like the turmoil of a battle.

Olds’ creates a persona in “Rites of Passage” that examines the character traits of the 6 to 7 year old party guests and seems to be sad about the loss of innocence she can already see in the children. She describes them young, small and fragile, yet they behave like fighting men, frowning bankers and aggressive generals. She seems to be emotionally torn between what she examines now and what she remembers about her son being born; realizing the difference of the innocence then and the loss of at least part of it, now.

She writes in a visually descriptive language. She describes the children, with their hands in their pockets, their smooth jaws and chins, their freckles, their shortness and she uses simile and connotations in her poetic language. She writes: “My son, […] chest narrow as the balsa keel of a model boat […] (765),” suggesting that while he pretends to have this tough adult exterior, he is still fragile underneath. She also compares the birthday cake to a weapon of war, a turret, maybe on top of a tank, like it is on top of the table.

Olds’ poetic form [or lack thereof] can be viewed as the turmoil on a battlefield or the organized mess of a children’s birthday party. Her sentence structure doesn’t rhyme, varies in length and in meaning, sometimes examining the children, other times her own feelings. Some of her sentences are descriptive, while others are verbal comments between the children. She also reaches back into her own past, when she remembers the birth of her son and says, “[…] long hands cool and thin as the day they guided him out of me” (765). While the sentences flow and read easily, like a carefree children’s party, they have no assonance, consonance or alliteration, which for a poem might seem paradox, just like the adult underlying tone of the subject matter. One might get the feeling that Sharon Olds is sad about the loss off innocence and that she feels that the future of the little men is already laid out in a disillusioned manner, as they will grow into adults with war on their minds. However when she writes, “[…] they relax, and get down to playing war, celebrating my son’s life,” she seems to offer hope and a way out. After all, they are children and are merely mimicking what they see in their daily lives and as far as they know, it’s all just a game.

I chose to examine this poem for just the above reasons. I like it because it is different, it doesn’t follow the rules of poetry and the subject matter is interesting. The two colliding, yet complementing themes of innocence and adulthood provide some food for thought, instead of just a rhyme about a pretty flower [for example]. Sharon Olds discovers something about children, captures this in her poetic words and shares it with us in an interesting manner. This makes poetry more fun to read than ‘the cat sat on the mat’.

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