Sharon Olds 1942–
The following entry provides an overview of Olds's career through 1993. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 32 and 39.
Olds is a highly regarded, prizewinning poet who uses an intensely personal voice to explore themes of domestic and political violence, sexuality, and family relationships. In much of her verse she examines her roles as daughter and mother, and her painfully ambivalent memories of her parents are rendered in uncompromising, often sexually explicit, language. In other poems Olds expresses sorrow and outrage for the victims of war and political violence. For many critics, Olds's seamless linkage of domestic and public abuse indicates the universal scope of her compassion and poetic vision.
Olds was born in San Francisco in 1942. In 1964 she completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford University and in 1972 received a Ph.D. from Columbia University. 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's first volume of poetry, Satan Says (1980), conveys the primal emotions produced by child abuse. In the title poem Olds juxtaposes sexually charged imagery with feelings of rage toward her parents. However, in purging herself of violent emotions, the narrator moves unexpectedly towards love and reconciliation. In The Dead and the Living (1984), which was awarded the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets in 1984 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985, Olds expands her focus on her traumatic childhood to include poems tenderly depicting the activities of her children and her own role as a mother. Her concern with victims and their emotional healing is extended to the public sphere in poems describing crimes of political persecution and social injustice. Similar themes pervade The Gold Cell (1987), which likewise emphasizes sexuality, the primacy of the body, and family life. In The Father (1992) Olds expresses her grief and compassion for her father during his death from cancer, using scatological and sexually explicit language to describe the deterioration of his body, which becomes a metaphor for his dismal failings as a parent.
For many critics, Olds's predilection for sexual description and horrific subject matter is integral to the emotional catharsis of the narrator and necessary for creating empathy for both victims and their abusers. Others, while recognizing the struggle for forgiveness and redemption in her work, contend that it exhibits a morbid obsession with violence and a puerile infatuation with profanity. In spite of these objections, Olds's poetry has been widely praised for its compelling narration, inventive use of metaphor, and scrupulous honesty in rendering extremely personal emotions and experiences. Frequently associated with the confessional school of poetry, Olds has attained the status of a major figure in contemporary American poetry.