Sharon Olds Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Define some of the attitudes that Sharon Olds indicates concerning her father and children.

How is sexual awareness related to her attitudes toward her family?

How does Olds communicate her painful relationship with her father?

What allows Olds to reconcile with the memories of her father?

Can you find justification for her frank treatment of sexual themes in her work?

What evidence do you find in Olds’s work that family relationships are extremely important to her?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Sharon Olds has published several articles, including “A Student’s Memoir of Muriel Rukeyser,” first published in Poetry East and reprinted in the anthology By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry (2000). She also wrote the foreword to Tory Dent’s What Silence Equals (1993) and the preface to a 1997 edition of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Orgy (1965). Olds has contributed to anthologies such as Three Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama (1988), The Armless Maiden, and Other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors (1995), The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone (1996), and Literature and Its Writers: A Compact Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama (2004).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Sharon Olds has earned national honors for her poetry. In 1980, she won the San Francisco Poetry Center Award for Satan Says. Her second book, The Dead and the Living, won the Lamont Poetry Selection awarded by the Academy of American Poets (1983) and the National Book Critics Circle Award (1984). The Father was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry in England, and Blood, Tin, Straw was awarded the Paterson Poetry Prize in 2000. The Unswept Room was a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Her One Secret Thing was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize in England. Olds has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award (1992), and a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets (2002). Selections of her poems have been translated into French, Italian, Chinese, Russian, and Estonian. She is among the most widely anthologized contemporary American poets, with work represented in more than one hundred collections.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Baker, David. Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000. In a brief section on Olds, Baker explains why, though he admires dozens of her poems, he does not admire her books. The Wellspring in particular suffers from its structure and presents a whole that is less than the sum of its parts. He faults Olds, as well, for “sentimentality and exaggeration, even falsification.”

Matson, Susan. “Talking to Our Father: The Political and Mythical Appropriations of Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds.” American Poetry Review 18 (November/December, 1989): 35-41. Matson examines the rhetorical strategies Rich and Olds use in poems addressed to their fathers and argues that, in different ways, both poets triumph over the limitations women face in male-dominated families and cultures. The section on Olds focuses on several poems in The Gold Cell.

Olds, Sharon. “Sharon Olds.” Interview by Laurel Blossom. Poets and Writers Magazine, September/October, 1993, 30-32. In this wide-ranging and lively interview, Olds discusses such issues as influences, her relationship to confessional poetry, and the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal. Comments on Robert Lowell, Muriel Rukeyser, and others.

Ostriker, Alicia. “American Poetry, Now Shaped by Women.” The New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1986, 1. Placing Olds at the vanguard of contemporary poetry, Ostriker suggests that a younger generation of women poets is following in the pioneering tradition of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich.

Scheponik, Peter C. “Olds’s ‘My Father Speaks to Me from the Dead.’” The Explicator 57, no. 1 (Fall, 1998): 59-62. Examines the way in which the speaker in this poem strives “to extract the emotional validation” from her father that he never offered during his life. The poem’s power resides in the conflict between her father’s philosophy and the speaker’s emotional needs.

Sutton, Brian. “Olds’s ‘Sex Without Love.’” The Explicator 55, no. 3 (Spring, 1997): 177-180. A close reading of Olds’s frequently anthologized poem “Sex Without Love.”