Poets, poets everywhere

Sharon Olds, the new state poet, sees her art in all situations

Features Editor

ALBANY -- The state poet, a woman in dark suit, spectacles and silvery gray hair, stands in the well of the amphitheater beneath the State Museum, in front of a few hundred writers, state officials, guests and aficionados, and softly reads these lines:

"I seem to be a lizard, but I am really a fish swimming in a tiny pond.''

If you're thinking: So that's poetry? An 8-year-old could have written that. Well, it is poetry. And an 8-year-old did write it. Her name was Janine.

But Sharon Olds, New York state poet for 1998 through 2000, author of several critically acclaimed books, will tell you that's the point.

Everybody is a poet. Or could be. And certainly should be. There's a wide vein of art that courses through all of us, she might say, and as a culture, we absolutely need to tap it.

"I think people don't imagine what others' lives are like,'' she says. "That's what the arts are for.''


As well as self-expression, there's the matter of understanding.

"We as a species seem to be in need of imagining each other,'' she says. "If I am mugging you, I am not looking at your life from your point of view.''

Olds closes her address, in part, by reading these lines:

"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/ If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.''

If you're thinking that wasn't written by any 8-year-old, you'd be right again. It comes from "Song of Myself,'' by an old man named Walt Whitman who tossed out traditional rhyme and meter to seed the young America's literary landscape with free verse.

As the sixth official state poet, Olds received the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poets at the gathering on Tuesday.

Post-Whitman, Olds aims for a literary harvest in a later America, and she'd put a poet in every elementary school and high school, put one in every hospital and hospice, in every prison.

"There are hundreds of thousands of poets in New York state,'' she says, and they could be employed this way. (There is not, she'll admit later, much money in being a poet these days.)

It would be in an extension of the outreach program that she's championed as an associate professor and acting director of the graduate program in creative writing at New York University. Poets teaching others to become poets.

One outreach has been with terminally ill children and their parents, she says, "so their songs will not be unsung.''

From the '60s

Olds grew up in Berkeley, Calif., which was "very '50s'' in the 1950s, she says. Then in 1958, a sandal shop opened there, a place where they drew an outline of your foot on a piece of paper and made your sandals. She was 16, and it was a first glimpse of "an alternative world.'' She went to boarding school for a while in the East, then to college at Stanford, and graduate school at Columbia University in New York in 1964.

"In the '60s, there was the hope that things could get fixed. I'm definitely a child of that time,'' she says the day after her speech. She mentions "all the hope, the naive assumptions about what was going to happen. . . . Life is very hard on young people,'' she says, and adds, especially now.

But echoes of those old social issues inform in her comments. "The extremes of poverty and riches could be a little closer together.'' She sighs, and says, "Them that's got, gets.''

The truth

Donald Faulkner, associate director of the New York State Writers Institute, presenting the award and $10,000 honorarium, said about Olds: "She does what few in America are willing to do: She tells the truth.''

The truth, in an hourlong interview late the next morning in the Omni Hotel's coffee shop, over tea with milk, appears somewhat elliptical, not something simply arrived at. She answers questions choosing her words and there are a lot of them slowly, carefully, like an elementary schoolteacher with a not a very bright student, one inclined to misunderstand. Perhaps it's the obtuseness of the first question, or that she's been interviewed before.

What do poets do?

"That's different from what everybody else does . . . As poets we have a desire to put into language, or record the language that's already in a part of us . . . to make something.''

Drawing a distinction from other writing, she says it's "something about the shapeliness or shapedness'' of words on a page. "What poets do that others don't is they love the line. . . . It is the intersection of rhythm, the repeating patterns of our rhythms. I guess the rhythms of experience.''

What's the difference between the 8-year-old's words and those, say, by Robert Frost?

Everyone is a poet, she says, and everyone is told they don't know how or can't do it. Which is false. "I think all artists (including painters, musicians and photographers, she says to the photographer taking her picture) know about their art that it's for everyone.''

But about the differentiating quality of Frost's works: "What do I have to say about that?'' Maybe it would take some scholarly study to show what's special about each one, she says.

"I just know that kids need help. . . . Are kids going to shoot someone to express themselves? . . . I see stuff written by children and I know they're proud of it. . . . We've got the resources to give it to them, and kids are dying from the lack of it.''

And finally, she adds, about poetry like Frost's, "The other, it's special and magical.''

Out of Columbia

She received her Ph.D. in English from Columbia University in the early '70s, having studied Emerson particularly. Speaking at a workshop late last year at the Writers Institute in Albany, Olds recalled standing on the steps of Columbia, having gotten the piece of paper that they couldn't take away from her, and making a vow: "I would give up all I learned if I could just write my own poems.''

She called it a vow to Satan, meaning (she explained last week) Milton's disobedient Lucifer who went his own way and wouldn't speak the words of the father, not the satanists' devil.

Her first book, "Satan Says,'' was published in 1980 and received the San Francisco Poetry Center Award. Her second, "The Dead and the Living,'' published two years later, was the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1983 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Is there any money in it?

"I feel, our good writing students at NYU, that many of them have realized that it's rare, very rare, to make a living connected with their art.'' Teaching in writing programs had made it possible for poets of her generation. "And of course if I could get the idea of poets being everywhere, there would be jobs.''

She says they would be like park workers where parks are prized, maybe like FDR's old WPA, which paid artists and writers. "Poets as national resources.'' That is needed, she says, because there's "a lot of bad stuff'' in the culture, and "a lack of community life.''

One of her graduate students started a poetry workshop at the Rikers Island prison's AIDS ward, she says. The guards were being written about, which concerned them. The student started a poetry workshop for the guards. "To me we're at the heart of human possibility there.''

More books

She produced more books of poetry, including "The Gold Cell'' (1987) and "The Father''(1992) and "The Wellspring'' (1996). The Writers Institute in part describes her work this way: "Although she has explored such social upheavals as the 1921 Race Riot, and such culturally iconic events as the death of Marilyn Monroe, she focused on an arc she found herself at the middle of, the poet as daughter, wife, and mother.''

Faulkner said, in introducing Olds, "Some find her poetry disturbing in its frankness.''

Is poetry always autobiographical? Is yours? And how does everybody feel being written about?

Olds says poetry is not necessarily autobiographical at all. "About mine, I'd like to call it apparently personal, apparently autobiographical. . . . Poets will make up things. We'll say we're artists.''

But she says every writer has to make those decisions "about apparently personal poetry they're trying to publish.'' The spectrum goes from "total loyalty I think absolute loyalty, one wouldn't be a writer'' to "pathological betrayal,'' meaning writing in order to hurt those you know. "I'd say between those two, every writer lives, or writhes.''

Price of fame

Olds' poetry has an audience. The 15th printing of "The Gold Cell'' came out last year.

"In the beginning I didn't think anybody would read what I wrote,'' Olds says. "It's a mixed blessing of finding more readers than I ever expected.''

When there have been new editions of old books, "I've gone back and taken proper names out. . . . What I can publish now is extremely limited compared to what I thought I could. . . . All this stuff about betrayal . . . it's now clearer if I can write it or not.''

Then she poses a question: "Whether there is such a thing as creative freedom if you don't burn it after you've written it.'' Fear, she will explain as you drive her across the river for the train to Springfield, Mass., where she has a reading that night, can be an obstacle to writing.

And the evening before, sitting in front of a few hundred people, while Faulkner and then State Sen. Roy Goodman praised her, Olds sat quietly and never looked up, not until was her turn to come to the podium to speak.

How is it to be talked about? What were you thinking when they were talking about you?

"You wonder how you got here,'' she says. "It doesn't seem real.''

First published on Monday, March 30, 1998

Life & Leisure

Copyright 1998, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Sharon Olds