Sharon Olds American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 3230 words.)