Sharon Olds' poem "Rites of Passage" is a mother's-eye-view of her six- or seven-year-old son's birthday party. The mother/speaker sees this group of young boys as "short men, men in first grade," and "a room of small bankers." This is a group which is alien to her, which she does not understand, which, perhaps, she fears, or even hates. She sees them as little men because, one might assume, she knows men and understands men better, or at least knows them as violent and threatening cliches and stereotypes.
The poem fails for this reader primarily because it is simply not believable that these boys, who must be assumed to know one another (they are all friends of the son, and likely neighbors and schoolmates), would behave as the poet has them behave. This reader is also confused by the contradictions in he poet's tone and voice. It is difficult to decide if the poet wants us to see the mother as amused or frightened, as ironic or paranoid. If she intended this contradiction for purposes of mystery, she has succeeded only in irritating and alienating this reader from the poem.
The poet, unfortunately, has chosen to paint an unrealistic world full of boys who are not boys but projections of the poet's fear of boys and men, and, then, even more inauthentically, has chosen her own son to star in the piece as a wise figure who takes the starch out of the other boys' proclivity to war.
Every poet wants the reader to enter into the poem and experience it. This poet wants readers to see first-grade boys as little men, and wants us to see both boys and men as creatures tending to battle, violence, war. The tone she uses is on its surface one of bemusement, and there may also be intended an irony meant to belie the speaker's apparent alienation from these boy-men. We are being asked to see these boys as the mother sees them, as actually playing the challenging games, as slaves to their masculine genetics, but the details she uses t...