The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sharon Olds’s “The Death of Marilyn Monroe” is a brief free-verse poem consisting of five grammatical sentences arranged into twenty-six lines and divided into four verse paragraphs. Only the title identifies the deceased of the poem as famous actress Marilyn Monroe. The poem concentrates on “the ambulance men” who transported her corpse. The second sentence indicates the focus of the poem: “These men were never the same.” The remainder of the poem describes how the lives of the three paramedics were altered by their encounter with the dead celebrity: One becomes depressed and impotent; one grows alienated from his job and changes his thoughts on mortality; one finds his attitude toward his wife subtly altered.

The poem works by implication, developing a tension between the fame of the ostensible titular subject and the effects on ordinary people who encountered her shortly after death. The poem is not an elegy in the formal sense of a sustained meditation on grave subjects occasioned by a death, nor is it in elegiac meter or in the form of the English pastoral elegy. Nevertheless, the poem is a brief meditation on mortality, sexuality, and celebrity, and it draws its inspiration from an encounter with death. Thus, the term elegy seems justified in categorizing the poem, as long as one qualifies it as a contemporary, free-verse elegy.