Sharon Olds 1942–
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.
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.
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 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.