Sharon Olds

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Sharon Olds 1942–

American poet and critic.

Olds is regarded as a promising poet on the basis of her first two volumes, Satan Says (1980) and The Dead and the Living (1984). She often writes about pain, anger, and violence with extreme emotional involvement, but she also depicts with gentle humor her experiences as a girl, a woman, and a mother. Despite the intensely personal nature of Olds's poetry, critics note her ability to evoke the universal. They also praise her handling of such contrasting topics as violence and love, death and life, and terror and humor.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101.)

Rochelle Ratner

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[Satan Says is] an emotionally young book; hate and love of parents, woman suddenly out on her own, the frightened wife and mother. Olds's experience can easily be shared: she focuses on simple, everyday occurrences and uses the poem to give them deeper meaning. There are a few first-book problems, such as an overuse of tough sexual words (which after a while seem thrown in for shock value), a self-consciousness about being a writer, too many similes, and a few images which verge on the superficial, but these are all things which can be outgrown easily.

Rochelle Ratner, in a review of "Satan Says," in Library Journal, Vol. 107, No. 6, March 15, 1980, p. 728.

Sara Plath

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Sharon Olds' poems [in Satan Says] are perpetually balanced at the edge of hyperbolic violence—a balance maintained between the deep psychological sources of her poems and the vivid, many-layered imagery in which they are expressed…. There are poems of extreme emotions, and though Olds occasionally becomes mired in her own tendency toward bombast, the many poems that achieve their proper mixture of reality and nightmare are simply stunning.

Sara Plath, in a review of "Satan Says," in Booklist, Vol. 77, No. 1, September, 1980, p. 26.

Lisel Mueller

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Sharon Olds's first book [Satan Says], which is uncompromisingly autobiographical, is divided into sections titled for the roles in which she experiences herself, "Daughter," "Woman," and "Mother." There is also a fourth section, called "Journeys," which implicitly connects the three roles. The poems are passionate and, especially in the "Daughter" group, explosive with pain and anger. She moves (and usually persuades) us by the very passion, even need, of her utterance. By the same token, she sometimes allows her rage to go out of control, using a voice so vehement, a language so hyperbolic, as to incur disbelief, at least in this reader. The line between a language that can accommodate extremes of hurt and outrage, and a language that either distorts or fails to sustain its momentum, is especially thin in the first half of the book, which also contains some instances of uneasy metaphor. In "Love Fossil," for example, the poet's father is compared with a "vegetarian" dinosaur: "massive, meaty, made of raw steak, / he nibbled and guzzled, his jaw dripping weeds and bourbon …" And in "Monarchs" she compares a lover's touch to that of the butterfly: "their wings the dark red of / your hands like butchers' hands …" Even if one accepts the comparison between the orange wings of a monarch butterfly and a man's hands, the match is annulled by the added simile. Monarch wings can't be like butchers' hands, by any stretch of the imagination.

Having got the carping over with, I want to point out that these problems are restricted to the first two sections and are even there intermittent. By far the greater number of her poems are believable and touching, and their intensity does not interfere with craftsmanship. Listening to Olds, we hear a proud, urgent, human voice. The divisions of the book—the theme-and-variations...

(This entire section contains 439 words.)

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approach with its clustering of poems that overlap in tone and subject—accentuate its urgency. It's as though Olds wanted to mine one vein relentlessly and exhaustively before striking elsewhere. The "Daughter" section is an act of exorcism, a way of coming to grips with an unhappy, brutal childhood and the poet's love for a rejecting father. The "Mother" poems explore more fully than I've seen before the complex feelings of a young mother whose overwhelming desire is to protect and whose fear for her children is rooted in self-knowledge. "Journeys" stands somewhat apart from the rest of the book, partly because it is less concentrated thematically and partly because the language is purer and darker, pointing perhaps to Sharon Olds's next volume. (pp. 171-72)

Lisel Mueller, "Three Poets," in Poetry, Vol. CXXXVIII, No. 3, June, 1981, pp. 170-74.∗

Joyce Peseroff

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Sharon Olds survives the battling of an alcoholic father and a mother who "… took us and / hid us so he could not get at us / … so there were no more / tyings by the wrist to the chair, / no more denial of food" ("That Year"). Olds consistently sees her personal survival in terms of the primal, female relationships of Daughter, Mother and Lover. These are, in fact, three of the [four divisions of Satan Says], and the relationships quiver to life in poems bristling with comparison, metaphor and simile—mighty attempts by one woman to connect a disconnected world.

For instance, in ["Love Fossil"] from the section "Daughter" what is most striking is Olds' vigorous and fecund metaphorical imagination…. Father as dinosaur is a fit beginning for Olds' habit of describing the body as spirited, inhabited, and wild…. And in "First Night" (first poem in the section "Woman"): "The inhabitants of my body began to / get up …" as "Rivers changed course, / the language turned neatly about / and started to go the other way."

Throughout Satan Says the language often does "turn neatly about." In Olds' vocabulary ordinary objects, landscapes—even whole planets—are in constant motion. Using verbs which might seem, at first, almost grotesque, she manages to describe a violent, changing universe where "the sky rubs against itself / as if about to create a planet" ("Geography") and trees "looked as if they could do anything—/ put down the other leg and walk away" ("The Opening"). Explanations such as, "When two plates of the earth scrape along each other / like a mother and daughter / it is called a fault" ("Quake Theory"), assign to that primal relationship the weight and gravity of the ground on which all of us stand.

As well as describing the dangers, Sharon Olds creates a standard of heroism for her survivors. In "The Language of the Brag" the accomplishments of a common woman—more heroic than "excellence in the knife-throw" or "the crossing of waterfalls"—demonstrate an "epic use" for her "excellent body"…. (pp. 21-2)

Sea change is a motif in "Drowning," "Pilgrimage," "Encounter," and "Fishing Off Nova Scotia," as well as in the poems about pregnancy and birth. In a way, these poems describe a psychic world as turbulent, sensual, and strange as a world seen under water. In each poem there is a risk the speaker will not come up for air. In Satan Says, Sharon Olds convincingly, and with astonishing vigor, presents a world which, if not always hostile, is never clear about which face it will show her. (p. 22)

Joyce Peseroff in a review of "Satan Says," in The American Book Review, Vol. 4, No. 2, January-February, 1982, pp. 21-2.

Publishers Weekly

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The deeply felt cycle of poems [in The Dead and the Living] concerns the universal experiences of death, both public and private, and life…. From executions in Iran to her own miscarriage, Olds writes about the loss of life with passion, yet control. Her language is direct, her imagery vivid, her subjects credible. There is a poem about her aging grandmother, still witty and full of life, another about her mean grandfather who drank, and her father who resembled him. In "Poems for the Living," Olds confesses her mother's fierce hatred of her husband and the influence of this on the children. In a gentler vein, she tells of her own children growing up, and the depth of a mother's love. This admirable volume is the poet's second collection of verse.

A review of "The Dead and the Living," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 224, No. 20, November 11, 1983, p. 40.

Harold Beaver

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"The Dead and the Living" is a family album prefaced by snapshots of the century's agonies—images of executions, race riots and gory death from Tulsa, Okla., to Chile and from Rhodesia to Iran. O.K., we can take it. At this theatrical distance we are not touched to the core….

Such horrors are thawed by the rhythm of words: They remain static conundrums to be puzzled out with a meditative gaze. Only when this photographic technique of intimate exposure is transferred to her family does Sharon Olds come into her own. It is the private scrutiny that shocks—the day of her mother's divorce, her first period, sex after childbirth, a 6-year-old boy's erection on the back seat of a car. Nothing is too personal, too intimate for such scrutiny.

The confidence of the best of these family portraits is astonishing. Only rarely does Miss Olds fall into cliché or sentimentality. Patterns are traced from grandfather to father to son—a family curse of "cruelty and oblivion" as relentless as that of the house of Atreus. Not that Miss Olds would make such gestures. She is consumed wholly by the present…. Confidences are made without a trace of embarrassment but with a hint of sacrificial pride. Each family, as it were, harbors its own little Dachau. (Here a macabre form of modern self-regard creeps in.) The poet might dream of a perfect father in place of the real one with "his bad breath, / his slumped posture of failure," but the female is as ugly as the male: "Finally I just gave up and became my father."

This identification evolved into the brilliant "Poem to My Husband From My Father's Daughter."…

Even her 6-year-old son is a killer….

So the theme spills over from the public to the private and so to the children themselves. It corrodes the century. Yet Sharon Olds is no Sylvia Plath. Her "bad grandfather" who "wouldn't feed us" and her Hitler entering Paris are the stuff of very private, generous ruminations. They are not the cries of a soul in torment. What lingers is not horror, but laughter—her grandmother's cackling crack-corn laugh when taken on an outing from her nursing home or the poet's own amused celebration of her son's birthday party, which he and his friends transform into something between a bankers' conference and a war game … When the confessional drive is tamed to such life studies, it is not the agony we are likely to remember but the persistent comedy of human love.

Harold Beaver, "Snapshots and Artworks," in The New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1984, p. 30.∗

Elizabeth Gaffney

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[The Dead and the Living] explores the bonds of love and terror that hold a family together. This beautifully structured collection, the Lamont poetry selection for 1983, moves from public to private, from poems for the dead to poems for the living. Always, Sharon Olds's voice is a private one, even in the "public" poems. She insists on making us see the intimate details of public atrocities: the "pale spider-belly head" of a newborn dead in Rhodesia, the face of a starving girl in Russia, the "blazing white shirts" of white men in Tulsa race riots. Her images in this first section of poems are as unflinching and immediate as news photographs.

Sharon Olds takes risks. This is clear as we move into her "private" poems for the dead and the living. "My bad grand-father wouldn't feed us," begins a poem called "The Eye." "He turned the lights out when we tried to read." The effect of this sort of revelation is not to titillate or to unload old grievances, though at times I was taken aback by the poet's boldness. Olds accumulates many details of her family history, some shocking, and with these she weaves new patterns, startling images of recognition. (pp. 497-98)

Sharon Olds's poems for her own children are among the best in this volume. Here her tenderness and her unshrinking eye for detail work together to create new ways of seeing children's growth and vibrant sexuality. Olds is wry, inventive, full of humor and love in these poems…. In "Exclusive," the poet watches her daughter at the beach, "memorizing" her "against the time when you will not be with me," and concludes: "To-day I see it is there to be learned from you: to love what I do not own."

I admire Sharon Olds's courage in The Dead and the Living. Out of private revelations she makes poems of universal truth, of sex, death, fear, love. Her poems are sometimes jarring, unexpected, bold, but always loving and deeply rewarding. (p. 498)

Elizabeth Gaffney, in a review of "The Dead and the Living," in America, Vol. 150, No. 24, June 23-30, 1984, pp. 497-98.


Olds, Sharon


Olds, Sharon (Vol. 85)