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American poet Sharon Olds is a highly regarded, prize-winning poet who uses an intensely personal voice to explore themes of domestic and political violence, sexuality, and family relationships. Frequently associated with the confessional school of poetry, Olds has attained the status of a major figure in contemporary American poetry. Her poems are considered highly accessible, and they appeal to a wide audience. Olds s work is viewed in the tradition of Walt Whitman as a celebration of the body, in all its pleasures and pains, and is believed to particularly resonate with female readers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Counter-Culture Childhood
Olds was born in San Francisco, California, on November 19, 1942. She was raised in Berkeley, California. Because she does not discuss her family publicly, little is known or has been confirmed about her childhood and family. What is known is that she was an avid reader as a child, wrote poems from an early age, and was raised in a very ”hellfire-and-brimstone”-type religious family. When Olds was sixteen years old, a shoe shop opened in Berkeley where custom-made sandals were designed from an outline of a customer’s foot. This shop was her first look at a different world, what became the counter-culture movement of the 1960s whose ideals she embraced.
Much of the 1960s counter-culture movement was centered on the West Coast and the emerging generation of baby boomers. On campuses like the University of California at Berkeley, student groups led massive rallies to protest the Vietnam War and military research being conducted on campus in the mid-1960s, and to defend their freedom of speech and the civil rights movement. Also during this time, the Black Panthers, a major group affiliated with the Black Power movement, was organized in San Francisco. They demanded civil rights for African Americans and supported militant action to get them. Also in San Francisco, a new bohemian lifestyle emerged that supported ideals of free love, legalized marijuana, and the use of drugs such as LSD to have groundbreaking visions and experiences. These hippies were the second generation of beatniks and they refused to conform to the values and ways of greater American society. The climax of the hippie movement was the Summer of Love in 1967, when the hippie message began to significantly affect mainstream American society.
A Poet Emerges
Though Olds was greatly influenced by this era, she was initially educated far away from it—at the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts. In the early 1960s, she returned to California to attend Stanford, where she earned her BA with honors in 1964. Olds then moved to New York City to enter a graduate program in English at Columbia University. There she studied Ralph Waldo Emerson and wrote her own poetry. She earned her PhD in 1972.
From 1976 to 1980, Olds was a lecturer-in-residence on poetry at the Theodor Herzl Institute. Olds was thirty-seven years old when she published her first book of poetry in 1980, Satan Says, an event that she said was partly due to pure luck. Many of the poems focus on the primal emotions produced by child abuse. In the title poem, for example, Olds juxtaposes sexually charged imagery with feelings of rage toward her parents. However, in purging herself of violent emotions, the narrator moves unexpectedly toward love and reconciliation.
During the early and mid-1980s, Olds worked on her next volume while holding a number of positions as visiting teacher of poetry at reputable institutions. These included the Manhattan Theater Club and the Poetry Center at the YMCA of New York City (where she taught in 1982), New York University (where she taught in 1983 and 1985), and Sarah Lawrence College (where she taught in 1984). Her next collection of poetry, The Dead and the Living (1984), won two major awards: the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets in 1984 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985.
Focus on Trauma
In The Dead and the Living, Olds expands her focus on her traumatic childhood to include poems that tenderly depict the activities of her children and her own role as a mother. Her concern with victims and their emotional healing is extended to the public sphere in poems that describe crimes of political persecution and social injustice. She also uses photographs to illustrate these problems. Olds continued to explore similar themes in The Gold Cell (1987), which likewise emphasizes sexuality, the primacy of body, and family life. The poems employ autobiographical material to tell stories of birth, sex, and death with an unflinching, unsentimental honesty. She also celebrates the erotic mother-child relationship.
By the publication of The Dead and the Living, Olds was working as a visiting teacher of poetry at Goldwater Hospital, an institution for the severely physically disabled. She held this position from 1985 to 1990 but continued to teach there in some capacity for years afterward as well. Olds was also a visiting teacher of poetry at Columbia University from 1985 to 1986 and held the Fanny Hurst Chair at Brandeis University from 1986 to 1987. In 1992 Olds became an associate professor at New York University and later helmed the school’s graduate program in creative writing.
Even with these many teaching appointments, Olds continued to create her own original work. In 1991 she published The Sign of Saturn: Poems 1980-1987 (1991), a selection of poems from previous books titled under the baleful influence of Saturn, the father who ate his children. The Sign of Saturn was followed by a new collection, The Father (1992). The poems in this volume express the poet’s grief and compassion for her father during his death from cancer. She uses scatological and sexually explicit language to describe the deterioration of his body, which becomes a metaphor for his dismal failings as an abusive, alcoholic parent. Similarly, the well-constructed verse poems in The Wellspring: Poems (1996) continued to look at her childhood and tense relationship with her parents, her own children and ideas about motherhood, and love in marriage.
After receiving the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poets in 1998 and beginning a four-year tenure of the New York state poet laureateship, Olds published Blood, Tin, Straw in 1999. This collection continued the exploration of childhood abuse. Her next volume of poetry, The Unswept Room (2002), moves away from father-related imagery to focus on mothers and maternal-related images. It also reflects the happier perspective of a late-middle-aged woman. The title poem, ”The Unswept Room,” describes a depiction of a feast rendered on the mosaic-tiled floor of Museo Gregoriano Profano.
Another Era of Activism
A year after she published another retrospective—Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 19802002 (2004)—Olds made national headlines when she refused an invitation from First Lady Laura Bush to come to the White House. Olds turned it down in order to protest the ongoing war in Iraq, believing her acceptance of the invitation would be seen as condoning the war and the Bush presidency. In early 2003, a United States-led coalition invaded Iraq, toppling the regime led by Saddam Hussein. The invasion was controversial, as was the long-term occupation that followed. Though Olds declined the White House invitation, she did attend the related National Book Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
In 2008 Olds published One Secret Thing, which included a section of poems titled ”War” as well as four sections about family, mother, sex, and emerging womanhood. Olds continues to live in New York City, teach at New York University, and write poetry.
Works in Literary Context
In much of her early verse, Olds examines her roles as daughter and mother. Her painful memories of her parents are rendered in uncompromising, often sexually explicit, language. In other poems, she expresses sorrow and outrage for the victims of war and political violence. Her seamless linkage ofdomestic and public abuse indicates the universal scope of her compassion and poetic vision. While Olds also focused on her father in early collections, maternal and mother-related images predominate in later volumes. The poet herself regarded her poems as observations inspired by ordinary life that were not simple or abstract but reflective of the way she experienced life. Her poetry falls within the modernist tradition of poets such as Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein, who sought to use the contemporary idiom of language in poetry. As a writer, Olds was also influenced by her life and family as well as the events and counter-culture of the 1960s.
Specific Language and Imagery
As Olds is intimate and candid in her writing, her poetry is precise and concrete in its use of imagery. Her language has an exhilarating, vibrant, and celebratory quality, despite the often morbid and unhappy subjects of her poetry. She daringly presents the familiar details of a woman’s life using frank language traditionally taboo to female writers. In short, Olds uses language very explicitly. This blunt use is evident in her very first collection, Satan Says. These poems explore the difficulties of finding a language sufficiently broad and expansive with which to define one’s relationship with others without compromising the complexities and differences of those relationships. In The Dead and the Living, Olds uses complex and sharp images as she attempts to re-create the past as a means of liberating the present and the future. Similarly, the poems in The Gold Cell are written with clarity and precision. They feature engrossing metaphors and a carefully crafted tone that runs the risk of sentimentality but does not fall into it—instead, truthfulness and integrity prevail in the poems. Later collections like One Secret Thing also feature well-written free verse with raw and vivid poems about similar subjects.
Focus on Self and Family
Because much of Olds’s inspiration for her work apparently comes from own life and her family, the themes of many of her poems are related to these subjects, including personal relationships and self-perception. For example, Satan Says is a passionate volume that is divided into sections titled ”Daughter,” ”Woman,” ”Mother,” and ”Journey.” The poems explore the central meanings of love and shared experience through an investigation of the ”other,” which is estranged from the self, such as the alter ego, family, friends, and lovers. In The Dead and the Living, many of the poems focus on the family, which, like Olds’s first book, tell the story of a traumatic childhood in graphic physical and emotional detail. The cast of characters include a cruel grandfather, drunken and violent father, a bitter and passive mother, and a sadistic sister. The book also contains poems that seem to be about Olds’s children and her experience as a mother, so that in this book the child victim becomes the mature survivor. The Gold Cell also concentrates on personal relationships with poems about motherhood, love, and lust. In poems like ”Boy Out in the World” and ”Looking at Them Asleep,” Olds writes tenderly about her children. The poems in The Father are more concretely about family concerns as they explore the responses of a daughter to her unloving father’s slow death from cancer. Olds describes his illness, final days, and death in a series of graphic, narrowly focused poems. Later collections share these concerns, including The Unswept Room,which includes more mother-daughter poems as well as the poet’s own reflections on reaching middle age.
Works in Critical Context
For many critics, Olds’s predilection for sexual description and horrific subject matter is integral to the emotional catharsis of the narrator and necessary to create empathy for both victims and their abusers. Other reviewers, while recognizing the struggle for forgiveness and redemption in her work, contend it exhibits a morbid obsession with violence and profanity. Some critics have also felt her work lacks depth, revels in graphic images, and is narcissistic. In spite of these objections, Olds’s poetry has been widely praised for its compelling narration, inventive use of metaphor, and scrupulous honesty in rendering extremely personal emotions and experiences.
The Dead and the Living
Many critics judged Olds’s second collection as compelling and moving. In a review for the Nation, Richard Tillinghast commented that ”While Satan Says was possible to ignore because of its raw power, The Dead and the Living is a considerable step forward. . . . Olds is a keen and accurate observer of people.” Writing in America, Elizabeth Gaffney also found the collection to be strong. She wrote, ”Out of private revelations she makes poems of universal truth, of sex, death, fear, love. Her poems are sometimes jarring, unexpected, bold, but always loving and deeply rewarding.” However, Tillinghast felt that Olds’s attempts ”to establish political analogies to private brutalization . . . are not very convincing. . . . This becomes a mannerism, representing political thinking only at the superficial level.” Nevertheless, Tillinghast conceded that The Dead and the Living ”has the chastening impact of a powerful documentary.”
The Unswept Room
Like The Dead and the Living, The Unswept Room also received generally positive reviews. Writing in the Guardian, Carol Rumens stated that ”The Unswept Room has a maternal slant.” She added, ”Often perceived as a faltering, other worldly voice, a nymph or dryad crying, singing, or softly complaining, mother elicits a more fluttering and uncertain response from her daughter-confessor.” Kate Daniels in Women’s Review of Books found the collection challenging. She wrote that ”without abandoning her characteristic intensity, [Olds] continues to disquiet and decenter, but in a newly ruminative voice that bespeaks the journey of mid-life.” Daniels also observed that ”as carefully as an archeologist, [Olds] combs through the accoutrements of a life in late middle age,” and added that ”clearly, the philosophical and spiritual development within so many of the poems in The Unswept Room suggests a poet who is preparing herself for the remainder of life rather than mourning her past or bemoaning lost opportunities.”
- Swiontkowski, Gale. Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich and Old on Life with Daddy. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2003.
- Bornstein, Jonah. ”Sharon Olds: Painful Insights and Small Beauties.” Literary Cavalcade (January 1989).
- Daniels, Kate. ”Gritty and Alive.” Women’s Review of Books (May 2003): 16.
- Dillon, Brian. ”’Never Having Had You, I Cannot Let You Go’: Sharon Olds’ Poems of a Father-Daughter Relationship” Literary Review: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing (March 1993): 108-118.
- Gaffney, Elizabeth. A review of The Dead and the Living. America (June 30, 1984).
- Rumens, Carol. A review of The Unswept Rom. Guardian (April 26, 2003).
- Scheponik, Peter C. ”Olds’s ‘My Father Speaks to Me from the Dead.”’ Explicator (Fall 1998): 59-62.
- –. ”Olds’s ‘The Pope’s Penis.”’ Explicator (Fall 2000): 52-54. Tanner, Laura E. ”Death-Watch: Terminal Illness and the Gaze in Sharon Olds’ ‘The Father.”’ Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature (March 1996): 103-121.
- Tillinghast, Richard. A review of The Dead and the Living. America (October 13, 1984).
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