Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

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.

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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 but also an insistence on unveiling or exposing the basest urges and the most secret pleasures. The poems in part 2 that present passion-driven, self-absorbed incidents of parental indulgence (such as “What if God,” “The Chute,” and “San Francisco”) are not designed as exposés. Instead, they function as a part of a strategy that promotes self-awareness as a method for escaping from the enclosure of the self—the “gold cell” of the title (words that recur separately throughout the book) that stands as a figure for both the inherent value and the limits placed on the core or original form of a person. It is almost as if Olds were writing these poems as retrospective instruction, the knowledge and insight available now at least for herself even as the subjects of the poems are beyond communication.

Similarly, the poems that chart the course of a woman’s growth—from an adolescent realizing the excitement of sexual horizons widening (“First Sex”) to the point that she learns that love must include loss (“First Love”) to the ripening of full maturity when familiarity permits sensual abandon (“Greed and Aggression” and “It”)—are not only expressions of extreme conditions of passion as a version of unleashed power but also investigations of primal, even archetypal human behavior. Olds recognizes the erotic realm as a crucial component of human consciousness, and her choice to conceal nothing about what she has thought or felt leads, almost paradoxically, to a tone that is vastly different from the self-consciousness and coyness of much traditional erotic poetry. As Olds observes, what she has done is to work in “an unwritten part of the tradition. But not unlived.” Her ability to find a form for presenting a “return/ to the body/ where I was born” (as Ginsberg has it) is both a pioneering and an enduring aspect of her writing.

The emotional concentration evident in much of her work required a structure that would not permit energy to dissipate or attention to slacken. To answer this need, Olds almost exclusively works in a poetic arrangement that casts each poem as a single, long stanza, often twenty to forty lines advancing steadily—gaining momentum—with few breaks for capitalization and a sparse use of end-stops or periods. Even the relatively relaxed poems have a feeling of compression or urgency, rarely pausing or opening gaps for energy to leach out. After the establishment of a subject—usually in a direct, immediate declaration—the poems gather force through the accretion of detail and data, remaining tightly wound in an inner-focused accumulation of inventive consecutive or extended metaphors. As Olds observes, “There’s just dancing and language, swimming underwater in language,” placing her greatest emphasis on the relationships among words that reflect her attempts to understand and express the relationships between people whose common human qualities she is moved to portray.

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