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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In The Gold Cell, as in most of Olds’s work, the metaphor represents the poet’s vision and thinking. In interviews, Olds expresses concern with seeing accurately; her poems reveal her commitment to this goal, for their vision is unflinching. Part of what Olds wants readers to see has to do with the connections between endings and beginnings. “Summer Solstice, New York City” has as its narrative core the story of a man threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a building and his interactions with the people who convince him not to jump. However, the poem’s metaphors reveal one of its philosophical points: that life’s beginning and its end are inextricably tied. That tie becomes apparent when the title, in which the summer solstice represents birth and renewal, comes together with the poem’s first image: a suicidal man walking across the roof of a building, then standing with “one leg over the complex green tin cornice.” Within the poem, Olds describes the bulletproof vest one “cop” puts on as a “black shell around his own life,/ life of his children’s father,” an image that illustrates that the police officer, in the middle of his life, is aware of the impact his death would have on the lives of his children who have just begun their lives. Olds describes the net meant to catch the man if he does jump as a sheet “prepared to receive at a birth” and the burning ends of the cigarettes that the man and the police officers smoke as “tiny campfires we lit at night/ back at the beginning of the world.” Though the man finally chooses life, the poem is about the possibility of his death. When Olds ends by connecting the image of the men smoking and the image of campfires at the beginning of the world, she implies that there is a connection between the...

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The Gold Cell

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The work of Sharon Olds is at once narrative and lyrical. Her gifts include a daring imagination for both subject and figures of speech and a sure sense of rhythm. This rhythmic sense gives momentum to the story elements in her poems, while the often-dazzling metaphors release the emotional values—the lyrical element. The Gold Cell, her third collection, solidifies her position as one of the major poetic voices to emerge in the 1980’s. Following upon her startling debut with Satan Says (1980) and the widely acclaimed Lamont prizewinner The Dead and the Living (1984), The Gold Cell might have been a disappointment. It is, however, unquestionably a success.

This collection is focused on the issue of identity: the poet’s first of all and, by extension, the reader’s. Each of the four sections elaborates one of the key ways in which human beings find their identity. The first sequence in The Gold Cell contains poems about the speaker’s relationship to the troublesome conditions of the world in which she lives. The reader finds here an urban self looking at a world filled with disasters, one who questions the social and personal meanings of the events and her responses to them. The self is defined as a sensibility that notices as only a single individual can notice and feels as only a single individual can feel.

The speaker witnesses a suicide, has a confrontation with a black youth in a subway car, records the discovery of an abandoned newborn, and imagines the trauma of a twelve-year-old girl who witnesses the rape of her friend and is brutally treated herself. In these poems and others, Olds gives the reader a series of harrowing portraits: tragedies usually brought to us through the news media rather than by the accident of personal proximity. Still, she makes them personal by her determination to move into the skin of the victim or perpetrator in order to register fully the impact of the tragedy on her own responding instrument. Who is she? She is the woman who pays attention to these events and feels this way about them. As significant aspects of her environment, these events help to define her.

The second group of poems identifies the self as the child of its parents. Olds links together the complex knots of emotion felt as the maturing daughter of this mother, this father, this couple. She defines herself as the inevitable sum of an eccentric genetic equation, seeing her imposing physicality as an inheritance from her father. More often, the analysis is in terms of conflicting emotions: the difficulty of loving the ones who hurt you, the ones you would not be like if you could help it. Olds’s openness in these poems is frightening. There must be a pain returned upon the parents in such memories as are found here. The caring is in the intense scrutiny, the trust that such scathing directness can be beneficial and even healing.

“Saturn” opens with the lines:

He lay on the couch night after night,mouth open, the darkness of the roomfilling his mouth, and no one knewmy father was eating his children. . . .

The metaphor is carried out in horrifying detail. In the father’s indifferent evening slumbers, the children’s limbs are consumed one by one: “He took/ my brother’s head between his lips/ and snapped it like a cherry off the stem.” His passive absence is felt as an indulgence, an appetite, a cannibalistic betrayal. The poem complicates this reaction with some rationalizing forgiveness, but its center is in this reaction: what it felt like to be the child of this unconscious, snoring father.

In this way, through a powerful evocation of childhood scenes and moods, Olds unfolds an identity shaped by the parental household. The poems are both hostile and loving, true in each dimension because of the presence of the other. Moreover, Olds balances the re-creation of what-it-was-like-then with the registering of how-I-understand-it-now. The thoroughness and penetration of her investigation is admirable, though many readers will squirm. “Looking at My Father” and “Why My Mother Made Me” should not be...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Sharon Olds’s third collection, The Gold Cell, is an extension and refinement of the strikingly singular woman’s voice that she introduced in Satan Says (1980) and developed in The Dead and the Living (1983). Her first book of poems was not published until she was nearly forty, and the extended time that the poems remained in a formative process in her mind accounts for the candor and confidence that she projected in an unusually accomplished initial publication. Writing with energetic conviction in a mode she describes as “apparently personal poetry,” Olds addressed subjects that had been previously approached tentatively or through indirection, covering areas of experience seemingly unavailable...

(The entire section is 729 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Donald Hall has said that “the poem exists to say the unsayable.” His primary focus is on the poet’s desire to confront and surpass the barriers inherent in language itself, but in a larger sense, he is addressing all the limits that conventional expectations place on artistic endeavor. For Olds, the “unsayable” has meant the entire cosmos of experience of a woman’s life, including all the areas seemingly forbidden by the weight of centuries of customs designed by patriarchal social systems. Her work has been guided by the principle that there is nothing so sacred about a woman that it is beyond examination and nothing so supposedly obscene that it should be kept beneath a cover. Like Walt Whitman, whom she sees as...

(The entire section is 512 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Franks, Elizabeth. “The Poet Stripped Bare.” Mirabella 4 (December, 1992): 62-65. A profile and appreciation combined with an interview. Emphasizes the sensual nature of Olds’s poetry and her life as a mother, scholar, and artist.

Matson, Suzanne. “Talking to Our Father: The Political and Mythical Appropriations of Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds.” American Poetry Review 18, no. 6 (November/December, 1989): 35-41. Matson lucidly explicates Olds’s poems about her father in The Gold Cell and places them in the context of feminist considerations of patriarchal power and its effects on women.

Olds, Sharon. Interview by Laurel Blossom. Poets & Writers Magazine 21, no. 5 (September/October, 1993): 30-37. A candid, revealing, and often pointed discussion of Olds’s influences, attitudes, poetics, and ambitions.

Wright, Carol. Review of The Dead and the Living. Iowa Review 15, no. 1 (Winter, 1985): 151-161. A consideration of Olds’s writing prior to the composition of The Gold Cell, showing how some of the poet’s essential concerns were presented in her earlier books.