“Olds writes “poetry more faithful to the felt truth of reality than any prose could be.” – Richard Wakefield.
About Sharon Olds
Sharon Olds was born in San Francisco in 1942. She studied at Stanford University and received her PhD from Columbia University, where she wrote a thesis on Ralph Waldo Emerson. She has published twelve books of poems, including Satan Says (1980), The Father (1992), Stag’s Leap (2012), Odes (2016) and, most recently, Arias (2019). One of the most celebrated and admired American poets of her generation, she has received a wide array of awards for her work, including the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Wallace Stevens Award. Between 1998 and 2000 she served as the Poet Laureate of New York State. She lives in New York City, and teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University, where she helped to found the NYU workshop program for residents of Coler-Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island, and for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Olds is perhaps most widely celebrated for her candid, vivid poems addressing the realities of bodily experience as a woman, a daughter, a parent, and a spouse. Her descriptions of bodies are intensely sensual, and the close attention she pays to them is motivated, as she writes in ‘Exclusive’, by an awareness of the impermanence of the moment of perception:
I lie on the beach, watching you
as you lie on the beach, memorising you
against the time when you will not be with me:
your empurpled lips, swollen in the sun
and smooth as the inner lips of a shell
One of Olds’s strengths as a poet is to write passages which read frictionlessly, but which on close inspection reveal complex and subtle formal patterning. The fluent and clear passage above, for example, is remarkable for the ways in which its language dramatises and enhances the image and situation the poet describes. The placement of pronouns in the opening three lines here is superbly controlled: the poem develops from a straightforward description of setting (‘I lie on the beach, watching you’), in which the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ are placed in close proximity at either end of an eight-syllable line, to the third line, in which the ‘you’ and the ‘me’ are separated from one another by virtue of a line-break and an extended, eleven-syllable line. In this way, the poem performs for us the gradual process of separation between parent and child which the poem goes on to describe. After the plainness and subtlety of this opening passage, the elaborate archaism of ‘empurpled’ is a dramatic moment of distension—of swelling—in the otherwise conversational diction of the poem, allowing the reader to experience the ‘swelling’ the passage describes; an anomaly which, through an intricate system of consonantal echoes, is nevertheless fully integrated into the soundscape of the rest of the poem. Olds is often celebrated for the clarity of her writing, but it is important to note how the impression of transparency is achieved only through formidable technical skill.
In addition to her descriptive and technical virtuosity, Olds is known for her ability to write poems of striking emotional candour and openness, in which the affective life of the poet is connected obliquely to questions of class, race, gender, national history and religious identity. In the remarkable ’Grey Girl’, included in her recording for the Archive, she describes herself walking down Park Avenue with the poets Yusuf Konumyakaa and Toi Derricotte. Olds proceeds to analyse her desire to tell these two poets about her knowledge of ‘white people’, about the particulars of her own upbringing, and her underlying desire in this moment to ‘win something in the war of the family, to rant in the faces / of the war-struck about her home-front pain’. What makes Olds’s more explicitly political poetry compelling, as in this instance, is her disinterest in exemplary conduct; rather, she examines closely a moment of complex self-absorption, and it is exactly this difficult work of self-scrutiny which gives rise to the poem’s most illuminating moments. ‘It is hard to see oneself as dangerous / and stupid, but what I had said was true’, she writes, and there is something in these two lines which illuminates a central principle of Olds’s project. Her work privileges the idea of saying the ‘true’ at the expense of other considerations, perhaps above all the question of how she, personally, might be perceived. If, at times, this has meant that her work has encountered resistance from a patriarchal poetic culture uncomfortable with her subject matter—notoriously, early in her career she received her rejection letter recommending she send her poems to Ladies’ Home Journal—the pursuit of truth in her writing has expanded the terrain of contemporary poetry, creating a space for a generation of subsequent poets to write poetry about their lives in a new way.
Her remarkably controlled and nuanced readings of her poems here, drawn from across her career, help to deepen our appreciation of her whole body of work.
Sharon Olds Poetry Archive recording session took place on 16th May 2018 at Gotham Lab, New York
Poems by Sharon Olds
Featured in the Archive
Books by Sharon Olds
The Dead and the Living
The Gold Cell
Knopf 1992 / Jonathan Cape 2009, 1992
Blood, Tin, Straw
The Unswept Room
One Secret Thing
National Endowment for the Arts Grant in Poetry
John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship Grant
National Book Critics Circle Award - The Dead and the Living
Shortlisted – T.S. Eliot Award - The Father
Finalist – Lenore Marshall Award, Academy of American Poets - Blood, Tin, Straw
Finalist – National Book Critics Circle Award - The Unswept Room
Finalist – National Book Award - The Unswept Room
Shortlisted – T.S. Eliot Prize - One Secret Thing
Winner – Pulitzer Prize - Stag's Leap
Winner – T.S. Eliot Award - Stag's Leap
Wallace Stevens Award, Academy of American Poets