‘Rite of Passage‘ was published in 1984 in The Dead and the Living. It speaks on themes of male violence and how it begins at a young age. The poem uses powerful examples of imagery to suggest that the speaker’s son is on the same path as many other young boys are.
Explore Rite of Passage
‘Rite of Passage’ by Sharon Olds is an interesting poem about a group of young boys at a birthday party and their interest in violence.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker describes a group of boys at her son’s birthday party. They’re standing together looking like small men. They each stand as though they’re to appear as though they are the strongest individuals in the room. There are small fights that start and end among them. The boys gloat about their ages and one of the older ones suggests he could beat up another boy a year young.
The speaker’s son is particularly youthful-looking and he suggests, in a way that’s meant to show his strength and allude to the origins of male violence, that they could “kill a two-year-old.” The boys around him agree, ensuring that they too feel that rush of superiority.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Rite of Passage’ by Sharon Olds is a twenty-six-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of verse. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poet uses natural, conversational language throughout, ensuring that readers interpret the events she’s describing as common and usual. This helps convey her message about male violence and its roots.
Olds makes use of several literary devices in ‘Rite of Passage.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “jostling, jockeying” in line six and “six” and “seven” in line eight.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines five and six.
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of text. This can be done through a natural pause in the meter or through the use of punctuation. For example, “they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you.”
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially vibrant and interesting descriptions. For example, the last lines which read: “the midnight cake, round and heavy as a / turret behind them on the table.”
As the guests arrive at our son’s party
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by describing boys arriving for her son’s birthday party. She uses imagery that makes the poem more compelling from the start. She speaks about the boys as “short men, men in first grade.” She sees in them the elements of manhood. This is not something to be celebrated, the following lines reveal.
They have “smooth jaws and chins,” lacking even a hint of facial hair. They move and talk as though they have something to prove. They each want to assert their dominance over the rest of the group, as if they are grown men. They have learned from the actions of their fathers and male role models how they believe they should act.
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
for the sake of the group.
The boys use their age, even if it’s only one year older, to suggest that they are superior to those younger than they are. One boy says that he could “beat you up,” because he’s seven and the other boy is six.
The war-time image of a turret is included in this scene, taking the form of a birthday cake. It’s at this point that the speaker transitions into talking about her own son. He is young and innocent-looking. She compares the freckles on his cheeks to “specks of nutmeg” ( a simile). The speaker sees his young hands and young body before she hears him assert his one message of dominance and control.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.
The speaker’s son asserts that the group could “easily kill a two-year-old.” This shocking statement is juxtaposed against the speaker’s description of her son’s youthful, innocent appearance. This isn’t something one could expect a child to say but, it connects perfectly to the way the group has been acting.
They are boys but they’ve seen what they think would make them men and are imitating it. After they all agree they could kill a two-year-old, they settle down and get to the business of the party.
The poet uses another simile at the end of the poem comparing the young boys to “generals.” This is another example of war-related imagery that suggests that male violence or the capacity for violence begins at a very young age.
The tone is skeptical and disturbed. She’s bothered by the boys’ fascination with violence but, at the same time, assumed by their attempts to make themselves seem larger and more powerful than they are.
The themes at work in this poem are male violence and growing up. The speaker sees violent tendencies in the young boys at her son’s party. They are only children, but, they are demonstrating the beginnings of what could be violent behaviors in the future.
Olds wrote this poem in order to explore the origins of male violence and express how early it can show itself. The speaker is clearly amused by what she’s hearing but she’s also disturbed. She doesn’t like hearing the children speak this way and can see in their actions and posturing the future damage they could inflict.
The meaning is that silence, especially in men, can start at a very young age. Although seven-year-olds are unlikely to cause any real damage, the speaker is concerned by their obsession with violence.
The speaker is a mother who is watching her son and his friends interact at his birthday party.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Rite of Passage’ should consider reading some other Sharon Olds poems. For example:
- ‘Her First Week’ – reveals both sides of motherhood and the many facets of feeling and emotions that come along with having a baby.
- ‘Sex Without Love’ – asks the reader to consider the implications of relationships based on sex rather than emotional love.
- ‘The Flurry’ – focuses on a couple planning how they will tell their children of their divorce. The poem explores the end of love, relationships coming to an end, and how that can impact people.