Sharon Olds Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sharon Olds was born in San Francisco on November 19, 1942. She has said that her literal-minded approach to the world surfaced when, at the age of two, she tried to eat a book of ration stamps, having been told that they were to be the family’s source of food during the war.

The family lived near a school for the blind, and Olds sang in an Episcopal church choir with some of the blind girls, an experience that became the subject for a later poem, “The Indispensability of the Eyes,” in which she recalls her fear of the blind eyes and the unearthly things they saw. She also recalls that, as a child at Girl Scout camp, she began to recite her homemade verses aloud, hidden behind a tree. During that time, she also began to sense a relationship between her physical self and the earth, a perception that appears in her poetry.

Olds grew up in a troubled household; her poems refer to her grandfather’s cruelties toward her and her sister, to her grandmother’s anger, to her father’s alcoholism, which led to her parents’ divorce, and to her abusive sister. When Olds was fifteen, she was sent to a boarding school near Boston. There, she came to love Eastern landscapes and New York City. A poem from her adulthood (“Infinite Bliss”) records her desire never to live where it does not snow.

Also during that time, Olds began to read a substantial amount of poetry and to write it as well, using conventional poetic forms for most of her early work. She has stated that it took her a long time...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Olds’s use of her family’s past, her willingness to discuss delicate and painful subjects, and her lack of squeamishness about sex all place her in the tradition of confessional poetry. Additionally, her subjects are those that have often been associated with feminist writers. Her language, her ferocious honesty, and her equally fierce maternalism, which demands recognition of the rights of all living things to grow into what they were meant to be, constitute her special contribution to this sort of poetry.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Born in San Francisco in 1942, Sharon Olds lived in her native city until the age of fifteen, when she was sent to a Massachusetts boarding school. Many of her poems focus on her difficult childhood, but in one interview, she describes an outwardly placid youth: “I lived near a school for the blind and sang in an Episcopal church choir with girls from that school. In the summer I went to Girl Scout camp. On special campfire nights, I would stand behind a Ponderosa pine and recite, in a loud quavery voice, homemade verses that began, ’I am the spirit of the tree.’” Upon moving to Massachusetts, she became entranced with the seasons of New England.

Olds was graduated with distinction from Stanford University in 1964 and earned a Ph.D. in literature from Columbia University in 1972; her dissertation was on the prosody of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poems. She has taught poetry and poetry writing at many institutions, including Sarah Lawrence College, New York University, Columbia University, and Brandeis University. She founded the Golden Writers’ Workshop at Goldwater Hospital for the severely handicapped in New York in 1985 and ran it until 1990. She became an associate professor of English at New York University in 1992 and directed the graduate program in creative writing. In 1998, she received the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit from the New York State Writers Institute and served as the poet laureate of New York State from 1998 to 2000. Olds was elected chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2006. She frequently contributes to such periodicals as The New Yorker, Poetry, The Atlantic, American Poetry Review, and The Nation.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sharon Olds has described her attendance at an anti-Vietnam war poetry reading in 1974 as an experience that opened her eyes to the possibilities of poetry. As she listened to writers such as Muriel Rukeyser and Adrienne Rich, she became aware of poets who were writing about the intimate materials of their lives. She had already been writing all her life, Olds said, but that experience led her to a new view of poetry, one that has evidently informed all of her published work.

Olds grew up in San Francisco; she later recalled experiences—such as singing along with some blind children in a church choir and inventing verses while at Girl Scout camp—which prepared the way for her mature writing. Her family was a troubled one, and her father’s alcoholism led to her parents’ divorce. At the age of fifteen, Olds was sent to boarding school near Boston and came to love eastern landscapes and seasons. During this time, she also began to read great quantities of poetry. Olds received a B.A. in languages from Stanford University in 1964. In 1972 she received a Ph.D. in American literature from Columbia University. She has spent her adult life with her family in New York City.

Olds’s first book was Satan Says; it startled some critics with its blunt sexual language, and some readers suggested that Olds was merely attempting to shock the public. Sexual awareness, however, has been an ongoing theme in Olds’s work. She has frequently described herself as a literalist, and part of her vision concerns the unity of the physical world with the world of spirit and insight that is often associated with the poet. Olds’s second book, The Dead and the Living, won the Lamont Poetry Selection and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The Gold Cell, her third book, appeared in 1987. Its poems are typical of Olds’s poetic subjects; they include poems inspired by newspaper accounts of rape and abandoned babies, poems about her family (in one she looks at a youthful picture of her parents during their courtship and wishes she could warn them against the marriage which will cause them so much pain), including her father and her daughters, and poems about her own body. Olds has referred to a...

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