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Sharon Olds Photo Credit: David BartolomiSHARON OLDS

New York State Poet, 1998 - 2000

Previous Visit:
NYS Writers Institute: January 29, 1998

Sharon Olds is the author of seven volumes of poetry. Her latest work, The Wellspring (1996), shares with her previous work the use of raw language and startling images to convey truths about domestic and political violence, sexuality, family relationships and the body. The reviewer for the New York Times hailed Olds's poetry for its vision: "Like Whitman, Ms. Olds sings the body in celebration of a power stronger than political oppression."

Olds's second volume of poetry, The Dead and the Living (1984), won the Lamont Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Critics praised these poems for their power and their language as they unflinchingly explored sexual abuse and linked it with overt political oppression. A reviewer for the Iowa Review wrote: "What makes these poems gripping is not only their humanity, the recognizable and plausibly complex rendering of character and representative episode, but their language--direct, down to earth, immersed in the essential implements and processes of daily living..."

Sharon Olds is a native Californian who earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Olds is a founding chair of the Writing Program at Goldwater Hospital for the severely physically disabled. She is currently chair of New York University's Creative Writing Program.

"Her best work exhibits a lyrical acuity which is both purifying and redemptive. She sees description as a means to catharsis, and the result is impossible to forget ... Sharon Olds is enormously self-aware; her poetry is remarkable for its candor, its eroticism, and its power to move." David Leavitt, Voice Literary Supplement

". . .another splendid book by this remarkable poet. . .Having poetry like that of Olds is like being blessed with another sense. One would live without it, but not as whole." Virginia Quarterly Review on Wellspring

"What is most striking is Olds's vigorous and fecund metaphorical imagination... In a way, these poems describe a psychic world seen under water..." Joyce Peseroff, The American Book Review

"Olds does not stand outside or above the people in her poems; she speaks out but does not condemn; she is part of the same emotive fabric as they are, and this identification lends her work much compassion." Carolyn Wright

"Satan Says is a daring and elegant first book. This is a poetry which affirms and redeems the art." Marilyn Hacker

"Sharon Olds's poems are pure fire in the hands--risky, on the verge of failing, and in the end leaping up. I love the roughness and humor and brag and tenderness and completion in her work as she carries the reader through rooms of passion and loss." Michael Ondaatje

Sharon Olds, Photo Credit: Mark SchmidtSharon Olds has been much praised for the courage, emotional power, and extraordinary physicality of her work. As one reviewer described the appeal of her poems: "What makes these poems gripping is not only their humanity, the recognizable and plausibly complex rendering of character and representative episode, but their language--direct, down to earth, immersed in the essential implements and processes of daily living."

Born in 1942 in San Francisco, Olds was, in her own words, raised as a "hellfire Calvinist" in Berkeley, California. She graduated from Stanford and then moved East finally to attend graduate school at Columbia. At Columbia she struggled to write like George Oppen and Gary Snyder while working on a dissertation on Emerson. But after earning her doctorate she stood on the steps of the library at Columbia University and vowed to give up all that she learned at Columbia in order to write her own poems, even if they were bad.

This vow freed her, Olds says, to finally develop her own voice, to stop trying to write according to others' standards. Thus, Olds began a seven-year apprenticeship in writing which included an influential class with Muriel Rukeyser.

In 1980 Olds's first book of poetry, Satan Says appeared. The speakers of many of the poems including "The Language of the Brag," "Prayer," and the title poem, proclaim the necessity of transgressing socially imposed silences about the body and its experiences. The speakers in the other poems in this collection never force this necessity, using explicit images to explore abusive family relations, love, sex,and violence.

Olds's first volume displayed what she has described as her poetic concerns: "Questions that interest me include: Is there anything that shouldn't or can't be written about in a poem? What has never been written about is a poem? What is the use, function, service of poetry in society? For whom are you writing (the dead, the unborn, the woman in front of you at the checkout line in Safeway)?"

In The Dead and The Living, which was the 1983 Lamont Poetry Selection and was the winner of theNational Book Critics Circle Award, Olds continued her focus on bodily experience. This time Olds includes more poems about public events such as the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and the death of Marilyn Monroe. Here Olds also presents a larger section of poems devoted to a loving, mother's focus on the entire experience of her children, with special attention,once more, to the bodily.

The Gold Cell (1987) and The Father (1992) followed. Peter Harris writing about The Gold Cell in the Virginia Quarterly Review said that "Olds writes with great flair and often shows a resonant dramatic intelligence in searching out the contexts, or the frameworks of implication, in which to lodge and justify her dark witness-bearing." The Father continues this dark witness-bearing, chronicling a daughter's rage, grief, and bereavement brought forth as she cares for and mourns a father who she remembers failing to care for her.

In Olds's latest book The Wellspring many of these same themes return but the speaker of these poems is often older recalling her youth as in "Necking"and "Adolescence" or reflecting upon her grown children as in "My Son, The Man." Lucy McDiarmid writing for the New York Times hailed this book for its vision: "Like Whitman, Ms. Olds sings the body in celebration of a power stronger than political oppression."

Olds is currently an Associate Professor at New York University. She also conducts a number of workshops across the country including at The Omega Institute, The Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, and the In the Wilderness program. Olds helped found NYU's creative writing program for the physically disabled at Goldwater Hospital in New York City.


Books by Sharon Olds:

The Dead and the Living Satan SongsThe Wellspring The Gold Cell


from the works of Sharon Olds

I Go Back to May 1937 (from The Gold Cell)
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don't do it--she's the wrong woman,
he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don't do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls 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.

I Go Back to May 1937 (from The Gold Cell)
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don't do it--she's the wrong woman,
he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don't do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls 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.


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