The Poems

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sharon Olds is among the most highly regarded contemporary American poets. Her work has been described as “haunting” and “striking,” and the novelist Michael Ondaatje has said that it is “pure fire in the hands.” Like the poet’s earlier books Satan Says (1980) and The Dead and the Living (1984), Olds’s third collection, The Gold Cell, makes aspects of everyday life—news items, childhood, family, and sexuality—its subject matter. Olds tells her audiences at poetry readings that she did not publish her poetry until late in life (she was thirty-seven years old when her first book was published) because she did not know whether she wanted to make her work public. She also says that when she decided to publish, she considered using a pseudonym. This hesitation to publish may have had something to do with Olds’s tendency to blur the lines between the public and the private, for it is never quite clear where she draws the line between what she calls “the paper world and the flesh world.”

As a result, many of Olds’s readers view her books as “poetic memoirs,” comparing her to confessional poets such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Historically, American poets have argued that to assume too much of a connection between a poem’s speaker and its writer is to commit a “biographical fallacy,” though some contemporary American poets, perhaps influenced by a growing tendency in the United States to view public exposure of the private self as emotionally healthy and socially productive, admit to writing highly autobiographical pieces (Linda McCarriston, for example). Olds has been unwilling to publicly discuss the connections between her private life and her poetry, though, so readers must encounter Olds’s poems on more universal grounds, taking them as one poet’s attempt to see the world clearly and to represent it accurately. In an interview with Patricia Kirkpatrick, Olds says, “We need to know how bad we are, and how good we are, what we are really like, how destructive we are, and that all this often shows up in families.” When Olds writes about the difficult aspects of human nature, then, she invites her readers to confront those realities with her, to know that these are the circumstances not only of individual lives but also of life in general.

Olds has been described as a poet of the...

(The entire section is 971 words.)