Explication Of Sharon Old\'s Poem, "Late Poem To My Father"

Sharon Olds’ poem “Late Poem to My Father” exposes the profound effect that childhood
trauma can have on someone, even in adulthood. The speaker of the poem invokes sadness and
pity in the reader by reflecting on the traumatic childhood of her father, and establishes a cause
and effect relationship between the abuse he endured as a child and the dependence he develops
on alcohol as an adult. The idea of emotional retardation caused by childhood experiences is not
uncommon, especially in our modern world of prevalent substance abuse, dysfunctional families,
and child abuse. However, Olds’ poem is a moving testament to this tragic loss of innocence due
to the powerful imagery she weaves throughout the first half of the poem. In addition, Olds
skillfully uses figurative language and deliberate line breaks throughout the poem to develop the
dismal sorrow her speaker feels while reflecting on the childhood of her father.
The poem opens with the speaker experiencing an epiphany while contemplating on her
father’s childhood, and later in the poem we learn that this contemplation is more specifically
focused on the causes of her father’s dependence on alcohol. In the first seven lines of the poem
she uses descriptive details to establish a dark, foreboding image of the setting. For example, in
lines two and three she describes the house with “unlit rooms” and a “hot fireplace”. She goes on
to portray her father as “a boy of seven, helpless, smart,...” which reinforces his innocence in this
imagery of darkness. It is interesting to note how the speaker distinguishes these details, yet in
lines three and six, she refers to her father’s father only as “the man”. She intentionally refers to
him in this flat way so as to convey to the reader that he is unworthy of any characterization. She
also omits characterization in line six when she writes, “there were things the man did near you,”
purposely emphasizing “things” with no other explanation. This leads to the assumption that some
actions are too abominable to convey in words, thus leaving us with a vast array of uncomfortable
possibilities to consider. The description of the “sweet apples picked at their peak...rotted and
rotted,”in lines nine and ten establishes a comparison between her father’s loss of innocence, and
the ripe fruit being left to waste. In line eleven she writes, “past the cellar door the creek ran and
ran” which is a contrast to the apples being trapped within the cellar (like the child in the house),
and the creek being on the outside, where the idea of escape exists. The silent actions of the
apples and the creek are parallel to each other as well.
The realization the speaker comes upon during her pondering is stated in lines twelve and
thirteen, “something was not given to you, or something was taken from you that you were born
with,”. This line is crucial because not only does it present the overall theme of the poem, but
also the line breaks are placed after “something was” in each line, which presents the idea more
vividly to the reader. This placement of line breaks is prevalent throughout the poem, and often
Olds ends a line in mid-sentence to draw emphasis to the particular image or action she wants
acknowledged. Another good example of this is in line seventeen when the line ends after “the
poison to help you” and the next line continues with “drop down unconscious”. It is possible she
is conveying to the reader that her father truly viewed the alcohol as a means of “help”, but in the
next line she uncovers what its actual purpose served.
Olds goes beyond literal imagery with her use of figurative language, namely metaphors, to
introduce key ideas in a more dramatic manner. The most significant example of this is in lines
twenty-two through twenty-five in which she writes, “the tiny bones inside his soul twisted in
greenstick fractures, the small tendons that hold the heart in place snapped.” This metaphor is
used to unveil the emotional damage done to the speaker’s father as a result of the child abuse. It
is one of the most striking lines in the entire poem due to the sympathy it solicits from the reader.
Other examples of metaphorical language include the comparison of alcohol to “oily medicine”
and “poison”. Also, in line eight the father’s father is described as