Olds, Sharon

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OLDS, Sharon

Nationality: American. Born: San Francisco, California, 19 November 1942. Education: Stanford University, California, B.A. (honors) 1964; Columbia University, New York, Ph.D. 1972. Career: Lecturer-in-residence on poetry, Theodor Herzl Institute, New York, 1976–80; visiting teacher of poetry, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York, 1982, Nathan Mayhew Seminars, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, 1982, YMCA, New York, 1982, Poetry Society of America, 1983, Squaw Valley Writers' Conference, 1984–90, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1984, Goldwater Hospital, Roosevelt Island, New York, since 1985, Columbia University, New York, 1985–86, and State University of New York, Purchase, 1986–87; Fanny Hurst Chair in literature, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1986–87; adjunct professor, 1983–90, director, 1988–91, and since 1990, associate professor, Graduate Program in Creative Writing, New York University. Awards: Creative Arts Public Service award, 1978; Madeline Sadin award, 1978; Guggenheim fellowship, 1981–82; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1982–83; Lamont prize, 1984; National Book Critics Circle award, 1985; Lila Wallace/ Reader's Digest fellowship grant, 1993–96; Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, New York State Writers Institute, 1998; New York State Poet, 1998. Agent: c/o Alfred A. Knopf, 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Address: Graduate Program in Creative Writing, New York University, 19 University Place, Room 200, New York, New York 10003–4556, U.S.A.



Satan Says. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh Press, and London, Feffer and Simons, 1980.

The Dead and the Living. New York, Knopf, 1984.

The Gold Cell. New York, Knopf, 1987.

The Matter of This World: New and Selected Poems. Nottingham, Slow Dancer Press, 1987.

The Sign of Saturn. London, Martin Secker and Warburg, 1991.

The Father. New York, Knopf, 1992; London, Martin Secker and Warburg, 1993.

The Wellspring: Poems. New York, Knopf, 1995; London, Cape, 1996.

Blood, Tin, Straw. New York, Knopf, 1999.

Recording: Coming Back to Life, Watershed, 1984.


Critical Studies: "Sharon Olds: Painful Insights and Small Beauties" by Jonah Bornstein, in Literary Cavalcade (New York), January 1989; "American Visionaries: Helen Keller and the Poets Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, and Sharon Olds," in Women against the Iron Fist: Alternatives to Militarism 1900–1989, by Sybil Oldfield, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Blackwell, 1989; "Talking to Our Father: The Political and Mythical Appropriations of Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds" by Suzanne Matson, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), November/December 1989; "Sharon Olds Gathers Students into Poetry Family" by Rosemary Klein, in Kimball Mountain Observer, April 1992; "Olds Breaks New Poetic Ground" by Fran Fanshed in Columbia Flier, 5 November 1992; "'Never Having Had You, I Cannot Let You Go': Sharon Olds's Poems of a Father-Daughter Relationship" by Brian Dillon, in Literary Review (Madison, New Jersey), 37(1), fall 1993; "Sentencing Eros" by Calvin Bedient, in Salmagundi (Saratoga Springs, New York), 97, winter 1993; "I Am (Not) This: Erotic Discourse in Bishop, Olds, and Stevens" by Alicia Ostriker, in Wallace Stevens Journal (Potsdam, New York), 19(2), fall 1995; "A Note on Two Poems by Sharon Olds" by Martin Kich, in Notes on Contemporary Literature (Carrollton, Georgia), 26(2), March 1996; 'I Have Always Longed to Believe in What I Am Seeing': Sharon Olds's Revisioning of Confessional Poetry (dissertation) by Richard Benjamin Poverny, Rutgers University, 1996; "Death-Watch: Terminal Illness and the Gaze in Sharon Olds's 'The Father'" by Laura E. Tanner, in Mosaic (Canada), 29(1), March 1996; "Olds's 'My Father Speaks to Me from the Dead'" by Peter C. Scheponik, in Explicator (Washington, D.C.), 57(1), fall 1998.

Sharon Olds comments:

I began by working in close forms and then more and more wanted a line break and a poem shape (the body of the poem on the page) that felt more alive to me.

Questions that interest me include, Is there anything that should not or cannot be written about in a poem? What has never been written about in a poem? What is the use, function, service of poetry in a society? For whom are you writing? (The dead, the unborn, the woman in front of you in the checkout line at Shop-Rite?)

I teach poetry workshops at New York University and at Goldwater Hospital, a New York City public hospital for the severely physically disabled. "If you do not bring forth that which is within you, that which is within you will destroy you. If you bring forth that which is within you, that which is within you will save you." (Heretical Gospel of Thomas)

Poets of the generation just ahead of mine whose work I have especially learned from and loved: Muriel Rukeyser, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Ruth Stone.

*  *  *

Sharon Olds's poetry is intimate and personal, wrenched from her own life. Prosaic yet precise, it has a diamond-sharp clarity that makes it too hard to be confessional. It lacks the bitterness and anger so often found in contemporary women's poetry, as well as the wit and irony that tend to accompany such bitterness. Though not overtly spiritual, her work has an almost religious purity; it is cathartic. While some may find her grounding in domestic life too mundane, most readers are shocked and exhilarated by the extraordinary candor of her material and the lyricism with which she presents it. The work is strong, vibrant, and celebratory, a far cry from the neurasthenic expositions of such predecessors as Emily Dickinson.

Olds's first collection, Satan Says, was described by Marilyn Hacker as "daring and elegant." It dealt with the experiences of adolescence and early motherhood. Whitmanesque in its celebration of the body and the self, it spoke with a confidence and eroticism rare in first collections. Poems like "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure" are remarkably frank: "As soon as my sisters and I got out of our / mother's house, all we wanted to / do was fuck, obliterate / her tiny sparrow body and narrow / grasshopper legs. The men's bodies / were like our father's body! … we could have him there, the steep forbidden / buttocks, backs of the knees, the cock / in our mouth, ah the cock in our mouth …" In a poem like "Prayer," which parallels the birth of a first child with a first sexual encounter, Olds contributes to the small but healthy branch of poetry that explores women's most intimate experiences. And in "The Language of the Brag," also about childbirth, she challenges the elders, placing her own work at the center of the American tradition:

...I have lain down and sweated and shaken
and passed blood and feces and water and
slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have
passed the new person out
and they have lifted the new person free of the act
and wiped the new person free of that
language of blood like praise all over the body.
I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, l have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.

Olds's second book, The Dead and the Living, won awards from both the American Academy of Poets and the National Book Critics. An exquisite collection, it displays a deepening and refining of her art. The first section, "Poems for the Dead," begins with poems honoring both public and anonymous figures, from Marilyn Monroe to the starving Armenians of 1921. The chilling "Aesthetics of the Shah" begins, "The first thing you notice / is the skill / used on the ropes, the narrow close-grained / hemp against that black cloth / the bodies are wrapped in …" "The Issue," about racial tension in Rhodesia, gives a detailed description of a bayoneted black baby, ending with the lines "Don't speak to me about / politics. I've got eyes, man." These poems, her most overtly political, move beyond the partisan to express a general compassion for humanity. Also in this section are poems for dead relatives, among which is "Miscarriage," with its stark realization that

...I never went back
to mourn the one who came as far as the
sill with its information: that we could
botch something, you and I...

The second section, "Poems for the Living," deals with childhood, love, marriage, and children—"the tasting, and the / giving of life." Several of the poems are about a drunken, abusive father and a weak, abused mother. They reveal extraordinary pain and potential hatred, but, as always in Olds's work, the subjects are redeemed through confrontation and acceptance. As honest with herself as she is relentless with her subjects, the poet confesses in the magnificent "The Fear of Oneself" that "… you say you believe I would hold up under torture / for the sake of our children … It is all I have wanted to do, / to stand between them and pain. But I come from a / long line / of women / who put themselves / first …"

Olds's third collection, The Gold Cell, concentrates on personal relationships in poems about motherhood, love, and lust. "Greed and Aggression," for example, begins, "Someone in the Quaker meeting talks about greed and aggression / and I think of the way I lay the massive / weight of my body down on you / like a tiger lying down in gluttony and pleasure on the / elegant heavy body of the eland it eats…" In this collection, as in her earlier ones, Olds celebrates the savage, fragile chaos of life with poems such as "Summer Solstice, New York City," which ends after a tense, dramatic description of a man trying to jump off a building:

...and they closed on him, I thought they were going to
beat him up, as a mother whose child has been
lost will scream at the child when it's found, they
took him by the arms and held him up and
leaned him against the wall of the chimney and the
tall cop lit a cigarette
in his mouth, and gave it to him, and
then they all lit cigarettes, and the
ed, glowing ends burned like the
tiny campfires we lit at night
back at the beginning of the world.

—Katie Campbell