Sharon Olds’s poem “I Go Back to May 1937” is included in her collection The Gold Cell, published in 1987. Like much of Olds’s poetry, “I Go Back to May 1937” is concerned with exploring the relationship between wife and husband, parents and children. In this poem the speaker travels back to a time just before her parents’ marriage so that she might warn them of the mistake they are about to make. Although the speaker knows her parents will face pain, she cannot stop their union, since to do so would deny her own existence. She wants to live and so these people must be permitted to marry.
Olds has been unwilling to provide information to critics and readers about her personal life, including information about her parents. Many critics search her poems hoping to find some autobiographical truth about her, but Olds has made clear that she is trying to separate her life into two spheres, what she calls “the life of art and the life of life.” Accordingly, it is difficult to know exactly what inspires the content of this poem. Is it the speaker’s own unhappy childhood or is she responding from the experience of a child of divorce? The reader cannot know and is instead forced to find meaning in the words, separate from finding meaning in the poet’s autobiography.
For her readers, Olds’s poems seem very personal, including “I Go Back to May 1937.” Many of her poems are concerned with the speaker’s relationship with her father, as she seeks to understand his alcoholism, his abandonment of his family through divorce, and his painful death. The exploration of her parents’ marriage—beginning as this poem does, just prior to their wedding—presents the essential paradox. The speaker wishes her parents had never married, had never made one another’s lives so miserable. She wishes her own childhood had been spared the torment of her parents’ unhappiness, and yet to eliminate their marriage would be to eliminate the speaker. This paradox gives the poem a unique tension.