Published in The Dead and the Living in 1984, Sharon Olds's "Rite of Passage" is a poem about the roots of male violence. The poem's speaker, the mother of a boy in first grade, observes the aggressive, competitive behavior of the boys at her son's birthday party. The group bonds over her son's boast that "We could easily kill a two-year-old," a fantasy that ironically contrasts with his innocent appearance and physical vulnerability. The poem portrays this kind of aggression as an imitation of, and an initiation into, the violent culture of grown men.
As the guests ...
... jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, ...
... —I'm seven. —So?
They eye each ...
... arms and frown.
I could beat ...
... on the table.
My son, ...
... out of me,
speaks up as ...
... his clear voice.
The other ...
... my son's life.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
The Poem Aloud — Watch Olds read "Rite of Passage" (starting at 18:35).
The Poet's Life and Work — A biography of Olds at the Poetry Foundation.
An Interview with the Poet — Olds discusses the challenges of writing about family.
A Talk by the Poet — Watch Olds deliver a lecture on the craft of poetry.
The Poet's Website — Browse books and media related to Sharon Olds at her website.
1As the guests arrive at our son's party
2they gather in the living room—
3short men, men in first grade
4with smooth jaws and chins.
5Hands in pockets, they stand around
6jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
7breaking out and calming. One says to another
8How old are you? —Six. —I'm seven. —So?
9They eye each other, seeing themselves
10tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their
11throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
12they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
13up, a seven says to a six,
14the midnight cake, round and heavy as a
15turret, behind them on the table. My son,
16freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
17chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
18model boat, long hands
19cool and thin as the day they guided him
20out of me, speaks up as a host
21for the sake of the group.
22We could easily kill a two-year-old,
23he says in his clear voice. The other
24men agree, they clear their throats
25like Generals, they relax and get down to
26playing war, celebrating my son's life.