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 to learn to balance a poem’s need for exceptional language with the need to establish a voice of her own. She has said that she accomplished that discovery partly through dance, once more underscoring the relationship between her physical world and her writing.
Olds received a B.A. with distinction from Stanford University in 1964. She studied languages (French, Italian, German, Greek, and Middle English) as an undergraduate. In 1972, she earned a Ph.D. in American literature from Columbia University; her dissertation examined the prosody of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Her first collection of poems, Satan Says, was published in 1980. Reviews were mixed but generally positive; reviewers attributed some of the collection’s faults to Olds’s inexperience. Satan Says was followed by The Dead and the Living (1984), which won the Lamont Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle award. The Gold Cell was published in 1987, and The Father (a series of poems about her father’s death from cancer) appeared in 1992. Her later volumes The Wellspring (1995), Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), and The Unswept Room (2002) continue her earlier themes, now in the retrospective voice of later middle age.
Olds has spent her adult life living in New York City. Although family life forms a major theme in her writing (she has described herself as a full-time mother and full-time poet), she has also made an active career of teaching and lecturing. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence, the Theodor Herzl Institute, Columbia University, New York University, and Brandeis University. She has conducted a poetry workshop at Goldwater Hospital for the severely physically handicapped and has worked with the PEN Freedom-to-Write committee. Olds’s social concerns can also be recognized in her work with PEN’s Silenced Voices subcommittee (which deals with censorship) and Helsinki Watch. In 1989, she became director of New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Science creative writing program. In 2002, she received an Academy Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets for her poetic achievement in mid-career; in 2004, she received a Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award. She was named New York State Poet Laureate for 1998 to 2000.
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...
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