Sharon Olds, America’s Brave Poet of the Body
In Conversation with John Freeman
Sharon Olds can still remember how furious editors became when she started submitting her poems, 40 years ago. “They came back often with very angry notes,” the 74-year-old poet says, sitting in her small, light-filled apartment overlooking NYU’s campus in Greenwich Village. We’re speaking on a warm afternoon last summer, before the news blossomed into an ongoing outrage. This memory of hers stirs up bewilderment like a warning. For two hours, however, the future president’s name doesn’t pass either of our lips. Wearing sweats and a hand-me-down t-shirt, her face sculpted by curiosity, Olds is illuminated, patient and quick to praise: a benevolent siren on an island as a storm approaches in the distance. “They used to say, ‘Why don’t you try the Ladies Home Journal?’ she continues, her face now crinkling into a frown. ‘We are a literary magazine.’ Very snooty, very put-me-down… women, you know… poems about children?”
A season later, even if bragging about grabbing women by the genitals did not derail a presidential campaign, Olds’ poems about children and desire, about so-called women’s issues—family, and how the complications of loving what can nearly break you—continue to make her one of Americas’s most beloved poets. Her books sell tens of
thousands of copies, her poems were viral before there was an internet. They were and still are taped to the inside of dorm rooms, copied down into notebooks, covered in songs, even tattooed onto readers’ bodies. (“Do what you are going to do, / and I will tell about it” is a popular line). They also render novelists speechless. I once stood in a room of Pulitzer-, Booker- and Nobel Prize-winning writers—“Is that Sharon Olds?” was the question I kept hearing the novelists under 50 asking of the woman with long grey hippy hair tied up in pigtails.
“The poems are generous,” Jeffrey Eugenides has written about them, “brave, witty, and beautiful.”
It is that first word—brave—which is most often leaned on when speaking of Olds’ work. In an already intimate art, she is still willing to go the furthest, the deepest, and unflinchingly claims what is so often used to shame women and celebrates it. “I have lain down and sweated and shaken / and passed blood and shit and water / and slowly alone in the center of a circle I have / passed the new person out,” she wrote in “The Language of the Brag,” one of the poems those editors rejected long ago. She went on to write of all the things she was told not to: mothering, marrying, care-taking, loving, losing, and letting go. In books like The Dead and the Living and The Gold Cell she turned these acts into a mythology of lucid pain and praise, entwining the two in lines so oracular it takes close study to realize they are often written in perfect four-four time, syntax so finely tuned and torqued you also think movement down the page should feel this easy, this inevitable. In her Pulitzer- and T.S. Eliot Prize-winning
collection, Stag’s Leap, Olds used these gifts to chronicle the worst kind of subtraction—of love—into a linked series so fierce it found a way to redefine the exit wounds of love.
That collection—though drawn from the poet’s own divorce—often sent interviewers down the rabbit hole of autobiography, as if Olds’ art was at root confessional. Her roots however go far deeper than Lowell, Plath et al, further back to the transcendences of Emerson’s prosody, the embodied metaphysics of Whitman, and the yoked particulars of Amy Lowell’s verse. All of this feels imminently clear in Olds’ latest book, Odes, a series of beautiful, hilarious, ribald, heartbreaking poems in praise of everyday aspects of the body—from the vulva to the clitoris to stretch marks and even wattles—and the world the body gives us access to. Philip Roth once remarked there was only one subject left that people felt crossed the line of decency: sex and aging combined. If you found my earlier work too much, this book seems to say, perhaps we should revisit a few taboos.
Throughout the process of writing this book, Olds has tried to maintain what one might, for lack of a better word, term a sense of innocence: “I thought it was good for everyone, like good for the world to write about something so beautiful and the fact that it happened to be from a woman’s point of view.”
She feels lucky in a lot of ways, one of them: timing. From the beginning she was conquering new territory.
“One of the ways in which I am lucky is that by some miracle the subject of sexual love had not been written to death before I happened to come along and find it one of the handful of most interesting experiences to write about. I think partly it strikes me that I was in such an innocent life. I was married and I was in love and I was raising kids and I hadn’t had many relationships at all. I’d had a lot of emotional experience. But I was, as far as I knew, married for eternity and very happily so. I can see that if I’d been meeting people in bars, then who knows how I would have written. But I wasn’t. I was writing about sex in the context of love which made me feel kind of free.” Poem by poem, Odes proves that you can shatter taboos and not give up on beauty. In fact, the best way to do it is to begin with beauty. “The world’s beauty enters me by just existing,” Olds says, “and then I want to give back a gift to the world for its gift of beauty.”
How does such a change-maker get made? Olds’ life is a case study of how the plate tectonics of life and culture can press up against one another, giving birth to fire. She was born in San Francisco in 1942, not far from the fault line geologists once thought would pitch that state into the Pacific. This was not the Beats’ San Francisco, a city of flower pajamas and Jimi Hendrix, but a rundown port which was then epicenter of the xenophobic World War II effort to protect its borders from one group of resident aliens, the Japanese. Olds doesn’t remember them returning from the internment camps, but she was raised around an Asian-American population traumatized by having their lives stolen, a moment she made part of her own American mythology. “I was born that day,” she once wrote in “Japanese-American Farmhouse, California, 1942,” “in wartime, of ignorant people,” that last word falling heavy in the broadest term.
Her father was a steel salesman, her mother a homemaker. There were three children, Olds the middle one. San Francisco was across the bay, “it was like Oz,” she says now, her face clouding with 60 years of memory. At age three, after the Olds’ third child was born, they moved to Berkeley. “I guess they could afford it by then, to get a house with a small garden in the back with a big sycamore tree on the sidewalk, beautiful. I didn’t realize it was a very privileged place to grow up.” Olds was weird, musical, private. God was everywhere—she has described her upbringing as “hellfire Calvinist”—and so was a free-floating sense of guilt. “I should say that there’s a way in which my work… is an attempt to overcome my wrong ideas about myself. I think a lot of kids growing up in certain religions have a feeling that they don’t deserve to be alive. I’ve known that feeling since the Calvinists would say… before one is conceived, one is destined to go to hell. This is stuff I thought about as a child.”
If guilt put pressure on from above, from family and the pulpit, the senses and their access of joy and transcendence pushed equally hard from below. The novelist Peter Carey, a long-time friend of Olds, believes this is Olds’ strength—as a person and a poet—that access to her senses. “She is a poet. I tease her that she is a poet every second of her life, inhabiting a heightened unprotected state that would be unbearable to me, I mean, to feel everything, for instance: to stand beneath the stars in Adelaide, Australia and know, in all her cells, her vertiginous new position in the universe. Listening in to her telephone call on this occasion you might, on the evidence of her voice, decide she was a nervous, even apprehensive person. That may or may not be so, but she is also the bravest friend I have ever had.”
As a child Olds began the stripping away of layers with dance. “I used to like to dance to two pieces of music at once when I had a transistor radio on one side of the room and a stereo on the other and I would sometimes put on, like, Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ and then a late Beethoven quartet,” she remembers, her eyes flashing with the memory. “I wanted to be able to dance to both at the same time.” She was not the type to be asked to dance as a young girl, she was a wall flower. But she paid attention, especially when people danced. “I think I knew a lot about eros from my own internal feelings, I had eros from flowers and music and the sky and everything. But then I saw sexual communication [in rock and roll] and I thought I was very glad it existed.”
In conversation and her work, escape through those senses is a perennial theme. “As soon as my sister and I got out of our / mother’s house,” begins “The Sisters of Sexual Pleasure,” one of her best-known early poems “all we wanted to do / was fuck.”
As her work has deepened, Olds has flung her senses further and further, like an epistemological drag net that occasionally hauls up sunken treasure. Time and again her work arcs back and brings forward new relics of the past. In “I Go Back to May 1937,” she enters the past and imagines her parents standing at the gate of their life together. “I want to go up to them and say / Stop, don’t do it… you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of.” She doesn’t, however, but takes their figures and “bang them together / at the hips, / like chips of flint, as if / to strike sparks from them, I say / Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”
She knew early on that she if was going to do this, she’d have to be elsewhere. That she belonged elsewhere. Her parents, for whatever failings they may or not have had, knew this too. After a brief stint at public schools in Berkeley where students finally began to laugh at her jokes, Olds followed her elder sister across the country to the elite prep school Dana Hall, where she read Edna St. Vincent Millay, Whitman, and others. She boomeranged back to California, to Stanford, for her undergraduate work, where she spent her college years with “six dictionaries in her hand,” and then to Columbia for a PhD in literature. It would be the fulfillment of a long dream. “I saw a picture of New York City when I was seven and that was it,” Olds remembers. “Thats where I’m going to live.” I said, ‘What is this place?’ and I was told that is a place where no decent person would ever live and I thought, I’m going there.”
Academic life in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s was stimulating, but hardly the most nurturing place to be a poet, especially for one in hiding. “I had an ambition to actually be a real writer, but ambition was not a very good thing in my church,” Olds says. So she strapped herself to the rack of Latin and earned “a harrowing Master’s degree,” and continued on for a PhD in the face of discouragement, with hopes she could set up a tent somewhere and write in summers. “I handed in my dissertation went to my defense and they wanted to fail me, but my advisor wasn’t there,” Olds remembers. She was eight months pregnant at the time. In her poem, “The Defense,” published in her 1999 collection Blood, Tin, Straw, she describes how, “When I walked into the seminar room / with my dissertation, our son floated in out / before me.”
They wanted (Rip) a dissertation
absolutely new, without one
word (Rip) of this one—except
“the” was all right, and “and.” How much
time shall we give her gentlemen? How about
—nine months. Har, har,
har. My cervix bent, for a moment,
with intimate private hurt. I said,
Thank you. I thought, if you have hurt my child,
if you have curdled my milk with that, I will find you, and I will kill you.
Here is the remarkable collision of Olds’ voice and style at work on the page. It’s useful to know that Olds’ dissertation was a study of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prosody, in particular, how he found a new American sound in iambic pentameter among other forms, putting restrictions on it in meter. Olds doesn’t follow meter here, but that reversal—“a dissertation / absolutely new”—is precisely the kind of Emersonian syntactical choice that spawned Olds’ own prosody, its sprung conversational rhythm and hard-edged irony—the poem tribute and declaration of freedom all at once. For all his formal innovations, though, Emerson’s poetry was so much about the invisible eye. “The sense of the world is short,” he wrote for example in his poem, “Eros.” “Long and various the report.” To truly break free, Olds had to grab hold of and sing through the body, which she does here too. “My cervix bent, for a moment / with intimate private hurt.” “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,” Whitman wrote. Olds might be the first who moved the seat of the soul to the cervix.
That reversal then in the dissertation room was a key moment for Olds. “I thought I was doing something really original, I thought I was going to win something, but all I could have won was most figurative language in the history of the PhD dissertation and fewest footnotes.”
She rewrote the paper, added three or four footnotes per page, stripped out every simile, and she passed through fire with a doctorate and a new sense of what she was for. “The day I finished my PhD is the day I started to write and haven’t stopped. I mean, I started writing when I was maybe 7, 8, 9, 10 but then as a grown up since I was just 30.”
Thus the rejections began but eventually came acceptances and even letters. Olds by this time was married with one child and another on the way. All the energy she had tapped into as a young person, that sense that official discussions of literature was ossified, she channeled into finding her voice, into honoring the life she was living. Muriel Rukeyser was a huge influence, as was Gwendolyn Brooks, and Ruth Stone. All activists. Olds is so often compared to Sexton and Plath but they were the doorways she walked through rather than the framework that made her wish to become a joiner. “I have a huge debt to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton,” Olds says now, “As women born so much earlier than I was they faced infinitely worse crap because no one was even thinking or talking about it yet as a craft, sexism was not talked about that much.”
One of Olds’ great talents has been to absorb influence to sound more like herself. Satan Says, the book which emerged through this germinal period might be one of the most full-throated debuts in American poetry of the last 40 years, shy of Louise Glück’s Firstborn and Lawrence Joseph’s Shouting at No One. By doubling down on figurative language, and claiming what the world, what literature, and what culture told her to forget, she unspooled one of the great sonic additions to American poetics. “I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,” “The Language of the Brag” says, “Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing, / I and the other women with this exceptional / act.” The book was published by University of Pittsburgh press in 1980 when Olds was 37 years of age and it is still in print, its fans as wide and diverse as Marilyn Hacker and George Oppen. “George wrote me a letter when the poem ‘Satan Says’ came out in Kayak magazine,” Olds remembers now, “he wrote me a letter that he liked the poem, and here’s this poem saying shit, death, fuck the father and George Oppen liked it? So I went to his work and found the grammar of the best soul.”
The poems began pouring out of her. Olds would go on to publish four more collections in the next decade, The Dead and the Living, her second collection, setting the tone of for each regular detonation. The book alternates between public and private spheres, and family dynamics of the past and those of her young family. The way Olds hides these seams makes it impossible to label her simply a confessional poet. She is a spiritual poet of earthen mythologies. Alice Quinn, who was then a poetry editor at Knopf, and later of the New Yorker, recalls receiving it and thinking something similar. “Sharon’s compass for the kind of poem she would write was set with her first book so we were prepared for the territory, the angle of vision, the willingness to take on the dramatic aspects of what are for most of us big subjects—love, physical love, marriage, parenthood, vulnerability, estrangement, loss, and more. But the book was extraordinary and the reviews and response of poets predictably intense.”
Olds’ poetry in this period was the sharpest of spades. It is her excavation tool in a metaphysics in which we are all, always, as she put it in a poem about drinking wine and love in middle age, “The Promise,” “we are / taking on earth, we are part soil already.” For this reason, scores of writers who mirror or refract or even simply use the mountain range of their life as a sightline have found her work mesmerizing at a point. Her readings are legendary. The novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje recalled how he once got a speeding ticket in his car, “I was listening to a tape of her reading, and the speedometer had crept up. Sadly I did not use it as my excuse.”
Olds will write as many as hundreds of poems for each book, a small portion going in, the rest wind up in file folders or drafts to mulch for decades. The evidence of this practice sits all around us as the sun climbs higher in the sky and Olds talks to me about privacy, Jesus Christ, and late friends like Galway Kinnell, writers for whom the impulse to compose was fundamentally connected to activism and teaching. The two of them taught for many years together at NYU, and through their workshops have passed a staggering number of America’s best young poets, especially young poets of color, from National Book Award-winner Robin Coste Lewis to Ocean Vuong, Tyehimba Jess, Ishion Hutchinson and Aracelis Girmay.
Girmay was astonished to realize that Olds’ own compositional process would be laid bare in the classroom. “One day she brought in xerox copies of a draft of a poem she was working on. She wanted us to be thinking about revision. The poem was handwritten. The letters were surprising. Rounder than I would have imagined. Un-hiding. I read word after word as though walking a plank. The nakedness of her process took my breath. No poem coming perfectly into the perfectly precise mind of the genius poet but, rather, a trying, a listening, a seeking.
Olds classes are a study in permission. She attempts to remove the barriers to finding a voice she once faced herself. Ocean Vuong, whose collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds was the smash debut of last year, found an unexpected ally in her presence. “There’s a Chinese concept called Wu Wei: the art of allowing a river to flow freely, the art of potent permission, guidance and tending movement in favor of discovery. It is not often we think of restraint as a craft, and yet look at what a fixation on power and conquest has done to our world, our creative thinking? Sharon is a master of Wu Wei—and, in turn, her students find their way to larger waters, without judgment, fear, or shame. What else can that be, for any writer, but a gift, a mercy?”
Over the years, Olds has received some of the toughest critical knocks a poet can receive and continued standing. After she had gained the reputation of a confessional poet for an R-rated age in the 1980s, the eminent critic Helen Vendler called her a pornographer. Simultaneously, Olds’ audience kept expanding and if anything her poems from the late 90s took a turn of ferocious tenderness, like “The Father,” in which Olds finally comes to a kind of peace with the man whose shadow looms over so much of her work. “A week after my father died / suddenly I understood his fondness for me was safe—nothing / could touch it.” It is a cruel thing to have so much revealed so carefully and to be likened to the joyless repetitions of pornography. In person, one feels the effect of such bruises in a watchful measuring of Olds’ posture—do you mean harm. In the classroom, she has made it into a practice. “Of course most of the times the work is mere dud,” says Ishion Hutchinson, whose second book was just made a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle and Los Angeles Times Prizes, “a fact she does not withhold but never beats over our heads as she talks through what to preserve and what not to. Observing Sharon in a class is to become a participant in a poetics of etiquette.”
Here is why Olds’ ongoing study of the people in her own life veers so effectively away from the prurient humble-brag of degraded confessionals. There’s a grace and poise to her gaze as she watches her marriage deepen, her children grow up, and her memories sift new discoveries. “Because it’s art its ok. If it were personal it would not be ok. But I’m enough of a representative of enough people to be common enough in my experience. And I’m not interested in being exposed. I mean as a person I like to see myself as somewhat shy.”
She can wrench the acute nature of an event from just the right details and leave the subject unharmed, as in “High School Senior,” from The Wellspring (1995). “For seventeen years, her breath in the house / at night, puff, puff, like summer / cumulus above the bed, / and her scalp smelling of apricots.” Who cannot recall the strange wonder of a head once so tiny and fragrant attached to a body walking away from home? And who neither has not felt the tectonic violence of becoming motherless? “It was like witnessing the the earth being formed, / to see my mother die,” Olds wrote in “To See My Mother,” from One Secret Thing (2008).
And so here she is nearing her mid seventies, still teaching, no longer married, motherless and fatherless, looking forward to the time ahead.
Olds’ greatest battles have been fought and won or battled to detente, just the past. She has learned that trying to love what is hard to love can sometimes be the precise definition of loving—a personal mission that has prepared her for the lacerating vulnerabilities of aging, specially as a woman, one of the great orienting pivots of Stag’s Leap, which won her the Pulitzer and T.S Eliot Prizes, and now, Odes. “I grew up in a very sexist time, in home and brain, and so I had a lot of exposing to do and I had a lot of growing up to do or healing of negative feelings about being a woman,” Olds says now. “I had to do this as old as I was and am, and I had so much undone work that then in this book I laugh every time I look at it or remember it, I don’t even know what to say, I laugh with a little mild shock, maybe pleasure, that I actually made the book I wanted to make without reference to good taste.”
It’s hard to believe that a book which includes odes to the douchebag, the merkin and the blowjob began with the inspirational permission of Pablo Neruda, but that’s where Odes originated from, almost by accident. A book of Neruda’s literally fell off an old bookstore used book shelf into her friend’s lap, and Ode to Common Things was on the facing page. “I had enough Italian and Latin and I’ve ridden the New York subway for 50 years now,” Olds says, “so I could actually believe I understood a certain amount of the facing page.” More importantly, she was in love at the time and she wasn’t sure she wanted to put this experience into public poems, so she wrote all the personal intimate poems and put them in folders like the ones scattered around us. “And then I was driven. I was lucky with the first one, and, you know, the light bulb goes off and I sat down and wrote ode to the tampon.”
white-jacketed worker who clears the table
prepared for the feast which goes uneaten;
hospital orderly; straightjacket
which takes, into its folded wings,
the spirit of the uncapturable one;
dry dock for the boat not taken;
On it goes, a poem of startling beauty—“folded wings”—for so humble an everyday object. Juxtaposing such odes with odes to her sister, to her late friends—Stanley Kunitz—lends the book looping orbitals of lived experience, how we need silliness in serious moments and then suddenly need to be serious about small things to ground our sense of reality. Seven decades on from her childhood, Olds has found another barrier to push through and found in that breakthrough the core of what she has always hoped to do. To see a thing so clearly for what it is, that doing so becomes a form of praise, something she spent decades doing with her parents.
“Whatever she was to me,” Olds finally wrote on her mother in “The Unswept Room,” (2002) “she was / the human caught in something she could hardly / bear.” That instinct hasn’t left her—the urge to see—it’s just moved the territory forward to yet another part of a woman’s life and body that many are told not to write about. “I have more sensation than intuition,” Olds says now, as we wind up discussing all the objects, people and experiences that tumble out of this book, “so when I’m writing the odes, I’m not having any ideas about worshiping these various parts of the body and, you know, doing praise songs, but I’m really interested in the details… that some intuitions do come out of them my poems are probably like sensation function.” Imagine how angry it’d make those editors today.