The Poetic Persistence of Sharon Olds

Why critics can't handle the poet's honest depictions of life, death, and women.

sharon olds

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, “The Language of the Brag,” Satan Says (1980)

It hasn’t been easy being Sharon Olds, especially in terms of the critical response to her work, which has been two-fold: to ignore her completely, or to lambast her for “exhibitionism.”

One of my favorite activities as a critic—upon reviewing a book or writing about an author—is to rummage through my substantial collection of literary criticism for sources to reference or contend with. As I sifted through the books (by Updike, Oates, Dirda, Epstein, Krystal, Hardwicke, Vendler, Haas, Ozick, Dyer, Mendelsohn, Aykroyd, Booth, Sontag, Ginsberg, Hughes, etc. etc. etc.), I found only two volumes in which Olds appears. The first is A Jury of Her Peers by historian and critic Elaine Showalter, where Olds is mentioned once, and the second is poet Tony Hoagland’s nonfiction collection Twenty Poems That Could Save America, which actually features a full essay on Olds. Hoagland, too, quickly gets to the heart of the response to Olds’s work in the poetry community with this series of questions that open the piece:

What do you get as a reward for being a poet like Sharon Olds? For having written five-hundred-plus poems that plumb the range of family dynamics and intimate physicality with a precision and metaphorical resourcefulness greater than ever before applied to those subjects? For having permanently extended and transformed the tradition of the domestic poem?

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His answer is, in part, success. But there are other things that come along with popularity and a wide readership:

You are run down by envious peers and overlooked by academics. Your name is invoked like a brand name to denote the obviousness of confessional poetry. You are accused of repetition, narcissism and exhibitionism.

Worse still are the reviews Olds receives from male critics, who seem to revel in first describing and then deriding her choice of subject matter and the ways in which she approaches them. Here’s a real astute piece of criticism from William Logan, in which he can barely contain his misogynistic glee:

If you want to know what it’s like for Sharon Olds to menstruate, or squeeze her oil-filled pores, or discover her naked father shitting, Blood, Tin, Straw will tell you. If you want to know what her sex life is like (it’s wonderful, trust her!), she’ll tell you, and tell you in prurient, anatomical detail the Greek philosophers would have killed for.

This is a disgusting excuse for criticism. The implicit argument is clear: the private life of a woman (the real, nitty-gritty details) should stay just that: private. Throughout her career, Olds has been criticized for “oversharing,” which is basically a euphemism for that woman is being honest about her body. To deny Olds her self as subject (including every aspect of that self) is to deny her personal autonomy, and to posit that the concerns of a woman cannot be inherently profound or insightful as literature.

Adam Kirsch, author of Rocket and Lightship, goes even further to suggest that Olds’s subjects—that is, her life, her body, and her experiences—somehow undercut their literary efficacy:

Her poems are written directly out of the trivia of her life and can be directly assimilated by the reader; there is no abstraction and no surprise, only the videotape of life played back at full volume … The reader of Olds is never made to question himself, only to congratulate himself on his fine sensitivity.

First of all, how appropriate that Kirsch falls back on the so-called general male pronoun at the end. Kirsch seems to think that anything you can literally understand is dubious in art, and that if he doesn’t relate to the “trivia” of Olds’s life, her poems must—must, for how can a male critic fail to recognize the complexity of Olds’s portrait of female sexuality?—be surface-level only. He also offers some simplistic derision of Olds’s direct takes on sex and sexuality:

It is only when sex is made to serve as a metaphorical focus for more elaborate and entangled feelings that it rings true, and becomes poetically alive. And since Olds has one simple and finally unsurprising feeling about sex—that its bodily goodness refutes its social or religious badness—the varied descriptions of sex in her poetry are monotonous.

One might quibble with a few points here (after all, is the argument that sex’s “bodily goodness refutes its social or religious badness” such a “simple” idea to express in poetry?), but the most shockingly short-sighted is that sex must serve some larger, metaphorical meaning in order to become “poetically alive.” Has Kirsch ever had sex? A frank and direct depiction of the sexual act that isn’t exploitive or cloying or riddled with nearly unavoidable clichés—what, I ask you, could be more poetically alive than that?

Anis Shivani (a writer I’ll just go ahead and admit I loathe) named Olds as one of “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers” in an article for Huffington Post in 2011. Other writers on the list include William T. Vollmann, Mary Oliver, John Ashberry, Antonya Nelson, Helen Vendler, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Michael Cunningham, and Louise Gluck. Here are, in part, his reasons for Olds’s overblown reputation:

Female poets in workshops around the country idolize her, collaborate in the masochism, because they say she freed them to talk about taboo subjects, she “empowered” them. Likes to pile on gratuitously, well after she’s made the point about whatever bodily dysfunction is bothering her.

What a load of chauvinist bullshit. Here again, some dude views her poetry as “gratuitous,” which is basically a euphemism for gross. But even worse is the condescension toward “female poets” who feel “empowered” by Olds—who is he to tell them they’re wrong to feel free to write about “taboo subjects”? And, moreover, who the hell asked him, anyway?

Hoagland’s essay is entitled “The Poetic Development of Sharon Olds,” but in thinking about Olds’ “poetic development” during the 36-year span between her first collection Satan Says, from 1980, and Odes, her wonderful and vibrant latest, it becomes clear that there isn’t much “development” at all, inasmuch as Olds’ style, her structure, and her rigorous dedication to brutal honesty have remained the same. I would argue that in the face of such harsh and sexist criticism, in the face of “envious peers” and accusations of exhibitionism, Olds has continued, unabated, doing what she does, unapologetically and without compromise. Rather than condemning her for staying the course (why, after all, does “development” or “artistic progress” necessarily equal improvement?), I want to celebrate her stylistic persistence and her ever-deepening self-scrutiny as almost heroic, brave, admirable—and a big “fuck you” to inane male critics for whom the reality of women is simply too much to handle.

As if to establish this theme, Odes opens with three poems that demonstrate the subtle depth of those poems about which men like Kirsch get to congratulate themselves for understanding (but also criticize the poet for being understood). Here is a sample from “Ode to the Hymen”:

…I don’t know who
invented you—to keep a girl’s inwards
clean and well-cupboarded. Dear wall,
dear gate, dear stile, dear Dutch door, not a
cat-flap nor a swinging door
but a one-time piñata. How many places in the
body were made to be destroyed
once? You were very sturdy, weren’t you,
you took your job seriously—I’d never
felt such pain—you were the hourglass lady
the magician saws in two. I was proud of you,
turning to a cupful of the bright arterial
ingredient. And how lucky we were,
you and I, that we got to choose
when, and with whom, and where, and why—plush
pincushion, somehow related
to statues that wept.

An ode is a seemingly simple and direct form, fitting for Olds, but again she does much more work than mere celebration. Weaving through the above passage are numerous threads of a woman’s sexual identity: subtle jabs at the invention of the hymen and its subsequent representative virginity, the tragic commonness of sexual assault, and a contemplation of what the hymen represents for Olds as a living body filled with “the bright arterial ingredient.”

The next poem, “Ode to the Clitoris” begins with a series of evocative synonyms for the clit:

Little eagerness;
flower-girl basket of soft thorn
and petal, near the entry of the satin
column of the inner aisle;
scout in the wilderness; wild ear
which perks up; tender dowser, which points;
imp; shape-shifter; bench-pressing biceps of a
teeny goddess who is buff; lotus
for grief; weentsy Minerva who springs
full-armored, molten…

Have you ever read a more loving and lovely description of the clitoris or vagina? Within these various metaphors are subtle suggestions of Olds’s relationship with her sexuality, the self-possession of sensual agency. In these odes, Olds tackles her subjects just as much as she praises them.

Next up is “Ode to the Penis,” in which Olds writes that she finds the male organ “lovely and brave, and so interesting,” but notes her separateness from it:

I cannot imagine you, from within—but as a
sage said of a god, I do not want
to be sugar, I want to taste sugar!
But that’s just my heteromania talking,
and you’re not homo or hetero—or visible
or manifest, you do not exist
except as an imaginary quorum
of all your instances.

Olds crashes from a deity to a hint of fellatio to the political implications of the penis’s inherent sexuality. These are not, Mr. Kirsch, simplistic feelings or reductive ideas, at least not in their formulation. Olds shows herself in Odes, as in all of her work, as a virtuoso at sneaking modes of nuance into ostensibly straightforward poetry.

Now that we’ve seen some of Olds’s new poems in Odes, let’s take a look at some of her previous collections in order to trace this persistence and contrast it with Hoagland’s notion of development. Let’s take The Father from 1992 and Stag’s Leap from 2012.

Twenty years separate these collections, but there is so much to connect them in terms of style and delivery, they could almost have been published back to back. It should be noted, though, that Olds wrote many of the poems in Stag’s Leap around the time of her divorce in 1997, only five years after The Father. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Olds explained the time gap:

One thing about being grown children [during a divorce] is, thank god they’re not little children. At the same time, if it’s one of those marriages that looks really lasting, it’s a possibility they have never considered, and they’re like 30 years old. So, I figured I could just reassure them that this would not be a work of art. It just seemed to me the right thing is to say, “By the way, this won’t be a book for 10 years.”

Even though much of Stag’s Leap was written close to The Father, this doesn’t discredit my thesis here. In fact, I think it confirms my argument. Olds put together this collection using poems from a 15-year period, yet the book is consistent stylistically. In 2013, Stag’s Leap was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. And just recently, it was announced that Olds is this year’s recipient of the Wallace Stevens Award, which brings $100,000 with it. Her persistence has paid off.

Sharon Olds’s The Father tells the story of her father’s death—the build-up, the sickness, the logistics, the worry, the death, the ashes, the aftermath, and the ensuing years. Here we have an exhaustive account of sickness and mortality, filled with Olds’s characteristic bluntness. Take these lines from the poem “The Glass”:

…So my father has to gargle, cough,
spit a mouthful of thick stuff
into the glass every ten minutes or so,
scraping the rim up his lower lip
to get the last bit off his skin, then he
sets the glass down on the table and it
sits there, like a glass of beer foam,
shiny and faintly golden, he gargles and
coughs and reaches for it again
and gets the heavy sputum out,
full of bubbles and moving around like yeast—
he is like a god producing food from his own mouth.

This is undoubtedly a disgusting description, full of enough specificity to make one gag, but to consider this poem from only that point of view would be to completely miss the point. We’re early in the collection here, and Olds is establishing a tone of blunt directness that will run through the rest of the pages. “The Glass” in function can be compared to “Material Ode” from Stag’s Leap, in which Olds breaks the tenuous tone she’d set up in the opening poems. Stag’s Leap tells the story of Olds’s divorce from her husband of 32 years. The first few poems, which depict her husband telling her he’s going to leave, bristle with restrained emotion, like a person holding their breath before a decision is announced. In “Material Ode,” Olds moves into the hyper-personal:

O tulle, O taffeta, O grosgrain—
I call upon you now, girls,
of fabrics and the woman I sing. My husband
had said he was probably going to leave me—not
for sure, but likely, maybe—and no, it did not
have to do with her. O satin, O
sateen, O velvet, O fucking velveeta—
the day of the doctors’ dress-up dance,
the annual folderol, the lace,
the net, he said it would be hard for her
to see me there, dancing with him,
would I mind not going.

Here are the anger and resentment finally announcing themselves. It’s the first time thus far that Olds has directly come out and said how she feels about the situation. The breakdown of the high diction of “O tulle, O taffeta” comes at the line “O fucking velveeta.” The speaker can no longer maintain this air of poetic distance and highbrow laments, so she drops the act and laments a gross, pasty cheese. Her life is no longer like the beautiful fabrics she began with; now it’s as gourmet as fucking Velveeta. Moreover, it marks the first time Olds admits something shameful:

…And when he came
home and shed his skin, Reader,
I slept with him, thinking it meant
he was back, his body was speaking for him,
and as it spoke, its familiar sang
from the floor, the old-boy tie.

The word “Reader” is vital here. The speaker addresses the reader personally—a habit people have when they’re revealing something embarrassing or hard to say—as she admits to having sex with her husband. Coming early in the book, “Material Ode” works well as a precursor to all that follows.

Similarly, “The Glass” prepares the reader for harsh and hard-to-hear truths by literalizing them. Her father’s dripping phlegm as he unsuccessfully expectorates into the glass stands as a signpost of things to come. Things are going to get bleak, it suggests, dark and disgusting and unyielding—so prepare yourself.

In The Father, Olds forms the narrative with a discursive but ultimately forward-moving thrust. One could almost read just the Contents page for a distilled version of the story: “The Last Day,” “The Exact Moment of His Death,” “His Smell,” “The Dead Body,” “Death,” “The Feelings,” “After Death,” and “What Shocked Me When My Father Died” taken together basically tell the same tale. But Olds isn’t interested in narrative complexity so much as she is in the complexity of events themselves. Stag’s Leap is no different. Both collections describe relatively mundane, nearly universal, events—a death and a divorce (to how many of our own lives could such a title be applied?). What makes The Father and Stag’s Leap so fascinating is watching Olds experience each moment and find unique insight that elevates the familiar stories into riveting, original works.

Take, for instance, the opening lines of “His Smell”:

In the last days of my father’s life
I tried to name his smell—like yeast,
ochre catalyst feeding in liquid,
eating malt, excreting mash—
sour ferment, intoxicant, exaltant, the
strong drink of my father’s sweat,
I bent down over the hospital bed
and smelled it.

Many writers have described the pain of losing someone, the confusion, the fright, the ambivalence, the flood of past memories, the magical thinking—but how many have described the smell? Olds herself is surprised at the thought:

I had thought the last thing between us
would be a word, a look, a pressure
of touch, not that he would be dead
and I would be bending over him
smelling him, breathing him in
as you would breathe the air, deeply, before going into exile.

Olds considers both the way she experienced the death and how she thought she would experience it, making a kind of meta-confession. She offers the insight and comments on the conventions.

She employs a similar technique in “Pain I Did Not” from Stag’s Leap, in which she contemplates pain she didn’t experience but she assumed she would: “I was not driven / against the grate of a mortal life, but / just the slowly shut gate / of preference.” Olds repeatedly reminds us that life is never predictable, and more importantly, that the shock of this—of not feeling what we think we should, or how we think others feel—affects us just as much as the event itself.

Throughout her career, Olds’s form has remained consistent. Even when she outright states that she’s going to use a different form, she doesn’t. There’s “Bruise Ghazal” in Stag’s Leap that tosses a handful of the form’s styles into Olds’s standard single-stanza structure. In The Father, there’s a poem called “Waste Sonata.” A sonata is an opaque term, sure, but at the very least it refers to music, and usually music on a big scale. Here “Waste Sonata” is less than fifty lines. One could read these as sly digs at her critics, who seem to so lament her insistence on writing the way she wants. But “Waste Sonata” typifies even more about Olds’s writing than this. Here are the clunky line endings, mixed in with effective ones, and also the abrasive honesty of her lyricism, like this:

Whatever he poured into my mother
she hated, her face rippled like a thin
wing, sometimes, when she happened to be near him,
and the liquor he knocked into his body
felled him, slew the living tree,
loops of its grain started to cube,
petrify, coprofy, he was a
shit, but I felt he hated being a shit,
he had never imagined it could happen, this drunken
sleep was a spell laid on him––
by my mother!

A poorly chosen line-ending like “he was a” must be suffered through in order to get the magic of the following “shit, but I felt he hated being a shit.” And for those concerned with what’s appropriate material for poetry, this poem flies in the face of expectations in that regard. Her investigation into the word shit—“He’s full of shit,” “he was a /shit,” and actual defecation—proves that Olds is as adept at language as any poet, but she focuses that skill on subjects some people—namely, men—have proprietary problems with.

Finally, this poem captures the ambivalence, the evenness, of Olds’s conclusion of her emotional arc in each book. Here are some of the final lines of “Waste Sonata”:

My father was not a shit. He was a man
failing at life. He had little shits
travelling through him while he lay unconscious––
sometimes I don’t let myself say
I loved him, anymore, but I feel
I almost love those little shits that move through him,
shapely, those waste fetuses,
my mother, my sister, my brother, and me
in that purgatory.

Olds doesn’t let herself say it, but she does love her father in some way. She’s able to forgive many of his lesser qualities through the lens of his failings. In losing him, she finds much to gain in her relationship to with him.

Stag’s Leap comes to a similar conclusion about the loss of her husband. In “What Left?” Olds ends on a vague note of equivocality:

…We fulfilled something in each other—
I believed in him, he believed in me, then we
grew, and grew, I grieved him, he grieved me,
I completed him, he completed me, we
made whole cloth together, we succeeded,
we perfected what lay between him and me,
I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me,
I did not leave him, he did not leave me,
I freed him, he freed me.

Here is the same insistence on evening things out. She doesn’t hate her ex-husband, nor does she blame him, though he did blameworthy things. Her father too receives absolution, in a sense, from his daughter.

Critics write of Olds’s poetry as if the “repulsiveness” of it were somehow her invention. If her poetry is shocking, off-putting, or blunt, it’s because life is all of those things. Olds does not invent, she describes. The plainness of her language, the directness of her descriptions and depictions, and the domesticity of her topics combine together to elevate not only Olds’s experiences but ours, and underneath them lay oodles of complexity and nuance. There is less development between The Father and Odes than there is extension—of reach, of depth, of honesty—but not of style or approach. In her work, we see through her eyes the life of a singular human being, uncompromisingly woman, a scathing observer, a keen wit, and, crucially, a poet willing to explore the utter strangeness of existence. It reminds us that our private lives are all disgusting and strange and weird and difficult to share, and won’t let us forget how each moment—from a husband leaving his wife to a father leaving this earth—and how each thing—from fabrics and shit to the cock and the clit—can, with the right turn of phrase, the right kind of heart, kill you as much as it can heal you.

Featured image: Antonio Olmos/eyevine/Redux

About Jonathan Russell Clark

Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub , and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. His essays have been mentioned in The Guardian,,,, Electric Literature, Word Riot, Poets & Writers, and as one of Katie Couric’s Katie’s FYI. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Clark was educated at the University of Oxford, the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, UMass Boston, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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