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An Introduction to Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds is a relatively modern poet. Born in 1942 in San Francisco, she attended Stanford and Columbia Universities. Little has been written about Olds, since she has only been published since 1980. She teaches at New York University and runs their workshop program for the Goldwater Hospital in New York, and she has enjoyed acclaim in her short career. Olds has won the San Francisco Poetry Center Award for Satan Says (1980), the Lamont Poetry Selection and National Book Critics Circle Award for The Dead and the Living (1984), and the T. S. Eliot Prize for The Father (1992). (Olds, Wellspring) Sharon Olds has been the recipient of endowments from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and she has published widely in periodicals such as The New Yorker, Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly and others. (Olds, Living) Since little is known about Olds' life, she presents an opportunity to be read without the encumbrance or baggage of other critics' opinions or predilections. Fortunately, Olds' speakers are intensely personal, and much can be inferred about the author through them.

Sharon Olds' body of work is dominated by her relationships with her family, especially her father. Although only sparse biographical evidence is available, the tenacious grasp her relationships have on her writing is undeniable. In her early poems, Olds clearly defines her work as very personal and outspoken. Using a dispassionate yet intimate voice, she details lurid experiences with an eerie, yet calm, distance. (Schultz, 777) As an example, the first poem in her first book, Satan Says, shows immediately that she is unafraid of expletives and even vulgarity:

Say shit, say death, say fuck the father,
Satan says, down my ear.
The pain of the locked past buzzes
in the child's box on her bureau, under
the terrible round pond eye
etched around roses, where
self-loathing gazed at sorrow. (3)

With this introduction, Olds prepares her reader for something a little unique and highly personal. Going further into Satan Says, Olds becomes more narrative in her work, and this is typical of her style. She seems to be simply chronicling events that have taken place in her life with the eye of a reporter. Still, her words are poetic, and never does the reader feel that another form would be more appropriate. Susan Schultz states in her review of Olds in The Virginia Quarterly Review that, "Olds holds to arch-realism, and tries to find plenitude in plain speech." She goes further to state that, "Olds does have a voice: it does not seem difficult to match her poems to her picture on the cover of the APR," Hinting that Olds may "look the part." (777) Perhaps it is her voice that has brought such sensation to her modest collection of works, for it is quite new and daring, even in an age that knows e. e. cummings and Allen Ginsberg.

The motif of Olds' speaker's brutal relationships becomes much stronger as her works progress, perhaps this is Olds' response to her father's protracted death. In The Dead and the Living and The Gold Cell, Olds seems to be focused on her relationships with her children, and on remembering herself as a child. In The Takers, her speaker describes her grotesque experiences with her older sister:

Hitler entered Paris the way my
sister entered my room at night,
sat astride me, squeezed me with her knees,
held her thumbnails to the skin of my wrists and
peed on me, knowing Mother would
never believe my story . . . (Dead and Living, 44)

It is with numerous scenes like this, repeated again and again, that Olds uses to create her style. Her fascination with the dark side of family life forces the reader to inquire the source of her inspiration. Is Olds the speaker of her poems? It seems natural that they would be, since they take on an almost "confessional" sound. Olds has written on these subjects nearly to the exclusion of all else. There seems to be very little of love and beauty in the world of Sharon Olds. Still, it is difficult to know if the works are autobiographical without more information on her life and personal relationships. The imagination of the poet can run wild with shocking images that are only partially based on reality. It is possible that Olds' poems are pure fantasy or complete reality, but it may be some time before an analysis of her life can reveal those answers. Regardless of their source, with poems like The Pope's Penis, (The Gold Cell, 19) her compositions linger and leave an indelible image with any reader.

Olds' latest books are dominated by her father, indeed, The Father is based entirely on her attempt to cope with his death. The voice of this memorial volume ranges from the bizarre to the beautiful. Overall, she keeps up her image of her father as some kind of monster, calling back images from some of her earlier books, but one poem defies the logic of the rest. The Race seems to be elevated from Olds' usual inclination towards the disgusting and bizarre, hinting that, perhaps, she may have felt some kindness for him. The Race depicts her frenzied dash to catch the airplane that will take her to her father's deathbed. Atypical of the rest of her works on her father, this poem seems to look on him reverently as she details her desperate journey through the airport:

I who always go to the end of the line, I said
Help me. He looked at my ticket, he said
Make a left and then a right, go up the moving stairs and then
run. I lumbered up the moving stairs,
at the top I saw the corridor,
and then I took a deep breath, I said
Goodbye to my body, goodbye to comfort,
I used my legs and heart as if I would
gladly use them up for this,
to touch him again in this life. . . (26)

The poem ends equivocally, though, and it is difficult to be sure if Olds' speaker has shown a last bit of pity or of love or of nothing. (Dillon, 116) It is difficult to believe that any person can so totally and undeniably hate and detest their father so much that they are incapable of pity.

In her latest book, The Wellspring, Olds' speaker continues her unabashed abhorrence of her father, but it is interspersed with other, more vital poems that tell of her familyóespecially her childrenóand she seems to have taken a large step toward conciliating her past. Overall, Sharon Olds seems to have matured as she has written over the last sixteen years, and she will undoubtedly continue well into the future.

Works Cited

Dillon, Brian. "Never having had you, I cannot let you go":Sharon Olds
Poems of a Father Daughter Relationship." Literary Review 37 (1993) : 108-118

Olds, Sharon. The Dead and the Living New York : Knopf, 1984

Olds, Sharon. The Father New York : Knopf, 1992

Olds, Sharon. The Gold Cell New York : Knopf, 1989

Olds, Sharon. Satan Says Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1980

Olds, Sharon. The Wellspring New York : Knopf, 1995

Schultz, Susan M. "The Double Burden of American Poets." Virginia Quarterly Review
65 (1989) : 773-784

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