Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The collection in which this poem appears is divided into two sections: “Poems for the Dead” and “Poems for the Living.” “Poems for the Dead,” in turn, is divided into the sections “Public” and “Private.” Of the nine “Public” poems, the piece about Marilyn Monroe depends the most on understanding her iconic significance in American culture. Monroe’s fame came from a series of motion pictures in the 1950’s, films that made her the most famous actress of her era. Her film roles and her modeling presented her very explicitly as a sex symbol, and her image became immediately recognizable to an enormous public. Her fame was further magnified by her marriage to baseball star Joe DiMaggio, a later marriage to playwright Arthur Miller, and rumored affairs with President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Her suicide by drug overdose at age thirty-six sealed her legendary status, preserving her life story as a myth combining innocence and sexuality with the tragedy of premature death.

Like Elvis Presley, Monroe has grown in legendary status since her death. More than two hundred books about her are in print, and her legend has attracted treatments from authors Gloria Steinem and Joyce Carol Oates and artist Andy Warhol, whose lithograph of Monroe is as famous as those of Campbell’s soup cans. It is against this legendary or iconic status that Olds’s simple poem needs to be read.

“The Death of Marilyn Monroe” seems to echo the well-known song “Candle in the Wind,” by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Both works emphasize the difference between legend and human being, made more pronounced and poignant by the physical realities of her death. While John’s song laments that the sensationalizing...

(The entire section is 720 words.)