Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sharon Olds - Rite of Passage + Children's Perspectives

My second favorite poem is Rite of Passage by Sharon Olds. I love literature that deals with children's perceptions of themselves, each other and the world - and this poem touches on that through the eyes of a parent reluctant to see his or her son grow up.

Janiyah & Sinclair

I babysit often(!) and my cousin Janiyah and her friend Sinclair never cease to amaze me with their acute observations and talents for making even the simplest things profound and expressing their wonder pithily. Maybe it's because I don't remember how my mind worked or how I saw the world as a child (at the ripe old age of 22) - or how words and letters looked before I learned to read, or what purposes I ascribed to machines before I learned their use.

Literature that believably taps that pool of innocence captures me every time. Some favorites include First Confession by Frank O'Connor, The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake (both versions from Songs of Innocence and Experience), and though people HEAVILY criticize it - The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne.

*spoiler alert*

Without my making any claims about its historical accuracy or feasibility, its morality, or perceived exploitation of the fable form to push its agenda, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas told the story of a boy's life in Nazi German betraying few signs of its adult author (though I realize a 9-year old child couldn't have written this book). It captured the way children internalize and regurgitate words and phrases they hear, using them in and out of context - the narrator Bruno repeatedly calling his sister The Hopeless Case after hearing the phrase used once, referring to Auschwitz as ‘Out-With’ and Hitler (the Führer) as The Fury.

*end spoiler alert*

Subject matter aside, its narrator was not unlike Ralphie from the movie A Christmas Story - precocious, prone to hyperbole and bouts of waking fantasy, with a tendency to believe that everyone's against him.... It's a success in storytelling.

All that brings me to Rite of Passage, which is not told from a child's POV, but manages to accurately convey the way children see themselves in relation to each other - and how adults perceive these miniature showdowns... I have a younger brother (I'm almost 8 years older than him) and I've seen what Olds describes in her poem IN ACTION.

Rite of Passage

As the guests arrive at our son’s party
they gather in the living room—
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? —Six. —I’m seven. —So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the midnight cake, round and heavy as a
turret behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.

The images of gathering little men "tiny in each other's pupils" "jostling, jockeying for place" remind me of mammal cubs at a watering hole, instinctually play-fighting to learn the survival skills they'll need later in life, the fights "breaking and calming" like undulating waves - as is the fickle nature of childhood grudges.... The speaker's son banning the small men together against a common and weaker enemy, "a two year old", only relayed to the reader through the speakers eyes...

This poem is perfect.

There's so much to love here and I could write more BUT I have a traffic tracker that lets me know what people are Googling to find their way here and a LOT OF YOU are cheating on papers.... TISK TISK! No Freebies!

Anywho - I'm reading Revolutionary Road now + coming up there'll be more on 'Hip Hop as Literature' and Death in Venice (Gus von A as a fallen dandy).


Anonymous said...

I think the poem was extraordianry, I too enjoy seeing the innocence of children. This poem represents innocence as it should be and you've done a worthy analysis of it.

Thank you for bringing it to my attention

Unknown said...

This poem does not depict the innocence of children It shows the transition from boyhood to manhood, not innocence.