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About Sharon Olds

Jacque Kahn

Sharon Olds was born in 1942 in San Francisco. She was, in her own words, raised as a "hellfire Calvinist." After graduating from Stanford she moved east to earn a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University. Olds describes the completion of her doctorate as a transitional moment in her life: standing on the steps of the library at Columbia University, she vowed to become a poet, even if it meant giving up everything she had learned. In one respect, Olds’s imaginary sacrifice of her graduate education was an essential precondition for her artistic development. As a graduate student Olds had struggled to emulate the poets she studied. The vow she made--to write her own poetry, no matter how bad it might be--freed her to develop her own voice.

Olds has published eight volumes of poetry. Her first collection, Satan Says (1980), received the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award. Satan Says responds to what Olds describes as some of her early poetic questions: "Is there anything that shouldn’t or can’t be written about in a poem? What has never been written about in a poem?" Startling readers with candid language and explicit imagery, Satan Says trangresses socially imposed silences. The poems explore intensely personal themes with unflinching physicality, enacting what Alicia Ostriker describes as an "erotics of family love and pain."(28).

Olds’ second volume, The Dead and the Living, won the 1983 Lamont Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The collection opens with "public" poems that examine a series of historical photographs. The "private" poems that follow are family portraits of grandparents, parents, and children. The Dead and the Living merges historical themes with privates lives, as one critic points out, "to chart a new attitude toward history" and "suggest a fundamental similarity and continuity between our public stories and our private ones." (Phelan 16).

Following The Dead and the Living, Olds published The Gold Cell, (1987) The Father, (1992), The Wellspring, (1996) and Blood, Tin, Straw (1999). The Father, a series of poems about a daughter’s loss of her father to cancer, was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and was a finalist for The National Book Critics’ Circle Award. As in her earlier works, Sharon Olds continues to witness pain, love, desire, and grief with relentless courage. In the words of Michael Ondaatje, her poems are "pure fire in the hands."

Olds’s work is anthologized in over 100 collections, ranging from literary/poetry textbooks to special collections. Her poetry has been translated into seven languages for international publications.

Sharon Olds teaches poetry workshops in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University and helps run the N.Y.U. workshop program at Goldwater Hospital in New York. She is the New York State Poet Laureate for 1998-2000.

Works Cited

Ostriker, Alicia. "American Poetry, Now Shaped by Women." New York Times Book Review 9 March 1986:27-28+.

Phelan, Peggy. "Intimations of Mortality." The Women’s Review of Books February 1984: 16-17.

Thomas F. Dillingham

As a poet, Olds' work bas been lavishly praised and fiercely condemned: . . .

To her admirers, Olds is a poet of direct physicality and painful honesty, depicting aspects of family life and of personal relationships that have rarely been described in such intimate or graphic terms. The same qualities prompt her detractors, most famously the critic Helen Vendler, to describe her work as self- indulgent, sensationalist, and even pornographic. There seems to be little middle ground in the matter. Like other confessional poets, such as W. D. Snodgrass or Anne Sexton, Olds explores the pain of living in dysfunctional families as well as the sensuous pleasures of marital sexual bliss. Her language is explicit and, as she admits herself, may be embarrassing to some readers. In The Wellspring (1995), she describes an outdoors act of oral lovemaking, evoking precisely the sights and sensations of exploring her husband's genitals and finally arriving at "another world / I had thought I would have to die to reach." This poem, like many others, forces the question raised by confessional poets—to what extent is the "I" of the poem identical with the poet, and therefore bow much of the narrated experience and evoked feeling must be considered autobiographical. But Olds insists on the beauty as well as the humor of her references to intimate body parts and activities—she celebrates the sensuous and cherishes the physical, even the parts usually left unmentioned, unrepresented. That this might offend some readers is not her concern; in revealing the repressed, she moves to heal the sick and soothe the injured. It seems likely that some, at least, of the "offence" is because of Olds' gender: many male poets have celebrated their sexuality and their fascination with women's bodies in explicit terms with little resulting condemnation; that a woman would not only treat men's bodies as sexual objects, but would also comment on her children's eroticism and explore the erotic bonds between a mother and her children—and even a daughter's with her father—still has, apparently, greater shock value.

In addition to displaying what is concealed, Olds seems to offer dreadful experiences explored in depth as cathartic. Her book length sequence, The Father (1992), is devoted entirely to her memories of growing up with a hapless, hurtful alcoholic father and her struggle to reconcile those memories with the impulse to forgive and love the dying man. Her disgust with his life comes through as she encounters a man who is his double: "the pitted, swelled, fruit-sucker / skin cheeks lips of the alcoholic." Her descriptions of his cancerous decline and her relief when he is gone are brutally honest, both about her hatred of his past and her mixed feelings about the love he expresses for her on his deathbed and her own for him: "a while after he died, / I suddenly thought, with amazement, he will always / love me now, and I laughed—he was dead, dead!" While the experience for the reader can be harrowing, the emotional impact probably does achieve the release through recognition that Olds seeks in her work. Olds has learned, since the calculated shocks of her first book, Satan Says (1980), to orchestrate her themes, as she does successfully in her two most recent books, finding variations on themes that serve to conceal to some extent the recapitulations.

Readers have observed an almost cinematic quality to the organization of each of Olds' books; she shifts both time and space as though editing footage from the past and from the present moment, sometimes offering almost painful close-ups, other times long shots that seem to encompass the whole history of humanity. While these tactics provide variety and surprise in her books, some have observed a sameness in them that prompts concern; a poet who is locked in the matter of body and family, whose only connections to the larger world are metaphorical, may soon find the limits of variation. The emotional power and psychological depth of Olds' poetic output are impressive, but the need for new perspectives and techniques is increasingly apparent.

from Encylopedia of American Literature. Steven R. Serafin, General Editor. Copyright 1999 by the Continuum Publishing Company.

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