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This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the March

17, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Poet Sharon Olds, Like it or Not

‘She had such a vision of the world, as the world hardly understands."

T.S. Eliot never met Sharon Olds, but many reviewers of her poetry

paraphrase his famous line. This New York University professor and

former New York State Poet Laureate has been described as everything

from "the Earth Mother of Poetry" and the nation’s "most fiercely

beloved of all living poets" to "a blasphemer," devoting her life to –

among other things – "coarse, curious bathroom scribblings." For

author Michael Ondaatje, "Olds’s poems are pure fire in the hands."

Clearly, in evaluating this poet’s oeuvre, there is no middle ground.

Readers will be able to form their own opinions when Sharon Olds gives

her reading at the College of New Jersey on Thursday, March 18, at

4:30 p.m., in Room 202, Brower Student Center. Olds’s reading is part

of TCNJ’s 23rd (and, regrettably, final) annual Writers’ Conference,

directed by poet/translator Jean Hollander. Programs begin at 9 a.m. A

battalion of famous authors will be on hand to lead riveting sessions

throughout the day. The conference finale will feature keynote speaker

John Irving in Kendall Hall at 8 p.m.

Audiences are in for a treat with Olds. Vibrantly present, this poet

is down-to-earth, accessible, catalytic. As I spoke by phone with Olds

last week, I found her refreshingly candid; willing to discuss sticky

issues; not at all defensive concerning what some deem her notorious

poetic reputation.

Experiencing Olds’s clarity and poise, it is difficult to believe that

she once perceived hearers as "judges." This changed as the poet came

to "be less attuned to self and more to my audience." Olds will decide

upon the day of the reading which work to read- her custom. Unusual at

TCNJ, however,will be inclusion of older works, as Olds is now honing

page proofs for a forthcoming retrospective collection.

Asked if anything else is different these days, Olds admits "my ratio

of gloomy to cheerful poems has greatly changed." Deeply aware, now,

of those who have come to hear her, the poet reveals, "I have more

mercy. The choices are not so dire – more fun," Olds adds. "My wish

not to be silent in my early work was extreme."

Intellectually, Olds is praised for her "dark witness," "emotional

afterburn." She admits to having learned "to get pleasure from

speaking of pain." Olds determinedly corrected my observation that her

work focuses on family and political abuses: "I never use the word,

‘abuse,’" she insists. Ah!, but nobody does it better when it comes to

"Show, not Tell!" – that inescapable poetic mandate. Word or no word –

the alcoholic father, parents tying their offspring to chairs, that

grandmother "who protected no one," unspeakable sisterly assaults, the

eerily troubled brother – rise and sink like ducks in a shooting

gallery, throughout this poet’s life work.

Only we will never know if this is life or work: Olds vowed, more than

20 years back, "not to talk about my family in my public life as a

poet." So we won’t learn the occupations of her parents, or whether

she has other siblings, or kinder siblings. In Old’s NYU graduate

school classes, her ground rule is never to "assume the

autobiographical poem." She claims that this provides "freedom and

safety" for students, liberating their "daring and imagination." But

this stricture serves a similar purpose for the teacher. "The dialogue

of poetry and life," Olds does admit, "is difficult to separate."

Studying her output, one could conclude that the world is comprised

not of earth, air, fire and water; rather of blood, sperm, and pus.

That girl who once stood on the steps of Columbia’s Library – PhD in

hand – proclaiming that she would no longer imitate the work of

others, has carved her own niche in the poetic world. A Mary Cassatt

of words, Olds zeroes in on nearby family members. In the process, she

has become a specialist in the graphic, determined to limn "what had

never been written about in poetry." In terms of "singing the body

electric," this American woman out-Whitmans Walt Whitman.

"I Go Back to May, 1937," – arguably Olds’s most famous poem – ends

with the image of the poet’s clicking her doomed and dooming parents

together at the hips:

… paper dolls chips of flint as if to strike sparks from them, I say

Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

Critics have perceived her parental theme as both strength and

weakness. Critic William Logan whined: "During the Truman

administration, Sharon Olds’s parents tied her to a chair; and she has

been writing about it ever since." Suzanne Rhodenbaugh, in the Kansas

City Star, observed that it is high time for "this sexagenarian poet

to forgive her parents, or at least leave off the accusations; and be

a little less ostentatious about the bedroom wonders." One reviewer

chided Olds for claiming to have the "best sex life on earth."

For all these opposing viewpoints, this poet rakes in honors: Lamont

Poetry Selection, National Book Critics Circle Award; a Lila

Acheson-Wallace / Readers’ Digest Grant, as well as athe New York

State Laureateship. Then there are her nationwide readings; consistent

publication of her poems in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and

other prestigious venues.

Olds has seven poetry volumes to her credit, the newest being "The

Unswept Room." This book is graced with an irresistible cover of a

pre-Christian mosaic, painted by Heracleitus. Who but this poet of

domestic drama would choose a work of art titled "Table Scraps" for

the face of her book? Its simple, everyday images of ordinary tools

connect evocatively across the centuries, as Olds collects her

harrowing images of everyday family life.

During our phone conversation the poet literally has pen in hand,

working on page proofs for the upcoming "Selected Poems." Laughingly,

Olds acknowledges being 10 to 15 years behind-the-times in terms of

publishing books.

"I write poems, not books!," announces the writer, nonetheless

vigilant about publishing individual work in literary magazines. In

her page-proof process, Olds confesses, she sometimes revises

published work. I had heard a similar admission from her friend, poet

Galway Kinnell, at a reading at Bucks County College. He actually

revises at the podium, trusting poet/friends to keep original

versions. Olds feels she "made mistakes as a younger writer," and now

welcomes the chance to "correct" them. Olds particularly seems to

regret having so "linked the public and the private" in earlier years.

Here we go again – she who makes Plath and Sexton seem tepid

distancing herself from graphic scenes she has incised onto the

printed page.

Even though Olds seems to have transformed into her own poet, "found

her voice" upon those Columbia steps, she says she was "always

writing, – stories, poems -, all my life," starting early in her most

un-California childhood. What happened during that post-PhD

declaration was "so different – a dramatic and sudden change of

direction." Olds abruptly realized "I could write as myself."

Having participated in an Olds poetry workshop at Pennsylvania’s

Lafayette College, I acknowledge her powerful force for releasing the

self in participants. My praise for her "sparkling catalysis" – as

leader, as reader – renders the poet suddenly shy: "You know, I never

thought anyone was going to read my poems."

I ask whether current poets are bringing Olds anything new, altering

poetry in noteworthy ways. Discomfited anew, the poet as professor

claims not to be "very good with the big picture. I’m actually

nearsighted." "Yes, but what are you seeing and hearing?," I press.

After a pregnant pause, Olds recognizes "distinctive voices. Yes, more

than was true a decade ago. And a greater diversity in the population

applying now to NYU’s Graduate Program." Olds continues overseeing

student-led writing workshops at Goldwater Hospital, programs launched

for people disabled in inner and outer ways. Today’s students turn to

NYU in order to participate in this outreach, which has greatly

expanded: "I can’t even name them all – a women’s hospital, children’s

oncology ward, a special high school, school for the gifted."

Olds’s dream during her years as New York’s Poet Laureate, (1998 to

2000), was to provide a poet to every school, hospital, and prison.

She holds the act of writing poetry "as civil liberty," and poets as

"natural resources." No, her dream was not realized. Yet I assure

Olds, from challenging causes here in Princeton, she has planted

viable seeds in public soil. She seems gratified by my declaration

that the harvest will pleasantly surprise her, given a decade or so.

One interviewer asked Olds what defines her generation, if not

Americans in general: "Oh, we are the ones born into war." Given that

perspective, I question her response to last winter’s White House

silencing of poets. Following that startling cancellation, some 900

alternative ‘Poems for Peace’ readings sprang up globally. One of the

earliest took place at Princeton’s Unitarian Universalist

Congregation.

Olds’s answer is soft yet strong: "Yes, I have participated in a

number of protest readings, in terror of what is happening; yes,

readings against war."

If we defy Olds and take her work as autobiography, half its themes

can be attributed to her Calvinist upbringing: "You know, hell,

execution, punishment." And the remainder to her father/god: "how he

had trained me not to be loved." Woven among these plaints is her

unrelieved horror at the mother:

and I don’t want it to be my mother I want to START OVER

(Capital letters are the poet’s.)

In one poem, Olds describes her art as "the craft of oblivion." But

her writing life has been exactly the opposite. Tiger-fierce in

defending her own son and daughter, the poet has become the antithesis

of that grandmother, "the woman who protected no one." Reading these

works all at a clip, one decides, if Rilke’s Panther could write, he

would do so with the pen of Sharon Olds.

So who is Sharon Olds? A fine professor, mentor, a catalyst?

Prize-and-grant-winner? Poet Laureate? Ground-breaker who paves the

way for students and writers in general, for women in particular? A

visionary, with her dream of poetry’s changing hospitals, prisons,

hospices, and schools? Does her "arch realism" find "plenitude in

pain"? Is her "radical innocence" a "dance of expression/obsession"?

Is Sharon Olds the Jean Houston of poetry, – creative and seminal? Or

is she, indeed, annoyingly repetitive? Disloyal? Even dangerous?

Vengeful? A parricide?

Critic Jacques Kahn castigated Olds for "transgress[ing] upon socially

imposed silences." Princeton’s Alicia Ostriker took the opposing view,

praising her "erotics of family love and pain." William Logan decried

Olds’s poems "ground out like sausages." Adam Kirsch termed her work

"pantheistic porn;" insisting at the same time that, "her struggle is

as important a struggle as the world can show." Turn and turn about,

Kirsch next lamented that "no reader will ever be brought by any of

these poems to question herself." Kenneth Lincoln described Olds’

oeuvre as "Alice-in-Wonderland crossed with Heart of Darkness." Well,

you get the swings. The solution? Hear Sharon Olds for yourself.

Sharon Olds, College of New Jersey Writers’ Conference, Brower Student

Center, Room 202, Ewing, 609-771-3254. Olds is featured at 4:30 p.m.

John Irving gives the concluding reading at 8 p.m. Registration $10 to

$60. Visit writersconference.intrasun.tcnj.edu. Thursday, March

18, 4:30 p.m.


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