Sharon Olds Olds, Sharon (Vol. 85) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sharon Olds 1942–

American poet.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Satan Says (poetry) 1980
The Dead and the Living (poetry) 1984
The Gold Cell (poetry) 1987
The Matter of This World: New & Selected Poetry (poetry) 1987
The Sign of Saturn: Poems 1980–1987 (poetry) 1987
The Father (poetry) 1992

Harold Beaver (review date 18 March 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Snapshots and Artworks," in The New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1984, p. 30.

[Beaver is a German-born English critic, novelist, educator, and editor. In the following excerpt from a review of The Dead and the Living, he commends Olds on the intimacy and realism of her family portraits.]

[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.

The blazing white shirts of the white men
are blanks on the page, looking at them is like
looking at the sun, you could go blind.

But we do not go blind. 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:

Hitler entered Paris the way my
sister entered my room at night,
sat astride me, squeezed me with her knees,

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Carolyne Wright (review date Winter 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Dead and the Living, in The Iowa Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1985, pp. 151-61.

[Wright is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following review of The Dead and the Living, she praises Olds's use of unadorned, concrete description to evoke sympathy and love in scenes of domestic violence and trauma.]

This second book [The Dead and the Living] by Sharon Olds, the 1983 winner of the Lamont Award, is a powerful follow-up to Satan Says, fulfilling all the expectations that first book raised. Grace Paley has said in an interview that "the act of illumination is political … the act of bringing justice into the world a little bit": by bringing into the light lives that have been (to use Paley's words) "unseen, unknown, in darkness," Olds has both revealed and redeemed the most painful portions of her private and public lives, and celebrated that which has brought her a palpable, full-bodied joy. By confronting her own "darkness" fairly, Olds has affirmed the humanity of those who engendered that darkness, and shown herself, in these days of sensationalized telling-all for lucrative book contracts, to be a poet of affirmation. To draw a parallel with nonfiction, we could say that Olds' poetry about family is more in the spirit of Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of Deception than of Christine Crawford's Mommie Dearest.

As is already apparent, Olds' focus in these new poems is on themes which continue to preoccupy her—familial relationships, both those in which the speaker is daughter or granddaughter, and those in which she is wife and mother. In spite of many celebratory and humorous poems (especially in the sections of the book devoted to her chosen family—her husband and children), the dominant impression of the collection's first half is somber-hued, like that of a gallery of Old Master family portraits darkening with age. In what must have been poems difficult to write, Olds gives us, in passages seasoned with anger and leavened with compassion, the cruel, hard-drinking grandfather; the submissive grandmother; the elder sister who shockingly tormented her when they were children, knowing their mother "would never believe [the] story"; the brother who as an adult is still "sending his body to hell," in a protracted attempt at suicide; the mother who "took it and / took it in silence, all those years, and then / kicked [her husband] out, suddenly, and her / kids loved it"; and the father himself, especially the father, with his double bourbons and child abuse—tying his daughters to chairs, denying his son dinner, slapping the glasses off their faces. In the magnitude of what she has to forgive, and the courage, honesty, and gentleness with which she treats the details of the familial nexus, Olds brings a little more justice into the world, and also provides us with a sympathetic view of human love persisting in spite of cruelty and emotional trauma. There is much in the complexity of nuance and interrelation of characters, moreover, in these poems, that reminds us of a good collection of short fiction; as such, these poems are accessible and believable in the same way that fiction is. Olds does not stand outside or above the people in her poems; she speaks out but does not condemn; she is part of the same emotive fabric as they are, and this identification lends the work much compassion:

Finally I just gave up and became my father,
his greased, defeated face shining toward
anyone I looked at, his mud-brown eyes
in my face, glistening like wet ground that
things you love have fallen onto
and been lost for good. I stopped trying
not to have his bad breath,
his slumped posture of failure, his sad
sex dangling on his thigh, his stomach
swollen and empty. I gave in
to my true self …

The preoccupation with the father figure points to the truth of the love-hate relationship, in the nearly equal degree of energy the speaker devotes to those two emotions; and we see the peculiar way in which one transforms to the other, as the speaker gives up the attempt to be other than the object of fascination, and "becomes her father"—as we all are mysteriously inseparable from our earliest origins, and are most truly ourselves when we recognize and accept this truth. There are undertones of the Oedipal complex here—in the bowing to whatever is inevitable about the identity of parents and children, the nature we are perhaps fated to possess—but here the realization of such is less immediately terrifying, more immediately a source of redemption and psychic peace.

What makes these poems gripping (I read the galley proof straight through in one sitting) is not only their humanity, the recognizable and plausibly complex rendering of character and representative episode, but their language—direct, down to earth, immersed in the essential implements and processes of daily living:

My daughter has turned against eggs. Age six
to nine, she cooked them herself, getting up
at six to crack the shells, slide the
three yolks into the bowl,
slit them with the whisk, beat them until they hissed
and watch the pan like an incubator as they
firmed, gold. Lately she's gone from
three to two to one and now she
cries she wants to quit eggs.

No inflated diction or mannerisms here, no italicized Latin or French, no learned footnotes full of elaborate historical explanations or taxonomical nomenclature, but the basics: bread, milk, blood, water, hands, hair, eyes, birth, death, love. Of sixty-two poems in the book, nine of them end with the word life; could it be merely accidental that six of these endings occur in the final section, the poems about Olds' two children?

Concern for the fundamentals, however, does not mean that the poems are devoid of wit, intellect, or extended figurative play:

When I take my girl to the swimming party
I set her down among the boys. They tower and
bristle, she stands there smooth and sleek,
her math scores unfolding in the air around her.
They will strip to their suits, her body hard and
indivisible as a prime number,
they'll plunge in the deep end, she'll subtract
her height from ten feet, divide it into
hundreds of gallons of water, the numbers
bouncing in her mind like molecules of chlorine
in the bright blue pool.
("The One Girl At the Boys' Party")

The controlling algebraic metaphor is appropriate to the daughter's age and primary concerns—early adolescence and its sharpened awareness of sexuality, "to the power of a thousand from her body." The writer of these poems emerges as someone who knows, from living an "ordinary" or "typical" woman's life—marriage, child-rearing, and reflection upon her own childhood family—what is really important between people. Granted, most poets write their "family" poems, but few of these relate their private mythologies in terms of national or global events, few simultaneously keep their personal lives and the larger life of human community in mind, as Olds does here in a poem to her father:

Did you weep like the Shah when you left? Did you forget
the way you had had me tied to a chair, as
he forgot the ones strapped to the grille
in his name?… Did you forget
the blood, blinding lights, pounding on the door, as
he forgot the wire, the goad,
the stone table? Did you weep as you left
as Reza Pahlevi wept when he rose
over the gold plain of Iran, did you
suddenly want to hear our voices, did you
start to rethink the darkness of our hair,
did you wonder if perhaps we had deserved to live,
did you...

(The entire section is 3526 words.)

Alicia Ostriker (review date January 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tune of Crisis," in Poetry, Vol. CXLIX, No. 4, January, 1987, pp. 231-37.

[Ostriker is an American poet, critic, editor, and educator. In the following excerpt, she praises Old's use of intimate autobiographical details and vivid imagery in The Gold Cell.]

The opening section of Sharon Olds's The Gold Cell contains some of her most haunting poems. A white woman faces a black youth with the "casual cold look of a mugger" on the subway and considers how deeply they are in each other's power. Some policemen coax a suicide from his parapet on a hot night, and they light cigarettes whose "red, glowing ends burned like the / tiny campfires we lit at night...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

Anthony Libby (review date 22 March 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fathers and Daughters and Mothers and Poets," in The New York Times Book Review, March 22, 1987, p. 23.

[Libby is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, taken from a mixed review of The Gold Cell, he asserts that Olds's poems are hampered by a preoccupation with morbidity, physicality, and brutality.]

Though it inhabits the same general psychic territory [as Carolyn Kizer's poetry], Sharon Olds's poetry is as raw as Carolyn Kizer's is cooked. The Gold Cell is also a collection about men and boys, fathers and sons. But it enters with an unusual savagery into the familiar arena of Oedipal strife that has been so central to...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Christian McEwen (review date 11 April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Soul Substance," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 244, No. 14, April 11, 1987, pp. 472-75.

[In the following mixed review of The Gold Cell, McEwen offers general praise for Olds's poetry, yet questions her fascination with voyeurism and her reliance on techniques employed in her previous books.]

"I will tell," says Sharon Olds in her poem "I Go Back to May 1937"—and she does tell. She tells all the cruel stories of her rich and complicated childhood, and her readers love it. Here is the father again with his coal-black hair and his cereal-bowl forehead, here is the mother starving herself over an ounce of cottage cheese, here is the older sister who gave...

(The entire section is 2997 words.)

Andrew Hudgins (review date Autumn 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Gold Cell, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XL, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 517-27.

[Hudgins is an American poet, short story writer, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, he offers a mixed assessment of Olds's The Gold Cell, admiring its powerful imagery and narrative flow, yet faulting its haphazard structure and sensationalistic themes.]

Whatever reservations you may have about Sharon Olds's poetry—and I have a number—there's no denying that she's a lot of fun to read. [In The Gold Cell the] poems always open with a great "hook" to grab the reader and the endings are even better—kickers, stunners. But the movement...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Stephen Yenser (essay date Autumn 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Gold Cell, in The Yale Review, Vol. 77, No. 1, Autumn, 1987, pp. 140-47.

[Yenser is an American critic, educator, and poet. In the following excerpt, he examines stylistic and thematic aspects of The Gold Cell, noting that the volume exemplifies a candid narrative handling of painful subject matter.]

"We're here to learn / the earth by heart and everything is crying / mind me, mind me!" That is [Alice] Fulton's Rilkean credo in "Everyone Knows the World Is Ending." In "Little Things," in The Gold Cell, Sharon Olds has her own version: "I am / paying attention to small beauties, / whatever I have—as if it were our...

(The entire section is 2876 words.)

Diane Wakoski (review date September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Gold Cell, in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. IV, No. 12, September, 1987, pp. 6-7.

[Wakoski is an American poet, essayist, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she remarks that Olds's poems exhibit a fascination with destruction, suffering, and bestiality.]

Reading The Gold Cell gives some of the same pleasures you get in the doctor's office reading issues of National Geographic. It makes the news of the world interesting with its award-winning photography and glossy pages filled with articles about esoteric aspects of this earth and our daily lives. Olds' language of physical image and metaphor is never...

(The entire section is 795 words.)

Peter Harris (review date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Four Salvers Salvaging: New Work by Voigt, Olds, Dove, and McHugh," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 262-76.

[In the following excerpt, Harris describes the poems in The Gold Cell as "undeniably gripping," but questions whether the emotional intensity of Olds's verse is merely sensationalistic.]

A would-be suicide on the roof of a city building; a subway encounter between a white person and a black who looks, to the speaker, like a mugger; a newborn child left in a garbage can; a torturer castrating someone; 17th-century Siamese twins, one of whom grows from the other's chest; a man being beaten to death for stealing...

(The entire section is 1709 words.)

Rodney Pybus (review date Winter 1988–1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Matter of This World: New & Selected Poems, in Stand Magazine, Vol. 30, No. 1, Winter, 1988–89, pp. 74-5.

[Pybus is an English editor, educator, and poet. In the excerpt below, he praises Olds's focus on physicality, autobiography, and parent-child relationships in The Matter of This World.]

The American Sharon Olds has made a very strong selection from her three earlier USA volumes, and added a handful of new poems for her first British publication [The Matter of this World: New Selected Poems]. Her work generates so much physical presence, explores so palpably the relationship between a woman's body, feeling and mind, that...

(The entire section is 390 words.)

Suzanne Matson (essay date November-December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Talking to Our Father. The Political and Mythical Appropriations of Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 18, No. 6, November-December, 1989, pp. 35-41.

[Matson is a poet and educator. In the following excerpt, she discusses Olds's use of metaphor as a means of articulating her painful and ambivalent feelings towards her father and as a strategy for healing and empowering the divided self of the poet/narrator.]

When I first composed the title of this essay, I was unconscious of the grammatical—and hence sematic—blur I had built into my project's announcement. Accustomed to viewing the writers under discussion as powerful...

(The entire section is 2658 words.)

Rika Lesser (review date 14 December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Knows Father Best," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 255, No. 20, December 14, 1992, pp. 748-50.

[Lesser is an American poet, translator, critic, and educator. In the following review of The Father, she examines the volume's autobiographical focus.]

Through four volumes of poetry—Satan Says (1980), The Dead and the Living (1984), The Gold Cell (1987) and now The Father—Sharon Olds has engendered a body of work that speaks largely in a voice that is first-person singular. Natural in form (the cadences feel right, like rhythms of the body), conversational in tone, her poems often embrace matters that are unnatural, horrifying,...

(The entire section is 1619 words.)

Lisa Zeidner (review date 21 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Empty Beds, Empty Nests, Empty Cities," in The New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, pp. 14, 16.

[Zeidner is an American novelist, poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she offers a mixed review of The Father.]

William Butler Yeats declared that "only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mood—sex and the dead." Sharon Olds has set out to prove his point, writing with ferocious clarity about the body and "the world / of the nerves," site of all delight and despair. While the message is hardly new, what has catapulted Ms. Olds to the forefront of American poets is her fearless, gritty celebration of a woman's...

(The entire section is 624 words.)

Claudia Keelan (review date October-November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "That Which Is Towards," in Poetry Flash, No. 247, October-November, 1993, pp. 1, 4-5, 14-15.

[Keelan is an editor and poet. In the following excerpt, she offers a favorable assessment of The Father.]

Though I have attempted to discard much of the dogma of my childhood Catholicism, I have never tried, or even desired, to expatriate myself from either the living or crucified image of Christ. I've been looking today at the colored pictures of the Stations of the Cross in an old St. Joseph's Missal I found in the garage. I never realized before how beyond morality the prayers for the Stations of the Cross are. By entering the ritual, one has already agreed on a...

(The entire section is 1284 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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

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

Hamill, Sam. "Lyric, Miserable Lyric (Or: Whose Dog Are You?)." The American Poetry Review 16, No. 5 (September-October 1987): 31-5.

Discusses the metrical structure of contemporary poetry, including Olds's The Gold Cell.

Maxwell, Glyn. "Poets in Abundance: Bedevilled by Angels,...

(The entire section is 168 words.)