Friday, 18 September 2009

Sharon Olds: the Poetry Challenge

I chose Sharon Olds for my first poet in the Poetry Challenge just because the volume of her 'Selected Poems' was on my bedside table. I was first introduced to Sharon Olds' poetry by a friend. Then I heard her read last year at the Wordsworth Trust and I liked the way she opened the reading with two poems by someone else she wanted to share. Few poets do this because it means there's less time for their own work. She was quiet - tall, grey haired, self-effacing, dressed rather drably. But when she began to read, it was the words that took centre stage. Her poems, unlike herself, are bold and assertive. Also unlike her public persona, they are all about herself - the 'I' word is at the centre of every poem. This is her territory.

There's a lot more humour than I expected, like the wry ending of 'My Father Snoring',

'.........He lay like a felled
beast all night and sounded his thick

buried stoppered call, like a cry for

help. And no one ever came:
there were none of his kind around there anywhere.'

But what first got Sharon Olds noticed, was her capacity for 'Writing the Body' and writing about forbidden things. Not necessarily forbidden in terms of censorship, but things that poets didn't write about and women didn't talk publicly (or often privately) about. Menstruation, rape, miscarriage, contraception and sex. It takes courage to write about the things we all think about or speculate about, but prefer not to admit. There's a poem where she imagines her parents' wedding night, another where she catches a glimpse of her father's penis. Then there is the surprise and pathos of 'The Connoiseuse of Slugs'. I found a wonderful reading of it (by a man) on You Tube.

These are passionate intimate poems - with such nakedness the reader becomes a voyeur - party to Olds' most private moments, which are often sexual. One of the best erotic descriptions of love making in either prose or poetry is in 'You Kindly'. In 'Adolescence' she writes about the first fumbling horrors of contraception, with the wit of hindsight. The graphic images in 'Miscarriage' are balanced by the delicate observation:

'A month later/our son was conceived, and I never went back/to mourn the one who came as far as the /sill with its information: that we could/botch something, you and I.'

But 'The Language of the Brag' was the poem I kept going back to, with its long, Whitmanesque lines, following the conventions of the 'heroic brag', but using it to put a woman's achievement in giving birth to another human being, up there, equal to all the other heroic achievements of men.

'I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire
and the crossing of waterfalls, I have dragged around

my belly big with cowardice and safety,

stool charcoal from the iron pills,

huge breasts leaking colostrum,

legs swelling, hands swelling,

face swelling and reddening, hair

falling out, inner sex

stabbed again and again with pain like a knife.

I have lain down.

I have lain down and sweated and shaken

and passed blood and shit and water and

slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have

passed the new person out

and they have lifted the new person free of the act

and wiped the new person free of that

language of blood like praise all over the body.'

If I have a criticism of this selection, it is because there are too many poems on the death of her father. By the sheer weight of numbers they tip the balance in one direction. Her troubled relationship with her father - both before and after her parents' divorce - has obviously been of great importance in her life, but I could have done with fewer poems. In 'Beyond Harm' the last lines point up the difficulty of their relationship. As Olds' father lay dying, just before he sank into coma, he told her that he loved her, a statement she had never felt able to rely on and couldn't even then.

'......Right up to the last
moment, I could make some mistake, offend him, and with
one of his old mouths of disgust he could re-

skew my life. I did not think of it,

I was helping to take care of him,

wiping his face and watching him.

But then, a while after he died,

I suddenly thought, with amazement, he will always

love me now, and I laughed - he was dead, dead!'

Olds' poetry reminds me of Anne Sexton - but these poems are forensic rather than neurotic. She examines the interior landscape of her own body with the rigour of a scientist, adding the sense of wonder you'd expect from an explorer who has just landed on the shores of an undiscovered country. She dissects flesh and bone like an anatomist, analyses emotions like wiring diagrams, showing you just how, exactly, it all works.

And the poems are structured with the same precision - the rhythms carrying you unobtrusively, relentlessly through the poem, with the stresses falling in all the important places, making you look at words you might otherwise have glanced over, revealing meanings you'd never have guessed at.

But I did wonder how her partners or her children felt about being written about so graphically - you can't write truthfully about your own life without also exposing others. Do you have the right to make their lives public too?

I sometimes found the subject matter unsettling, but the writing is wonderful - two or three of the poems (the Language of the Brag for instance) were worth the whole book.

'I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.'

Sharon Olds talking about her poetry.


  1. An interesting post. I must say every time I read one of your posts I think I really must find more time for poetry.
    The thing I love about poetry is it is so personal. For each of us a poem may (or perhaps will) mean different things. Then again that may be the case with all writing and the dialogue that an author has with his/her readers.
    I have to say when I heard 'The Connoiseuse of Slugs' I was reduced to tears of laughter. I wonder what Olds intended?

  2. I love the slug poem too - I'm glad you laughed! I'm sure that's what she meant you to do. Your comment about the personal in poetry made me think - maybe that's what makes a good poem, that it has the ability to say lots of things to different people. And it's the ultimate challenge to be able to use words to do that. How the h***** does one ever get there!

  3. That really does sound like a fantastic collection, especially when you mention Olds trying to put female specific achievements on the same level as mens. Great review of it as well, by the way I bet it's fun to talk to you about books :)

  4. Hi Kathleen,
    I've nominated you for a Splash Award
    Hope you enjoy it.

  5. I came over here from Bookgazing because you mentioned Sharon Olds in your comment. I've read her poetry since the 1980s when she came to the U of MD and did a reading. It was a great reading (one of her selections was "The Pope's Penis") and I've been a fan ever since.

  6. Glad you dropped in Jeanne. I think Sharon Olds is wonderful - it's great to be able to share that enthusiasm.