Olds, Sharon 1942-
OLDS, Sharon 1942-
CAREER: Poet. Lecturer-in-residence on poetry at Theodor Herzl Institute, 1976-80; visiting teacher of poetry at Manhattan Theater Club, 1982, Nathan Mayhew Seminars of Martha's Vineyard, 1982, Poetry Center, Young Men's Christian Association of New York City, 1982, Poetry Society of America, 1983, New York University, 1983 and 1985, Sarah Lawrence College, 1984, Goldwater Hospital, Roosevelt Island, NY, 1985-90, Columbia University, 1985-86, and State University of New York College at Purchase, 1986. Holder of Fanny Hurst Chair, Brandeis University, 1986-87; New York University, New York City, associate professor of English, 1992—, acting director of graduate program in creative writing. Founding director, New York University workshop program at Goldwater Hospital, New York City.
MEMBER: Poetry Society of America, PEN, Author's Guild.
AWARDS, HONORS: Grants from Creative Artists Public Service, 1978, Guggenheim fellowship, 1981-82, and National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1982-83; Madeline Sadin Award, New York Quarterly, 1978; younger poets award from Poetry Miscellany, 1979; San Francisco Poetry Center Award, 1981, for Satan Says; Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets, 1984, and National Book Critics Circle Award, 1985, both for The Dead and the Living; T. S. Eliot Prize short list for The Father, 1994; Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, New York State Writers Institute, 1998; named New York State Poet, 1998-2000; nominee for National Book Award in poetry category, 2002, for The Unswept Room; Academy Fellowship, Academy of American Poets, 2002, for "distinguished poetic achievement at mid-career"; Judge, Griffin Poetry Prize, 2003; Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Awards, 2004.
Satan Says, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1980.
The Dead and the Living, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
The Gold Cell, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
The Matter of This World, Slow Dancer Press, 1987.
The Sign of Saturn, Secker & Warburg, 1991.
The Father, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
The Wellspring: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
Blood, Tin, Straw, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
The Unswept Room, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
(Author of foreword) Dent, Tory, What Silence Equals, Persea Books (New York, NY) 1993.
(Author of preface) Rukeyser, Muriel, The Orgy: AnIrish Journey of Passion and Transformation, Paris Press, (Ashfield, MA) 1997.
CONTRIBUTOR TO ANTHOLOGIES
The Norton Introduction to Poetry, 2nd edition, Norton (New York, NY), 1981.
The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary AmericanPoetry, edited by Robert Pack, Sydney Lea, and Jay Parini, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1985.
Three Genres, The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, andDrama, edited by Stephen Minot, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1988.
The Pushcart Prize, VIII: Best of the Small Presses, Wainscott, 1989.
Read to Write, Donald M. Murray, Holt (New York, NY), 1990.
The Longman Anthology of American Poetry: Colonial to Contemporary, edited by Hilary Russell, Longman (New York, NY), 1992.
The Armless Maiden: And Other Tales for Childhood'sSurvivors, edited by Terri Windling, Tor, (New York, NY), 1995.
For a Living: The Poetry of Work, edited by Nicholas Coles and Peter Oresick, University of Illinois Press, (Urbana, IL), 1995.
Our Mothers, Our Selves: Writers and Poets Celebrating Motherhood, edited by J. B. Bernstein, Karen J. Donnelly, Bergin & Garvey Trade, 1996.
The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone edited by Wendy Barker, Sandra M. Gilbert, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1996.
By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, Molly McQuade, editor, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2000.
Literature and its Writers: A Compact Introduction toFiction, Poetry, and Drama, edited by Ann Charters, Samuel Charters, Bedford/St. Martin's, (Boston, MA) 2004.
Contributor to literary journals and magazines, including American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, Atlantic Monthly, Iowa Review, Kayak, Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, Mississippi Review, Ms., New Republic, Nation, New Yorker, Paris Review, Pequod, Ploughshares, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and Yale Review. Olds's works have been translated into Italian, Chinese, French, and Russian.
SIDELIGHTS: Sharon Olds's poetry, which graphically depicts personal family life as well as global political events, has won several prestigious prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award. "Sharon Olds is enormously self-aware," wrote David Leavitt in the Voice Literary Supplement. "Her poetry is remarkable for its candor, its eroticism, and its power to move." Discussing Olds's work in Poetry, Lisel Mueller noted: "By far the greater number of her poems are believable and touching, and their intensity does not interfere with craftsmanship. Listening to Olds, we hear a proud, urgent, human voice."
One of the constant characteristics of Olds's poetry is its accessibility. Her books appeal to a wide audience, and almost all of her work has undergone multiple printings. Her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning volume, The Dead and the Living, alone has sold more than 50,000 copies, ranking her as one of the most profitable of active poets. Her work is viewed in the tradition of Walt Whitman as a celebration of the body, in all its pleasures and pains, and it particularly resonates with women readers. As Charlie Powell put it in a Salon.com piece, "Domesticity, death, erotic love—the stark simplicity of Sharon Olds' subjects, and of her plain-spoken language, can sometimes make her seem like the brooding Earth Mother of American poetry."
Born in 1942 in San Francisco, Olds grew up in Berkeley, California. She attended Stanford University and earned her Ph.D. at Columbia in 1972. She was thirty-seven when she published her first book of poems, and she told Salon.com that her success was partly due to pure luck. "Anyone who can ever do anything is lucky," she said. "It means that there has been enough education, enough peace, enough time, enough whatever, that somebody can sit down and write. Many lives don't allow that, the good fortune of being able to work at it, and try, and keep trying."
Satan Says, Olds's first collection, explores "the roles in which she experiences herself, 'Daughter,' 'Woman,' and 'Mother,'" according to Mueller. In an article for the American Book Review, Joyce Peseroff claimed that throughout Satan Says, "the language often does 'turn neatly about.' In Olds's vocabulary ordinary objects, landscapes—even whole planets—are in constant motion. Using verbs which might seem, at first, almost grotesque, she manages to describe a violent, changing universe. . . . In a way, these poems describe a psychic world as turbulent, sensual, and strange as a world seen under water. . . . Sharon Olds convincingly, and with astonishing vigor, presents a world which, if not always hostile, is never clear about which face it will show her."
In a review for the Nation, Richard Tillinghast commented on The Dead and the Living: "While Satan Says was impossible 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." "I admire Sharon Olds's courage . . . ," declared Elizabeth Gaffney in America. "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." Tillinghast felt, however, 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 book "has the chastening impact of a powerful documentary."
Olds's works were described by Sara Plath in Booklist as "poems of extreme emotions." Critics have found intense feelings of many sorts—humor, anger, pain, terror, and love. "Her poetry focuses on the primacy of the image rather than the 'issues' which surround it," observed Leavitt, "and her best work exhibits a lyrical acuity which is both purifying and redemptive."
Examples of this "primacy of the image" are displayed in The Father, a collection of poems about the death of Olds's father from cancer. While her alcoholic and distant father played a role in many of Olds's earlier poems, here he is the central concern. The author describes his illness, final days, and death in a series of graphic, narrowly focused poems. Writing in Belles Lettres, Lee Upton remarked that the collection "amounts to something close to a spiritual ordeal for the reader, for the poems are wrenching in their candor and detail." American Book Review contributor Steve Kowit stated: "As a coherent sequence of poems, The Father has a most uncommon power—impelling the reader forward with the narrative and dramatic force of a stunning novel." Commenting on the collection's tight focus, Lisa Zeidner in the New York Times Book Review noted that "the deliberate tunnel vision is the book's originality and its liability." Clair Willis of the Times Literary Supplement came to a similar conclusion about the book, commenting: "The volume as a whole is a risky undertaking, nearly marred simply by offering us too much of the same. Yet finally it works." Upton concluded that The Father "is Olds's most important work to date."
Commenting on Olds's achievements in her several volumes of verse, Kowit noted that the poet "has become a central presence in American poetry, her narrative and dramatic power as well as the sheer imagistic panache of her work having won her a large following among that small portion of the general public that still reads verse." That popularity has not met with universal approval from the critics, some of whom have felt that her work lacks depth, revels in graphic images, and is narcissistic. "For a writer whose best poems evince strong powers of observation, Olds spends too much time taking her own emotional temperature," maintained Ken Tucker in the New York Times Book Review. ". . . Everything must return to the poet—her needs, her wants, her disappointments with the world and the people around her." In the New Republic, Adam Kirsch wrote: "Beneath all the surface agitation, all the vulgar language, the programmatically unfeminine sexual bravado, there is a deadening certainty that makes each poem unsurprising. And therefore ultimately consoling: Olds has a devoted and comparatively large following because no reader will ever be brought by any of her poems to question himself."
Other critics have been eager to champion Olds's work. In a Seattle Times review of Blood, Tin, Straw, Richard Wakefield noted that Olds writes "poetry more faithful to the felt truth of reality than any prose could be." Wakefield added: "Simply to say that Olds portrays a world suffused with love is to trivialize what these poems indisputably earn." Poetry Flash reviewer Richard Silberg commended Olds for "taking on subjects not written before, or not written in these ways . . . and the best of these poems have a density of inspiration line by line." In Booklist, Donna Seaman concluded that Olds's work is "blessed by the light that shines on each page from the entranced and grateful eyes of her readers."
"The Unswept Room has a maternal slant," Carol Rumens asserted in the Guardian, though "never as relentlessly central or focused as the father . . . in previous collections." Rumens added that "often perceived as a faltering, otherworldly voice, a nymph or dryad crying, singing or softly complaining, mother elicits a more fluttering and uncertain response from her daughter-confessor." The title poem, "The Unswept," describes a depiction of a feast rendered on the mosaic-tiled floor of the Museo Gregoriano Profano. Rumens observed that the poem is "rhythmically clear-cut" and "the shapes of decomposition, 'laid down in tiny tiles by the rhyparographer', suggest a cooler, more bookish diction, less elevated rhythm, stop-studded glossaries instead of comma-spangled flights."
Kate Daniels, reviewing The Unswept Room in The Women's Review of Books, noted 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 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. . . . Perhaps it is because the room of Olds' life is yet unswept, redolent with the delicious detritus that composes any life."
In an interview with Salon.com, Olds addressed the aims of her poetry. "I think that my work is easy to understand because I am not a thinker. I am not a . . . How can I put it? I write the way I perceive, I guess. It's not really simple, I don't think, but it's about ordinary things—feeling about things, about people. I'm not an intellectual. I'm not an abstract thinker. And I'm interested in ordinary life." She added that she is "not asking a poem to carry a lot of rocks in its pockets. Just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 32, 1985, Volume 39, 1986, Volume 85, 1995.
Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Contemporary Women's Poetry: Reading/Writing/Practice, edited by Alison Mark and Deryn Rees-Jones, St. Martin's Press, (New York, NY), 2000.
Davis, Cortney, Leopold's Maneuvers, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2004.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Myers, Jack, and David Wojahn, editors, A Profile ofTwentieth-Century American Poetry, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1991.
Oldfield, Sybil, Women against the Iron Fist: Alternatives to Militarism, 1900 to 1989, B. Blackwell (Cambridge, MA), 1989.
Swiontkowski, Gale, Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath,Rich, and Olds on Life with Daddy, Susquehanna University Press (Selinsgrove, PA), 2003.
Wolff, Rebecca, Manderley: Poems, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2001.
Albany Times Union, March 30, 1998.
America, June 30, 1984.
American Book Review, February, 1982; April, 1993, p. 24.
American Poetry Review, September, 1984; September-October, 1987, pp. 31-35; November/December, 1989.
Belles Lettres, fall, 1992, p. 30.
Booklist, October 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Blood, Tin, Straw, p. 339.
Guardian, April 26, 2003, Carol Rumens, review of The Unswept Room.
Nation, October 13, 1984; December, 1992, p. 748.
New Criterion, December, 1999, William Logan, "No Mercy," p. 60.
New Republic, December 27, 1999, Adam Kirsch, "The Exhibitionist," p. 38.
New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1984; March 21, 1993, p. 14; November 14, 1999, Ken Tucker, "Family Ties."
Poetry, June, 1981; January, 1987, p. 231; April, 1994, pp. 39.
Publishers Weekly, November 8, 1993, p. 71; November 27, 1995, p. 65; September 27, 1999, review of Blood, Tin, Straw, p. 98.
Seattle Times, January 16, 2000, Richard Wakefield, "Olds' Poems Delve into Depths of Love."
Times Literary Supplement, May 31, 1991, pp. 11-12; July 16, 1993, p. 25.
Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1984.
Women's Review of Books, February, 1984, pp. 16-17; May, 2003, Kate Daniels, "Gritty and Alive," review of The Unswept Room, p. 16.
Yale Review, autumn, 1987, p. 140.
Academy of American Poets Web site,http://www.poets.org/ (March 20, 2003).
Gravity: A Journal of Online Writing, Music and Art,http://www.newtonsbaby.com/gravity/ (spring, 2000), Joy Yourcenar, review of Blood, Tin, Straw.
New York State Writer's Institute Web site,http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/ (November 28, 2000), "Sharon Olds: State Poet 1998-2000."
Poetry Flash,http://www.poetryflash.org/ (February-March, 2000), Richard Silberg, review of Blood, Tin, Straw.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (July 1, 1996), Charlie Powell, interview with Olds.*