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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
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
"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
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
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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