Sharon Olds

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Sharon Olds American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3230

Olds has said that poetry has several wellsprings. It functions as the artist’s release for personal emotion and satisfies the human desire to create beauty. It also establishes human interconnectedness by revealing writer to reader in an especially intimate way, and it bears witness for life and for the parts of the world that have no voice. That statement serves well as an introduction to Olds’s work, for it implies much about her subjects, her themes, and her language.

Olds’s poetry is, first of all, accessible. Without sacrificing poetic power, she nevertheless is careful to ground her reader in the poems. (Some early reviewers faulted her, in fact, for being too explicit, for explaining too much.) Settings and characters are from daily life—men, women, lovers, children. Her topics range from Chinese food to the atrocities recorded in the newspapers to the death of her estranged father.

Olds’s language is as accessible as her subject matter; her syntax is usually composed of the direct structures of the speaking voice. Her diction is from daily life as well, with a strong presence of blunt sexual words. Commenting on her first book, Satan Says, some reviewers condemned her for overusing vulgarities and suggested that she was merely trying for shock effects. Yet sexual awareness is a significant element of Olds’s work, and clinical euphemisms would seem out of place in her diction and her often angry tone. In the title poem of Satan Says, for example, the speaker makes quite clear that the curses Satan encourages her to utter against her parents are only part of her “freedom”; the other part is her admission that she loves them, too, with a love that both traps and warms her.

Sexuality holds an important place in Olds’s view of the world. She writes unflinchingly about her sexual experiences, and she is strongly conscious of others’ sexuality, including that of her parents and children. It is part of how she understands herself and them.

Anger and violence are also elements in this understanding. The abuses of Olds’s childhood join with her awareness of the world as a place where the weak and helpless are routinely tortured and brutalized. The nature of Olds’s imagery is such that violence and sexuality often merge in her poems in a way that some reviews have labeled sensationalism. The images of blood, the violent overtone of the sexual act, and the vulnerability of sexuality all seem to allow such connections, however, and Olds makes full use of those relationships. In “Monarchs,” for example, she links the red wings of the monarch butterfly with the blood she shed during her first sexual experience and the dark red of her lover’s “butcher’s hands.”

That Olds’s poems offer the reader an intimate view of their creator is almost understatement, so willing is she to refuse readers nothing in her experience. She describes sitting out a family fight, crouched beside her sister in an upstairs hall; she records her sudden perception of her father as a potential killer while he is driving drunk; she pictures her five-year-old son abstractedly urinating on the front door, his mind on other things. She details the agonizing events of her father’s death. The anger that some of these events call up in her has led some readers to compare Olds with Sylvia Plath, but Olds’s work has themes that counterbalance her anger.

The most powerful of these themes is Olds’s insistent emphasis on nurturing and caregiving. Those themes appear in her first volume and continue to appear steadily in her later poems as well, recording her awareness of what her commitments are by virtue of her sex—the fostering of life and growth wherever it seems possible.

The series of poems called “Young Mothers” from Satan Says makes a good example of the complex relationship between a mother and her infant. To Olds, nurture is far from a sentimental picturing of parental love. The infant is part of the mother herself; it depends on her for everything it receives. She loves and protects it more fiercely than anything else in her life, and at the same time she feels trapped by its dependence, its demands, and its vulnerability.

The Father, Olds’s volume of poems about her father’s death, demonstrates clearly the ironic tension that such nurture can create. In these poems, the reader at first sees a grown daughter returning home to help nurse her dying father. Typically, Olds spares the reader nothing in describing the mouth tumor that is devouring the old man; she pictures his daughter helping him drink, helping him spit and wipe his mouth. Gradually, the reader recognizes the special pain that attends this relationship. This is the cold, rejecting alcoholic father who made the daughter’s life hell and who finally left his family. The wife in the poems is his second wife, not the daughter’s mother. Yet during the horrors of tending him (as well as in the months that follow his death), Olds comes to terms with the hurt he has caused her and at last is freed to state her love for him and to recognize his for her, damaged though those loves must be.

One other quality of Olds’s work demands notice: her ironic wit, which often helps to mitigate the pain of her subjects. In “The Indispensability of the Eyes,” for example, she describes the discomfort she feels in the presence of blind girls; she cites as part of the reason for this discomfort the fact that the girls cannot tell when others are looking at them. She laughs at the sexual stereotyping done by an assistant fire commissioner on a television talk show (“The Housewives Watching Morning TV”). She describes her small children as puppies tangled around her ankles (“Seventh Birthday of the First Child”). Even Olds’s angriest and most powerful poems retain her ability to see similarities, to recognize irony and to use it to soften the harsh realities about which she often writes.


First published: 1980 (collected in Satan Says, 1980)

Type of work: Poem

The speaker journeys back in time to find her childhood self in her troubled family.

“Time-Travel” is a good introduction to Olds’s use of themes concerning her painful past. The title and the poem’s first sentence explain what is happening. The speaker says she has learned to return to the past in order to find doors and windows. The meaning of those apertures is made clear at the poem’s end, but the reader recognizes them already as typical means of enlarging one’s view or of escaping.

The next lines place the poem in time—a hot summer day in 1955. The setting seems to be a lake house, perhaps a vacation cabin, for it has pine walls and a splintery pine floor. The speaker says that she is looking for her father in this time travel, and her slow, deliberate tracing of her steps from small room to big (she even notes the doorway she passes through) suggests the elaborate care, perhaps because of fear or uncertainty, that she is using in this search. When she finds him, it is as if she stumbles over something inert lying on a chair.

The second stanza explains that the father is asleep, sleeping off a drinking bout. Once again, Olds leads the reader carefully through the picture, suggesting reasons for her care. She can somehow own her father, possess him, in this state. She shows him as he sleeps, newspaper comics on his stomach, plaid shirt, hands folded across his body. He looks almost dead. She describes his looks in some detail, but all of his physical characteristics are dependent on the central thing she has explained—that this “solid secret body” is “where he puts the bourbon.” The care with which she has searched for him is partly caused by fear of waking him. The stanza ends with the information that this is the family’s last summer together and that the speaker has learned to walk very quietly that summer, so that no one will be aware of her. The second stanza is enjambed into the third so that a stanza break occurs in the middle of the sentence after the word “walk,” which hangs at the line’s end like a careful footstep.

The third stanza locates the other members of this unhappy family. The mother is weeping upstairs. The brother, like the other children in the family, has escaped to the outdoors. He is in a tent, reading the speaker’s diary. The older sister is “changing boyfriends somewhere in a car.” Only the father seems really at peace; ironically, he is described as a baby, suggesting a sort of infantile quality in his relationship with his family.

The stanza ends with a reference to a twelve-year-old girl who is down by the lake, watching its waves. The speaker approaches her, and the girl turns to face her; the child is the speaker’s young self, who looks up toward the house as if she does not see the speaker but must concentrate on the pain going on in her family. The adult speaker identifies her as the one she was seeking. She looks into the girl’s eyes and sees waves that are somehow a cross between the lake’s water and the air of hell. The poem concludes by explaining what the young girl cannot know: that this pain will have an end and that, of all of her family, she will be the survivor. Once again at the poem’s end, Olds makes special use of a line break, ending the next-to-last line after “one” so that “survivor” rests all alone—like the girl herself—in its line. The line break also creates a sort of pun in the next-to-last line, which says that the girl does not know that “she is the one”—as if, in addition to being the “one” survivor, she has been singled out for some other special gift, a gift she will not recognize until much later.

“The One Girl at the Boys Party”

First published: 1984 (collected in The Dead and the Living, 1984)

Type of work: Poem

A mother sees her daughter’s imminent sexual maturity, even though the girl is still surrounded by childhood’s images.

In the slender action of the twenty-one lines that make up “The One Girl at the Boys Party,” Olds combines three patterns of imagery that underscore the speaker’s recognition of her daughter’s approaching maturity. In the poem, the speaker (that this is the mother is never explicitly stated) takes the girl, a superior math student, to a swimming party where boys immediately surround her. The speaker sees the young people dive into the pool and imagines her daughter working math problems in her head to calculate her relationship to the diving board and the gallons of water in the pool. The girl’s suit has a pattern of hamburgers and french fries printed on it, and when she climbs from the pool, her ponytail will hang wet down her back. The speaker knows that as the girl looks at the boys, she will be recognizing the appeal of their masculinity.

One element of the poem’s language concerns the childishness of the young girl. The speaker calls her “my girl,” as if she is a small child, and places her at the pool party as if she were an infant. Although she will soon become a woman, her appearance is childish, too. The hamburger-and-fries pattern of her bathing suit, her ponytail, and the sweetness of her face all suggest a very young child.

This girl, however, is no fool, as her mother knows. Humorously, the speaker imagines the girl’s math scores unfolding around her in the air, and mathematics makes up the second significant element of the poem’s language. Not only do her math scores follow her to the party, but her quick mind can also make calculations about the pool at the same time she is diving into it. Moreover, she can calculate the interesting qualities of the young men around her. At this point, the poem’s mathematical diction merges with the sexual.

Early in the poem, the speaker compared the girl’s sleek, hard body to a prime number. Now she sees the girl’s face as a factor of one, as the girl evaluates the boys in numerical terms—eyes and legs, two each; the “curves of their sexes, one each.” The speaker knows that this recognition will lead the girl to more interesting calculations, “wild multiplying.”

The language of male and female has been present from the poem’s start. The boys are early described as “bristling”; the girl is “sleek.” So it is no surprise that the end of the poem reveals the girl’s latent sexual power, which is about to appear. It will be considerable, as the concluding image suggests: Many droplets of water, which seem sexually energized by their contact with the girl’s body, fall “to the power of a thousand.”

The tone of the poem is both amused and admiring. Clearly, the speaker respects the girl’s intellect as well as her right to grow into sexual maturity.

“The Lifting”

First published: 1992 (collected in The Father, 1992)

Type of work: Poem

The sight of her dying father’s naked body makes a daughter aware of the depth of their relationship.

The collection from which this poem comes concerns the death of Olds’s father from cancer, and it details her evolving relationship with the cold, alcoholic man who so hurt her and her family when she was a child. The father’s death occurs about halfway through the collection; the poems following his death describe how their relationship continues to grow and deepen even after he has died. “The Lifting” is set not long before he dies, and it incorporates elements that are typical of Olds’s work, particularly in her awareness of her father’s sexuality and her linkage of that awareness to her own being and that of her daughter.

The poem begins with the shocking statement that her father suddenly lifts his nightgown, exposing himself to her. In this action, he violates a powerful taboo between fathers and daughters, and the tension of that taboo permeates the entire poem. The action is made still more complex by the poet’s use of the word “nightie,” a word for a woman’s garment, and a rather playful word at that. Soon, the reader realizes that the setting is a hospital and the nightie is a hospital gown.

The speaker looks away when her father lifts the gown, but he calls her name to make her look. He wants to show her how much weight he has lost. The folds of loose skin tell her how near he is to death. Immediately, she goes beyond the shock of his gesture to notice that his hips look like hers and that his pelvis resembles her daughter’s. When she looks at the smile on his face, she recognizes that he had done this not to offend her but because he knows she will be interested. In a strange way, perhaps because, despite the “thick bud of his penis,” he resembles her and her daughter, he expects her to find him appealing. Despite the strangeness of the situation, she does, and she feels affection as well as “uneasy wonder.” The mystery he seems to evoke is the mystery of generation; the sexual organs she is viewing caused her to exist, and her sex has, in turn, created another person. The three of them are related in a way that somehow transcends the awful pain of their relationship. That pain plays little part in this poem and is not referred to explicitly.

The poem concludes with another reference to the title, this time extending its meaning. Olds describes the hospital gown lifting, rising as if on its own, as if it were the father’s soul rising at death to approach the final mysteries.

“The Exact Moment of His Death”

First published: 1992 (collected in The Father, 1992)

Type of work: Poem

The poet records the details of her father’s last minutes.

“The Exact Moment of His Death” is another poem from the narratives of The Father; in it, Olds examines the strange mystery of the dividing line between living and not-living. At what point, she seems to ask, does the dying man change from being father into being mere inert flesh?

The poem opens with a series of painful details about the physical state of the dying man; he has been so changed by his illness that no one would recognize him. Nevertheless, it is still the man himself, the man with whom the family has come “so far,” the speaker says, suggesting both the journey of the illness and even more the whole difficult journey of the man’s life with them. When he has exhaled his last breath, “light as a milkweed seed,” and the nurse has listened to his heart to confirm his death, for a moment he remains the speaker’s father. Then, in an instant, he seems to change, “as if the purely physical were claiming him,” and in that instant, he ceases to be the father and becomes part of the “unliving . . . matter of this world.”


First published: 1999 (collected in Blood, Tin, Straw, 1999)

Type of work: Poem

The speaker records a moment from her youth when she saw her father naked.

As in “The Lifting,” in “Once” Olds recalls a moment in which taboos are violated and she sees her father naked. In this case, she has opened the unlocked bathroom door to discover him sitting on the toilet where she sees that “all of him was skin.” The bathroom is blue, the color of sky and innocence, and innocence made her open the door, knowing that if it was unlocked the bathroom was empty. Her father has neglected to lock it, however, and she sees him, observes him carefully from toes to nape of neck. She seems surprised that he appears unprotected and shy, even girlish, and she recognizes a sort of common humanity between them and all creatures that go through the rituals of elimination. She calls it a “human peace.”

The speaker apologizes and backs out of the room, but she adds two surprising images for what she has seen. Her father was like a shorn lamb, she says, and like a cloud in the blue sky of the room, thus linking him to ideas of innocence. Now she adds that he is like a mountain road, and her eye has traveled all “hairpin mountain road of the naked male.” She has seen his “unguarded flank,” a phrase that reminds the reader that he is a man who shields himself against his own emotions and those of others, and she has seen the “border of the pelvic cradle,” suggesting the link between his sex and her own existence. She is a product of that cradle, grown in the pelvic cradle of her mother, and, in that moment of vision, she seems to recognize her relationship to both of her parents.

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Sharon Olds Poetry: American Poets Analysis