Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 917
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 spectrum of loyalty and betrayal, the complete silence of privacy, and the treacherous disclosure of the most private experiences. Poets find their place on the spectrum by trial and error, she says.
During the early 1980’s, Olds was instrumental in founding the Golden Writers’ Workshop at Goldwater Hospital. Initially it was supposed to be an eight-week workshop modeled on workshops in hospitals in other cities. As a result of its great popularity, New York University—where Olds was teaching in the graduate program—began to supply the workshop’s teachers and leaders as well as the people who transcribe the writers’ work. The writers themselves are seriously disabled people, some of whom can neither move nor speak and who thus communicate through a variety of technical devices or with human assistance. Olds has called them people of “unimaginable spiritual power” and says that every hospital, prison, school, building, and store should have a poet.
The Father came out in 1992, receiving more critical attention than any of Olds’s previous books. It tells in painful detail the story of Olds’s father’s death from cancer and of the reconciliation which he and his daughter finally managed between them. Some of the book’s reviewers felt that in this difficult series of poems Olds had gone too far toward betrayal on the spectrum of intimacy. Others, however,...
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saw the poems as a narrative of redemption in which the daughter who once wrote angrily about the inadequacy of a gift, a dress, her father sent her after her parents’ divorce (she had loved the dress until her mother told her that her father had merely sent the money and a direction that the mother should choose the gift) now could find a way to reconcile with a man who had caused a great deal of pain in her life.
The poems trace the events of her father’s illness chronologically, tracing in detail the care she gives him on her visits, recalling their angry past, describing parts of her father’s body—his eyes, the tumor, even his penis—with suffering care. With the last poems in the collection, the reader finds Olds’s consolations, at first in her growing identification with her father as she recognizes how they are similar in looks and how they can at last share some mutual understanding. Gradually she senses that she and her father have fallen into a sort of atonement, a feeling which becomes even more acute after her father’s death. The last poems describe an awareness that love need not deny past betrayals and abuses, things that still cause pain. Everyone is filled with those sad things, Olds says, and cannot ignore them, but they need not cancel the reality of love. The Father testifies to that love while at the same time honoring the pain.
The Unswept Room also arrived to a very positive critical reception. It was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Awards. The collection continues her themes of sensuality, sexuality, the body and life, and family. This volume, however, finds Olds more at peace and even at times happy. She never loses her courage in writing about facing life openly, aggressively, and honestly.