Olds, Sharon (Vol. 85)
Sharon Olds 1942–
The following entry provides an overview of Olds's career through 1993. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 32 and 39.
Olds is a highly regarded, prizewinning poet who uses an intensely personal voice to explore themes of domestic and political violence, sexuality, and family relationships. In much of her verse she examines her roles as daughter and mother, and her painfully ambivalent memories of her parents are rendered in uncompromising, often sexually explicit, language. In other poems Olds expresses sorrow and outrage for the victims of war and political violence. For many critics, Olds's seamless linkage of domestic and public abuse indicates the universal scope of her compassion and poetic vision.
Olds was born in San Francisco in 1942. In 1964 she completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford University and in 1972 received a Ph.D. from Columbia University. From 1976 until 1980 Olds was a lecturer-in-residence on poetry at the Theodor Herzl Institute and has subsequently held numerous teaching and lecturing posts at various universities and writing conferences.
Olds's first volume of poetry, Satan Says (1980), conveys the primal emotions produced by child abuse. In the title poem Olds juxtaposes sexually charged imagery with feelings of rage toward her parents. However, in purging herself of violent emotions, the narrator moves unexpectedly towards love and reconciliation. In The Dead and the Living (1984), which was awarded the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets in 1984 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985, Olds expands her focus on her traumatic childhood to include poems tenderly depicting the activities of her children and her own role as a mother. Her concern with victims and their emotional healing is extended to the public sphere in poems describing crimes of political persecution and social injustice. Similar themes pervade The Gold Cell (1987), which likewise emphasizes sexuality, the primacy of the body, and family life. In The Father (1992) Olds expresses her grief and compassion for her father during his death from cancer, using scatological and sexually explicit language to describe the deterioration of his body, which becomes a metaphor for his dismal failings as a parent.
For many critics, Olds's predilection for sexual description and horrific subject matter is integral to the emotional catharsis of the narrator and necessary for creating empathy for both victims and their abusers. Others, while recognizing the struggle for forgiveness and redemption in her work, contend that it exhibits a morbid obsession with violence and a puerile infatuation with profanity. In spite of these objections, Olds's poetry has been widely praised for its compelling narration, inventive use of metaphor, and scrupulous honesty in rendering extremely personal emotions and experiences. Frequently associated with the confessional school of poetry, Olds has attained the status of a major figure in contemporary American poetry.
Satan Says (poetry) 1980
The Dead and the Living (poetry) 1984
The Gold Cell (poetry) 1987
The Matter of This World: New & Selected Poetry (poetry) 1987
The Sign of Saturn: Poems 1980–1987 (poetry) 1987
The Father (poetry) 1992
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SOURCE: "Snapshots and Artworks," in The New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1984, p. 30.
[Beaver is a German-born English critic, novelist, educator, and editor. In the following excerpt from a review of The Dead and the Living, he commends Olds on the intimacy and realism of her family portraits.]
[The Dead and the Living] is a family album prefaced by snapshots of the century's agonies—images of executions, race riots and gory death from Tulsa, Okla., to Chile and from Rhodesia to Iran. O.K., we can take it. At this theatrical distance we are not touched to the core.
The blazing white shirts of the white men
are blanks on the page, looking at them is like
looking at the sun, you could go blind.
But we do not go blind. Such horrors are thawed by the rhythm of words. They remain static conundrums to be puzzled out with a meditative gaze. Only when this photographic technique of intimate exposure is transferred to her family does Sharon Olds come into her own. It is the private scrutiny that shocks—the day of her mother's divorce, her first period, sex after childbirth, a 6-year-old boy's erection on the back seat of a car. Nothing is too personal, too intimate for such scrutiny.
The confidence of the best of these family...
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SOURCE: A review of The Dead and the Living, in The Iowa Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1985, pp. 151-61.
[Wright is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following review of The Dead and the Living, she praises Olds's use of unadorned, concrete description to evoke sympathy and love in scenes of domestic violence and trauma.]
This second book [The Dead and the Living] by Sharon Olds, the 1983 winner of the Lamont Award, is a powerful follow-up to Satan Says, fulfilling all the expectations that first book raised. Grace Paley has said in an interview that "the act of illumination is political … the act of bringing justice into the world a little bit": by bringing into the light lives that have been (to use Paley's words) "unseen, unknown, in darkness," Olds has both revealed and redeemed the most painful portions of her private and public lives, and celebrated that which has brought her a palpable, full-bodied joy. By confronting her own "darkness" fairly, Olds has affirmed the humanity of those who engendered that darkness, and shown herself, in these days of sensationalized telling-all for lucrative book contracts, to be a poet of affirmation. To draw a parallel with nonfiction, we could say that Olds' poetry about family is more in the spirit of Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of Deception than of Christine Crawford's Mommie Dearest.
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SOURCE: "The Tune of Crisis," in Poetry, Vol. CXLIX, No. 4, January, 1987, pp. 231-37.
[Ostriker is an American poet, critic, editor, and educator. In the following excerpt, she praises Old's use of intimate autobiographical details and vivid imagery in The Gold Cell.]
The opening section of Sharon Olds's The Gold Cell contains some of her most haunting poems. A white woman faces a black youth with the "casual cold look of a mugger" on the subway and considers how deeply they are in each other's power. Some policemen coax a suicide from his parapet on a hot night, and they light cigarettes whose "red, glowing ends burned like the / tiny campfires we lit at night / back at the beginning of the world." Some Ugandan villagers during a drought are beating to death a food-thief whose head-wounds are "ripe and wet as a / rich furrow cut back and cut back at / plough-time to farrow a trench for the seed." A 12-year-old girl who has been raped and has watched her best friend raped and stabbed to death lives on to go to high school where she works hard at math and becomes a cheerleader, "and she does a cartwheel, the splits, she shakes the / shredded pom-poms in her fists." Olds's characteristic note is a clear unsentimental compassion; her characteristic imagery is laid on thick, wet, and warm as bodies.
The book's three remaining sections return to themes powerfully treated in her...
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SOURCE: "Fathers and Daughters and Mothers and Poets," in The New York Times Book Review, March 22, 1987, p. 23.
[Libby is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, taken from a mixed review of The Gold Cell, he asserts that Olds's poems are hampered by a preoccupation with morbidity, physicality, and brutality.]
Though it inhabits the same general psychic territory [as Carolyn Kizer's poetry], Sharon Olds's poetry is as raw as Carolyn Kizer's is cooked. The Gold Cell is also a collection about men and boys, fathers and sons. But it enters with an unusual savagery into the familiar arena of Oedipal strife that has been so central to American poetry since mid-century—since Lowell, Roethke, and Plath. Miss Olds's intentionally brutal tone is set early, in one of her few narratives of nonfamilial violence. In "In the Cell" her mind wanders almost arbitrarily from idle contemplation of the hair on her calf to the depiction of a slow castration in a torture cell. Her poems characteristically start slowly, almost in prose, then develop a wild and messy energy that builds into propulsive rhythms and lines that spill over onto each other so fast the reader risks missing words, connections. This slam-bang action usually culminates in something like a punch line that lifts the reader out of the poem.
The risk, of course, is that the reader will have been knocked...
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SOURCE: "Soul Substance," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 244, No. 14, April 11, 1987, pp. 472-75.
[In the following mixed review of The Gold Cell, McEwen offers general praise for Olds's poetry, yet questions her fascination with voyeurism and her reliance on techniques employed in her previous books.]
"I will tell," says Sharon Olds in her poem "I Go Back to May 1937"—and she does tell. She tells all the cruel stories of her rich and complicated childhood, and her readers love it. Here is the father again with his coal-black hair and his cereal-bowl forehead, here is the mother starving herself over an ounce of cottage cheese, here is the older sister who gave her child away, here is the lost brother; and now, in the thank-God of the comfortable and comforting present, here is Sharon Olds herself, her lover-husband and her marvelous and much-regarded children.
We love Sharon Olds because she has survived such terrible things, and because, like the heroine of her poem "The Girl" (who "knew" what it was like to be shot five times and slaughtered like a pig), we think that means she "knows" in some other, more ultimate sense. "Look, I have come through," she cries, and we cannot envy her "the life of ease and faithfulness," the champagne or the fur coat, because we hear the thrum of that survival in everything she writes. It gives—or until now has given—an extra edge to all...
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SOURCE: A review of The Gold Cell, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XL, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 517-27.
[Hudgins is an American poet, short story writer, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, he offers a mixed assessment of Olds's The Gold Cell, admiring its powerful imagery and narrative flow, yet faulting its haphazard structure and sensationalistic themes.]
Whatever reservations you may have about Sharon Olds's poetry—and I have a number—there's no denying that she's a lot of fun to read. [In The Gold Cell the] poems always open with a great "hook" to grab the reader and the endings are even better—kickers, stunners. But the movement between the opening and the conclusion is usually a headlong rush in which one line collapses into another because the poem is in such a hurry to get to its payoff. The piling up of weak words, especially articles and conjunctions, at the end of a line can create a pell-mell, head-over-heels tumble but it can also, when overdone, cause the line as a unit to lose its integrity:
And I called the
hospital, I remember kneeling by the
phone on the third-floor landing of the dorm, the
dark steep stairs down
next to me….
The result is a narrative...
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SOURCE: A review of The Gold Cell, in The Yale Review, Vol. 77, No. 1, Autumn, 1987, pp. 140-47.
[Yenser is an American critic, educator, and poet. In the following excerpt, he examines stylistic and thematic aspects of The Gold Cell, noting that the volume exemplifies a candid narrative handling of painful subject matter.]
"We're here to learn / the earth by heart and everything is crying / mind me, mind me!" That is [Alice] Fulton's Rilkean credo in "Everyone Knows the World Is Ending." In "Little Things," in The Gold Cell, Sharon Olds has her own version: "I am / paying attention to small beauties, / whatever I have—as if it were our duty to / find things to love, to bind ourselves to this world." How divergent their means of minding and binding are, a couple of poems about early sexual experience will suggest. Fulton's "Scumbling" is a lustrous, dreamy lyric, one of her poems of inwardness, all discretion and reticence. When she writes that "My reserve circled, imperial / as the inside of a pearl," the beautifully turned sentence traces the contours of the poem as well as that of the night with her lover. As she recalls it now, Fulton watched her "feelings hover / over like the undersides / of waterlilies … topped by nervous almost- / sunny undulations," and the repeated sounds ripple like small waves through the passage. The conclusion's tentativeness is the light's...
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SOURCE: A review of The Gold Cell, in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. IV, No. 12, September, 1987, pp. 6-7.
[Wakoski is an American poet, essayist, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she remarks that Olds's poems exhibit a fascination with destruction, suffering, and bestiality.]
Reading The Gold Cell gives some of the same pleasures you get in the doctor's office reading issues of National Geographic. It makes the news of the world interesting with its award-winning photography and glossy pages filled with articles about esoteric aspects of this earth and our daily lives. Olds' language of physical image and metaphor is never illusory (seldom allusive); it is the perfect self-contained language that the New Critics talked about. Her subject-matter is always family, though it is finally "the family of man" which is her theme.
The boy and I face each other.
His feet are huge, in black sneakers
laced with white in a complex pattern like a
set of intentional scars. We are stuck on
opposite sides of the car, a couple of
molecules stuck in a rod of light
rapidly moving through darkness.
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SOURCE: "Four Salvers Salvaging: New Work by Voigt, Olds, Dove, and McHugh," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 262-76.
[In the following excerpt, Harris describes the poems in The Gold Cell as "undeniably gripping," but questions whether the emotional intensity of Olds's verse is merely sensationalistic.]
A would-be suicide on the roof of a city building; a subway encounter between a white person and a black who looks, to the speaker, like a mugger; a newborn child left in a garbage can; a torturer castrating someone; 17th-century Siamese twins, one of whom grows from the other's chest; a man being beaten to death for stealing food in Uganda; a rape victim who ends up being a pom-pom girl; talking penises left over from sex change operations; an apocalyptic fantasy about a "sex center" where customers stand under signs indicating their preferences; the nightly devotions of the Pope's privates; a mother watching the nuclear holocaust with her child, who thinks it beautiful. These are the first eleven poems in The Gold Cell, a volume unmistakably by Sharon Olds, whose poetry incorporates violence, cruelty, broiling sexuality, as well as love. Olds treats both the present and the past with a make-you-squirm explicitness that's buffered only by an ingenuous honesty about her relationship to the events she describes.
Close to two centuries ago,...
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SOURCE: A review of The Matter of This World: New & Selected Poems, in Stand Magazine, Vol. 30, No. 1, Winter, 1988–89, pp. 74-5.
[Pybus is an English editor, educator, and poet. In the excerpt below, he praises Olds's focus on physicality, autobiography, and parent-child relationships in The Matter of This World.]
The American Sharon Olds has made a very strong selection from her three earlier USA volumes, and added a handful of new poems for her first British publication [The Matter of this World: New Selected Poems]. Her work generates so much physical presence, explores so palpably the relationship between a woman's body, feeling and mind, that the surrender or revelation of intimate details is less embarrassing than an occasion for gratitude. She writes almost exclusively here about her childhood, her troubled relationship with her parents and her father's death from cancer, her love for her own children. Most of all she writes about—it's tempting to say 'through'—the human body, her own, her father's, her mother's. The body informs her tactile, sensuous imagery, her often urgent rhythms, the surprising and delightful turns of thought. This is 'My Father's Breasts' entire:
Their soft surface, the polished silk of the hair
running down them delicately like
water. I placed my...
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SOURCE: "Talking to Our Father. The Political and Mythical Appropriations of Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 18, No. 6, November-December, 1989, pp. 35-41.
[Matson is a poet and educator. In the following excerpt, she discusses Olds's use of metaphor as a means of articulating her painful and ambivalent feelings towards her father and as a strategy for healing and empowering the divided self of the poet/narrator.]
When I first composed the title of this essay, I was unconscious of the grammatical—and hence sematic—blur I had built into my project's announcement. Accustomed to viewing the writers under discussion as powerful originators, I had used the word "of" in the title as belonging to the possessive case: that is, the claims to ownership were Rich's and Olds's. A colleague glanced at my title and saw the slippage immediately: whose appropriations? Uneasily I watched as my agents of appropriation were threatened by the engulfing objective case; claiming and being claimed suddenly seemed dangerously inextricable.
I have grown to appreciate the duplicities of "of" for they seem to be, after all, most to the point in a discussion of the poetry of Rich and Olds. These poets have as a central project scrutiny of the intricacies of belonging, not only in language but in their lives; and not only in their lives but in the cultural givens they live...
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SOURCE: "Knows Father Best," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 255, No. 20, December 14, 1992, pp. 748-50.
[Lesser is an American poet, translator, critic, and educator. In the following review of The Father, she examines the volume's autobiographical focus.]
Through four volumes of poetry—Satan Says (1980), The Dead and the Living (1984), The Gold Cell (1987) and now The Father—Sharon Olds has engendered a body of work that speaks largely in a voice that is first-person singular. Natural in form (the cadences feel right, like rhythms of the body), conversational in tone, her poems often embrace matters that are unnatural, horrifying, inhuman.
Subjected, with her siblings, to abuse from both parents (poems that relate this history abound in her second and third books), Olds struggles to define herself within the context of the family into which she was born as well as the family she herself has made. Rarely is the speaker of one of her poems a sexual observer or omniscient narrator; usually her role and perspective are sex-defined, and she identifies herself as daughter, woman, mother, sister. "Prayer," the last poem in Satan Says, can be seen as Olds's credo; the articles of her faith, the "central meanings" she splendidly celebrates, are sex and birth. It is one of many erotic poems in which she convincingly incarnates a sexual consciousness...
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SOURCE: "Empty Beds, Empty Nests, Empty Cities," in The New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, pp. 14, 16.
[Zeidner is an American novelist, poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she offers a mixed review of The Father.]
William Butler Yeats declared that "only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mood—sex and the dead." Sharon Olds has set out to prove his point, writing with ferocious clarity about the body and "the world / of the nerves," site of all delight and despair. While the message is hardly new, what has catapulted Ms. Olds to the forefront of American poets is her fearless, gritty celebration of a woman's physical nature, not just in lovemaking but in menstruation, childbirth and motherhood. There's refreshingly little mist in her mysticism.
Her fourth collection, The Father, is a series of poems about a daughter's bedside vigil for a father dying of cancer, and her grief after his death. Despite the archetypal sound of the title's pater, we have met this particular man before, in past poems. In previous books, Ms. Olds has written with un-self-conscious candor about the entangled feelings of awe and anger that the tall, strong, cold, cigar-smoking man evoked in her.
But now the tumor had reduced him to his disease, and Ms. Olds observes its progress unflinchingly. Whole poems revolve around the...
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SOURCE: "That Which Is Towards," in Poetry Flash, No. 247, October-November, 1993, pp. 1, 4-5, 14-15.
[Keelan is an editor and poet. In the following excerpt, she offers a favorable assessment of The Father.]
Though I have attempted to discard much of the dogma of my childhood Catholicism, I have never tried, or even desired, to expatriate myself from either the living or crucified image of Christ. I've been looking today at the colored pictures of the Stations of the Cross in an old St. Joseph's Missal I found in the garage. I never realized before how beyond morality the prayers for the Stations of the Cross are. By entering the ritual, one has already agreed on a fixed end, Station # 14, to be exact, where Christ is finally laid in the tomb. It's only three days later when he is resurrected that any real judgment occurs, and his later ascension leaves us alone to find him in ourselves. It's hard to love that God, the one who leaves, who has no body. But before he becomes simply an idea, he's entirely body, bearing his cross, falling, holding his mother, allowing himself to be helped, falling again, giving his image away, etc. It's only after he resurrects that He earns the capital 'H'. In my missal, he's watching as the nails go into his hand. It is probably the way in which we already understand the end that accounts for the visceral truth of the Stations of the Cross.
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Gilbert, Sandra M. "Family Values." Poetry CLXIV, No. 1 (April 1994): 39-53.
Examines the treatment of family themes and relationships in Olds's The Father and in the poetry of Laura Riding, Grace Paley, Marge Piercy, and Carol Muske.
Hamill, Sam. "Lyric, Miserable Lyric (Or: Whose Dog Are You?)." The American Poetry Review 16, No. 5 (September-October 1987): 31-5.
Discusses the metrical structure of contemporary poetry, including Olds's The Gold Cell.
Maxwell, Glyn. "Poets in Abundance: Bedevilled by Angels, Ghosts and Aborigines." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4600 (31 May 1991): 11-12.
Reviews Ronald Wallace's anthology of American poetry, Vital Signs: Contemporary American Poetry from the University Presses, citing Olds as an exemplary confessional poet.
Phelan, Peggy. "Intimations of Mortality." The Women's Review of Books I, No. 5 (February 1984): 16-17.
Offers a positive assessment of The Dead and the Living.
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