The Gold Cell Essay - Critical Essays

Sharon Olds


Placed at a pivotal point in her work at the beginning of part 2 of The Gold Cell, the poem “I Go Back to May 1937” is a statement of Olds’s intentions as an artist. She envisions her parents as “they are about to get married” and instinctively reacts to this decisive moment by feeling and then suppressing the urge to “say Stop,/ don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman/ he’s the wrong man.” Although Olds knows now that “you are going to do things/ you cannot imagine you would ever do,” her knowledge of the pain and suffering for them and their children is overcome by her recognition that “I want to live” no matter the cost. Her declaration “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it” establishes her credo as a poet who will accept the burden of life and the obligations of art and indicates her awareness of the futility of much human action. What endures, she implies, is an effort to understand, and one of the keys to understanding for her is an attempt to be open and honest about her reactions and responses.

Since her poetry has dealt so intimately with the “apparently personal” and has covered instances of wrenching emotional disruption, she has often been compared to Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. While acknowledging the “gift” and “importance” of these writers, however, Olds cites Allen Ginsberg as a much more crucial influence. She recalls reading “Howl” at the age of sixteen and realizing that Ginsberg was looking at “a great force which dwelled in and through one.” She initially identified this force as sex and says that Ginsberg “looking at his own sexuality with this great consciousness interested me,” but as her own work developed, the importance of passion in the broadest sense emerged as a central theme.

Olds has spoken of “loosening some hinges in ourselves” as a means of seeing everything that shapes an individual’s consciousness, which has meant not only an inclination toward complete candor...

(The entire section is 819 words.)