What exactly is the “rite of passage” to which Sharon Olds' poem, "Rites of Passage" refers?
The speaker of "Rite of Passage" observes her son during his birthday party, interacting with other young boys his age. Young people often have to go through a rite of passage, or some kind of traditional, culturally significant test or experience. In this moment, the speaker wonders, what rite of passages will my son be subjected to? What tests must he pass?
As the speaker watches the children, including her son, she observes a common theme: violence as an accomplishment. The boys have been conditioned such that they believe they should physically and psychologically overpower one another, to assert their individuality, and prove their masculinity. The speaker's own son professes "We could easily kill a two-year-old." Further, the boys are depicted as "jostling, jockeying for place, small fights / breaking out and calming."
In conversational and physical challenges, the boys in the poem incessantly test one another. They subject one another to rites of passage: are you strong enough? Fast enough? Tough enough? The speaker comes to the sad and terrible conclusion that these extreme social expectations amount to "playing war, celebrating my son’s life." Olds intentionally juxtaposes the notion of a "celebration of life" to "war," to emphasize the vulgarity of such young children at a joyful event feeling compelled to play aggressively, even violently with one another.
The poem "rites of passage", by Sharon Olds, depicts the birthday party of her first grade son. As the poem goes on, one can see the metaphoric imagery laid in to resemble the coming of age for a man. Men will have "hands in pockets" as "they stand around jostling, jockeying for a place" in the world.
The poem, for me, seems to be one which pokes fun at the assumptive role a man must play when surrounded by other men. This being said, the boys here are learning at a young age that they must fill the role early so as not to lose their self-recognized place in society.
The poem does not speak to the norm in regards to a first grade birthday party. Instead, it speaks to the rite of passage that a boy must take to become a man.
This playful-seeming poem contains wonderfully fun imagery, as the boys stand around, clearing their throats like little bankers. What has alwasy struck me about this poem, however, is the war-like imagery: the cake looks like a turret; the boys are refered to as generals; and their talk turns to a debate on what age child they might have the strength to kill if put to that test. The "rite of passage" is certainly one from childhood to manhood, but I think Olds wants us to recognize that the capacity for violence -- the taste for it, even -- is evident in boys at a young age.