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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

I GO BACK TO MAY 1937, by         Recitation by Author     Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography

"I Go Back to May 1937" is a poem by Sharon Olds, first published in her 1987 collection, The Gold Cell. The poem is an autobiographical reflection on the marriage of Olds' parents, which took place in May 1937, and the speaker's desire to go back in time and prevent the union from happening.


The poem opens with the speaker announcing their intention to time travel: "I see my father strolling out / under the ochre sandstone arch, / the red tiles glinting like bent / plates of blood behind his head". The speaker imagines themselves appearing before their young parents, warning them not to marry and have children. However, the speaker's parents are deeply in love and ignore the speaker's warning.

Throughout the poem, the speaker presents a vivid and unflinching portrayal of the darker aspects of her parents' relationship, including her father's violence and infidelity, as well as her mother's eventual breakdown. The speaker concludes the poem by acknowledging that, despite all of this, she owes her existence to her parents' union and must accept it: "I believe I would have been / a different person if they had listened. / This is why I travel back to them / over and over again".

Poetic Elements:

  • Structure: The poem is written in free verse, with irregular line lengths and no fixed rhyme scheme.
  • Imagery: Olds employs vivid, sensory imagery throughout the poem, particularly in her descriptions of the setting and the actions of her parents.
  • Tone: The tone of the poem is melancholic and regretful, with the speaker expressing a sense of loss and longing for a different past.


In conclusion, "I Go Back to May 1937" is a powerful meditation on the complexity of family relationships and the weight of history. Through vivid imagery and poetic language, Sharon Olds captures the intensity of the speaker's desire to change the past while exploring the ways in which our personal histories shape our present.

Poem Snippet:

"I see myself descending under a scree / of time and dust to nightly where my parents / lie under covers, my father's / body hard and separate as a continent

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