A preponderance of historical evidence has demonstrated that the relaxation or removal of restraints on artistic expression is not necessarily a move to creative freedom. To take advantage of the verbal license afforded to modern writers requires, at a minimum, a degree of maturity that recognizes the cheap, obvious, and tired nature of most erotica. To use this freedom really effectively, a writer must be able to integrate the erotic impulse with the total personality of its progenitor. From the beginning of her life as a poet, Sharon Olds has brought a facility for graphic description to an exploration of her intense emotional responses to her father, her family, and her relationships with the men in her life, effectively establishing a gulf between the critics who have felt that her efforts at “poeticizing sex” were too often composed of “emptily familiar four-letter words” and those who see her writing about the physical as a singular strength in which “the body becomes a sacred text to be learned.” Her sixth collection, Blood, Tin, Straw, carries her concerns with the skin as an extension of the soul even further into the realm of the senses, while continuing to demonstrate a mature sensibility that operates beyond the need to indulge the still sensationalist shock power of erotic consciousness.
The absence of an exploitative agenda is a paramount feature of Olds’s poetry, while her fascination with both the psychology of arousal and the body’s physical response to more than physical stimulation has produced what reviewer Janet McCann has accurately identified as “an invasive form of psychological realism.” The insertion of the self directly into her poems as an unavoidable component, plus the scale of her involvement with the fullest range of erotic experience, inevitably results in some degree of unevenness in Olds’s work. However, to say, as Ken Tucker asserts in a generally negative review, that her “autobiographical themes, expressed in language alternately artless and ornate, are beginning to show some strain” is to imply an impossible level of achievement that no writer can realistically maintain. Not every poem, even from that of a master such as Irish poet Seamus Heaney, can be a “masterpiece,” and to focus on the perceived failure of some poems, particularly those examining the most personal parts of human behavior, is to miss the exceptional accomplishment of Olds’s best writing. In addition, the subjective taste of a reader is likely to be a crucial component of judgment when considering the functions of the body. An individual’s aversion to the exploration of biological detail, no matter how artfully expressed—when “artful” is itself a matter of contention—further complicates matters of aesthetic evaluation. There may also be a degree of subconscious bias on the part of some readers when confronted with poems that depend on the facts of maternity, a subject in which feminist theory is far from unified and which some male reviewers might still find disconcerting. What matters most in Blood, Tin, Straw is not femininity or maternity but poetry, and the strongest poems in the volume are arguably at least the equal of the ones in earlier books, which were honored with several prestigious awards.
In a characteristically forthright fashion, Olds has stated, “My senses are very important to me. I want to be able to describe accurately what I see and hear and smell.” The title of the collection is taken from the poem “Culture and Religion,” and while it refers directly to the materials composing the Land of Oz characters, it is more generally an emblem of the elemental components of Olds’s cosmos, which is expanded in the book’s five parts to include Fire and Light. In accordance with the symbolic import of the four elements of the ancient world, each of these fundamental facets of human and natural life operates both as tangible essence and as psychological projection. The poems are located under separate headings, but they function primarily as amalgams of these entities, incorporating the sensory observations that Olds values to produce an ethos of exceptional intensity. This is appropriate as Olds has commented that she is “just interested in human stuff like hate, love, sexual love and sex,” subjects which are as basic as the elements that structure the book and which can bear the pressure of the extremely close scrutiny that her careful observation accrues.
The relationship between the circumstances of Olds’s life and the shape of her poems is understandably complex, and, as Olds has remarked, “the difference between the paper world and the flesh...
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