Sharon Olds Olds, Sharon - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Sharon Olds 1942–

American poet.

Sharon Olds is known for poetry in which she uses an intensely personal voice to explore themes of domestic violence, sexuality, and family relationships. In much of her verse, she examines her roles as daughter and mother, rendering painfully ambivalent memories of her parents in unsentimental, brutally honest, and often sexually explicit language. In addition to exploring family life, Olds expresses sorrow and outrage for victims of war and political violence. Many critics have noted that her focus on both domestic and public abuse evinces the universal scope of her poetic vision.

Biographical Information

Olds was born in San Francisco, California, in 1942. She completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford University in 1964 and received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1972. From 1976 until 1980, Olds was a lecturer-in-residence on poetry at the Theodor Herzl Institute and has subsequently held numerous teaching and lecturing posts at various universities and writing conferences. Olds has also served as the director of the Creative Writing Program at New York University and has been involved in the administration of the NYU workshop program for the physically disabled.

Major Works

Olds's first book of poetry, Satan Says (1980), is divided into four sections, "Daughter," "Woman," "Mother," and "Journeys," and addresses such subjects as family relationships, domestic abuse, adolescence, sexuality, and motherhood. In the title poem, Olds juxtaposes sexually charged imagery with feelings of outrage toward her parents, particularly her abusive father. In purging herself of violent emotions, however, the narrator unexpectedly moves toward love and reconciliation. In other poems in the collection, Olds celebrates motherhood and the experience of childbirth. In "The Language of the Brag," for example, Olds writes: "Slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have / passed the new person out…. / I have done this thing, / I and other women this exceptional / act with the exceptional heroic body." Olds's second book, The Dead and the Living (1984), is divided into two sections, "Poems for the Dead" and "Poems for the Living." In the first section, Olds's concern with victims and their emotional healing is extended into the

public sphere in poems describing crimes of political persecution and social injustice. These poems center on such characters as a Chinese man about to be executed and a starving Russian girl. In "The Issue," a poem about racial tension in Rhodesia, Olds, after describing a black baby who has been bayoneted, declares: "Don't speak to me about / politics. I've got eyes, man." The second section in The Dead and the Living is less political. Here, Olds returns to more familiar themes, including childhood, love, marriage, and parenthood, with many of the poems addressing Olds's tempestuous relationship with her alcoholic father. The poems in The Gold Cell (1987) continue the family, public, and sexual narratives of Olds's earlier books. In particular, Olds emphasizes the primacy of the body. In the poem "This," for example, Olds writes: "So this is who I am, this body / white as yellowish dough brushed / with dry flour." The Father (1992) is a sequence of fifty-two poems in which Olds describes the slow death of her father from throat cancer. Olds expresses both her compassion for and anger toward her father, using scatological and sexually explicit language to describe the deterioration of his body, which becomes a metaphor for his dismal failings as a parent. The Wellspring (1996) is divided into four sections and traces Olds's life from conception to middle age. Part one focuses on childhood, part two on sexual awakenings, part three on motherhood, and part four on love and mortality.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Olds's works has been mixed. Although many critics suggest that Olds's predilection for sexual description and shocking subject matter is integral to the emotional catharsis of her narrators and necessary for creating empathy for both victims and their abusers, others contend that her works are self-indulgent, over-dramatic, and exhibit a morbid obsession with violence and a puerile infatuation with profanity. Satan Says, in particular, has been criticized for its explicit language, violent imagery, and strident tone. Critics generally agree, however, that in most of her subsequent books, Olds gained control of her emotional topics, creating a more restrained, though still disturbing, vision of humanity. Commentators have also faulted Olds for what they consider her repetitive and predictable subject matter and her underdeveloped connections between public and private cruelties. Despite these objections, Olds has been widely praised for her compelling narration, inventive use of metaphor, and scrupulous honesty in rendering extremely personal emotions and experiences.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Satan Says 1980

The Dead and the Living 1984

The Gold Cell 1987

The Matter of This World: New & Selected Poetry 1987

The Sign of Saturn: Poems 1980-1987 1991

The Father 1992

The Wellspring 1996

G. E. Murray (review date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seven Poets," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 155-60.

[In the following excerpt, Murray discusses Olds's passionate treatment of such subjects as pain, love, and anger in Satan Says.]

If there were a physics of suffering, some way to graph the pain of doubt, assessing Sharon Olds's impressive debut with Satan Says would be an easier affair. Lacking any exact science of emotions, it should be noted that Olds's harsh and shockingly truthful poems, often wrought in a strident pitch, will attract a sizeable following. The style also may rally detractors, for to an extent Olds makes poetry as if she were lancing boils and enjoying it.

With both her masks and straight faces, Olds considers herself, variously, a temptress, carnivore, daughter, victim, mother, survivor, "a murderer / selecting a weapon." Mainly in the fashion of Sylvia Plath and Ai, which is to say passionately lyrical and driven, she confronts her terrors two-fisted, focusing—perhaps too narrowly—a raw, primal eye on life.

The failure of parents, first love, and disillusionment are perennial favorites among "poetical" topics. But on these accounts, Olds seldom falters, as she combines the serious and the absurd, anger and remorse, apathy and desire, spirit and gut-instinct. Finally, it all breaks into intense expression, most memorably in the clever and powerful "The Indispensability of Eyes," "Station," "Indictment of Senior Officers," and "Republican Living Rooms," each with its own biting strategies.

This is not to imply that Olds is altogether unforgiving, though the preliminary flashes of her poetry may lead casual readers to assume that shock value is the governing principle of this work. The fact is that ultimately Olds remains "faithful to central meanings" of love and shared experience, particularly as she renders them in "Monarchs," "Primitive" and "The Unjustly Punished Child." It is with this mixing of blessings—her significant verbal skills and candid emotions—that Olds will doubtlessly gain future illumination for her painful uprootings.

Richard Tillinghast (review date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Blunt Instruments," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 239, No. 11, October 13, 1984, pp. 361-63.

[Tillinghast is an American poet whose work exhibits his skill with varied poetic styles including, like Olds, confessional and political poetry. In the following excerpt in which he reviews The Dead and the Living, he compares Olds's poems to Sylvia Plath's and suggests that although Olds's work is flawed, its overall impact is powerful.]

A brutalized childhood is the storm center around which the poems in Sharon Olds's second book, The Dead and the Living …, furiously revolve. The actors in the drama are indelibly drawn….


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Linda Lancione Moyer (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Witness and Transformation," in Christianity and Crisis, Vol. 47, No. 19, January, 1988, pp. 453-54.

[In the following excerpt, Moyer discusses Olds's incorporation of personal pain and tragedy into her poetry.]

"We crave getting into each other's pain," Sharon Olds said in a workshop a summer ago, and in her three books, Satan Says, The Dead and the Living, and The Gold Cell, she lays open her own. In a poem about her parents' first meeting, she exhorts them to "Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it." She does, the alcoholism, cruelty, incest. Through all, she is the survivor, not only recording but—with the accuracy of her...

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Terri Brown-Davidson (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Belabored Scene, The Subtlest Detail: How Craft Affects Heat in the Poetry of Sharon Olds and Sandra McPherson," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, February, 1992, pp. 1-9.

[Brown-Davidson is an American writer and educator. In the following excerpt, she argues that the poems in The Gold Cell are overdramatic and self-indulgent.]

I am a poet of excess, Definition, "poet of excess": writer who craves the piled-up instead of the pared-down. I recall sitting, as a child, in the darkened classroom as the projector whirred and I waited for the first dead-gray stills of Columbus and his ships to flash onto the screen. I preferred the...

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Clair Wills (review date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Body as Matter," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4711, July 16, 1993, p. 25.

[In the following review, Wills praises Olds's unsentimental and honest depiction of emotionally laden topics and social taboos in The Father.]

Some years ago, Sharon Olds's father died of throat cancer; this book comprises a sequence of poems charting the death of the body, and exploring the emotions and physical sensations experienced by the daughter in the face of the loss of an unloving father. With an easy lyricism, Olds recounts the gradual achievement of a kind of closeness, based not so much on mutual understanding as on an acceptance of the physical, of the body as...

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Brian Dillon (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Never Having Had You, I Cannot Let You Go': Sharon Olds's Poems of a Father-Daughter Relationship," in The Literary Review, Vol. 37, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 108-18.

[In the following essay, Dillon examines Olds's narrative about the relationship between her and her father running throughout Satan Says, The Dead and the Living, and The Gold Cell.]

In her first three books of poetry—Satan Says (1980), The Dead and the Living (1984), The Gold Cell (1989)—as well as recently published poems not collected into book form, Sharon Olds describes a dysfunctional family misruled by a father whose abuse of power the poems' speaker responds...

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Calvin Bedient (review date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sentencing Eros," in Salmagundi, No. 97, Winter, 1993, pp. 169-81.

[In the following excerpt, Bedient provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of The Father, faulting Olds's self-indulgence but praising the force of some of the poems in the volume.]

Sharon Olds's fourth book of poems, The Father, is easily one of the oddest ever published—even, one of the most outrageous. Consider: a sequence of fifty-one poems on the poet's ghoulish, erotic death-watch of her father, who was hospitalized for cancer, and the grieving aftermath. His dying both steps up and makes safe (unrealizable) her lust to be him and to have him: she is Electra, a babe who...

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Louise Glück (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Forbidden," in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry, The Ecco Press, 1994, pp. 53-63.

[Glück is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she faults the poems in The Father for being repetitive.]

Sharon Olds is a poet of considerable achievement and a wholesome distaste for that most depressing of strategies, the obligatory elevation of the quotidian via mythic analogy. Olds' technique, her fascination with the extreme physical, the unsayable reality, makes a case for her presence here, and The Father seems, atmospherically, to draw on or suggest taboos it doesn't actually investigate. Olds has an astonishing gift...

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Alicia Ostriker (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "I Am (Not) This: Erotic Discourse in Bishop, Olds, and Stevens," in The Wallace Stevens Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 234-54.

[Ostriker is an American poet, critic, editor, and educator. In the following excerpt from a comparative essay on Olds, Elizabeth Bishop, and Wallace Stevens, she examines Olds's treatment of the theme of Eros, or erotic love. Ostriker concludes that although there are similarities between Bishop's and Olds's concepts of Eros, Bishop successfully addresses this theme and Olds does not.]

I would like to talk about erotic discourse in poetry in its widest and most archaic sense, beginning with the proposal that what Adrienne...

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Christine Stenstrom (review date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Wellspring, in Library Journal, Vol. 121, No. 1, January, 1996, p. 104.

[In the following review, Stenstrom favorably assesses The Wellspring.]

In this her fifth collection [The Wellspring], awardwinning Olds surveys her life from conception to middle age with the laserlike attention to emotional and physical detail that is her hallmark. The book's first two sections focus on childhood and adolescence; the self-portrait Olds paints is of a voracious and egocentric child who thirsts for attention and is sensually attuned to all she experiences. Her recollections of her father's casual cruelties (he composed a humiliating tongue...

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Laura E. Tanner (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Death-Watch: Terminal Illness and the Gaze in Sharon Olds's The Father," in Mosaic, Vol. 29, No. 1, March, 1996, pp. 103-21.

[Tanner is the author of Intimate Violence: Reading Rape and Torture in Twentieth-Century Fiction. In the following essay, she applies the concept of the gaze in film and literary theory to Olds's description of her terminally ill father in The Father.]

The publication of Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in 1978 [Screen, Vol. 16, No. 3] initiated a dialogue about the function of the "gaze" that has subsequently moved beyond the boundaries of film theory. Mulvey's discussion of scopophilic viewing...

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Lucy McDiarmid (review date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Private Parts: Sharon Olds's Poems Don't Shy Away from Physicality," in The New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1996, p. 15.

[McDiarmid is an American educator and editor. In the following review of The Wellspring, she discusses Olds's celebration of the body.]

If the body electric that Whitman sang were set in one of Eavan Boland's domestic interiors, and addressed with the affectionate wisdom of Donald Hall, it might become the kind of body Sharon Olds celebrates in The Wellspring—sensual, familiar, beloved. These new poems, her fifth collection, describe the poet's "apprenticeship to the mortal" from her prenatal memories through adult...

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Brian Sutton (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Olds's 'Sex Without Love'," in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 3, Spring, 1997, pp. 177-80.

[In the following essay, Sutton analyzes thematic and stylistic contrasts in the poem "Sex Without Love."]

Sharon Olds's frequently anthologized poem "Sex Without Love" gains power through three contrasts: a contrast between surface approval and deeper criticism of "the ones who make love / without love"; a contrast between emotional coldness and physical heat; and a contrast between the poem's solemn, philosophical tone and its reliance on sexually graphic puns.

Many images within the poem appear to suggest that the speaker admires people who partake of...

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Harold Schweizer (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Matter and Spirit of Death," in Suffering and the Remedy of Art, State University of New York Press, 1997, pp. 171-84.

[Schweizer is an educator and critic. In the following essay, he discusses the therapeutic aspects of the poems in The Father, concluding that the volume "is a book in search of a catharsis and clarification of fear and pity."]

Sharon Olds' poetic sequence The Father records her father's death from cancer. Each breath, cough, spit of mucus, and stool is accounted for. The book is obsessed with waiting, with breathing, with bodily functions of the most intimate and ultimate kind, as if the poet wanted to wrest a secret from...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)

Beaver, Harold. "Snapshots and Artworks." The New York Times Book Review (March 18, 1984): 30.

Positive review of The Dead and the Living in which Beaver discusses the volume's focus on family themes.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "Family Values." Poetry CLXIV, No. 1 (April 1994): 39-53.

Examines the treatment of family relationships in Olds's The Father and in the poetry of Laura Riding, Grace Paley, Marge Piercy, and Carol Muske.

Gregerson, Linda. Review of The Dead and the Living. Poetry CXLV, No. 1 (October 1984): 36-7.


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