Sharon Olds: Writing the Extraordinary Ordinary

I love Sharon Olds. I am a little late to the party as she has been on the poetic forefront since publishing her first collection, Satan Says, in 1980. Better late than never though, because Olds is one of my new favorite poets. I have now read Satan Says and The Unswept Room (2004). I bought a used copy of Satan Says and do not regret it, and I rented The Unswept Room from the library (yes, there is a magical place where you can borrow books for FREE! I too wept with joy at this discovery).

I said in a previous post that Jane Hirshfield’s work was prime reading for fall or winter, but Olds’s work is perfectly tuned to dawn or dusk. A muted brightness or darkening pall falls, in turns, over her poems. While you can eat Hirshfield’s work, Olds sets you on fire with her brutal honesty and shining, flawed humanism. With her keen introspection universally applied, one feels the horror, beauty, violence, sexuality, celebration, and sorrow oozing from these two collections.

The poems in these two collections provide a liminal space that takes you to the past, hurls you along through the present like a skier on water, and draws you inside the body and mind, whispering the secrets of both. Her work usually focuses on everyday moments. This is not to say she is writing of boring subjects. On the contrary, that she can see life’s normal events—making love, speaking with a loved one, the birth of her children, resurrecting the past through reminiscence, and even writing—through a somewhat dreamy, sometimes vicious microscope gives her poetry a profound weight that settles on your chest and leaves you gasping for breath.

This ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary is what gives her poetry magic, what makes it transport the reader.

She confesses in an interview, other authors are more imaginative but she likes taking those ordinary moments[1]the ones that comprise real life, and turning them inside out for readers.

Olds breaks through the glass ceiling in poetry, by making “woman’s everyday life as valid a subject for poetry as the grand abstract themes…”[2]. She achieves this with her mostly autobiographical poems in which she sometimes approaches these everyday moments by way of an enchanted path, pushing aside overgrown flora to show us the treasures nestled within. She opens a surreal backdoor into the everyday with poems like “Diaphragm Aria”, “The Tending”, and “Herbal Wrap” in The Unswept Room and “Night Terrors”, “First Night”, “Love Between Us”, and the title piece in Satan Says.  Looking back on my The Lives of the Heart review, I retract my statement that Hirshfield’s poetry was visceral. Hirshfield’s poetry is grounded in the physical: Here, this dark, juicy fruit has the soft, slightly crunching bite of this intimate memory. Olds is visceral: Here, each memory is extracted from the body like organs in an autopsy, and plopped, thick and wet on the table.

Twenty-four years apart, the difference between these two collections of Olds’s work is palpable. It is apparent the poetess has lived more when we get to The Unswept Room. Her slightly more removed and crisp, poignant outlook in The Unswept Room transforms from the fresh, fevered wounds her past carved in the earlier Satan Says. The Unswept Room shows very intimate moments, but they depict a much wider worldview, more informed and deftly conveyed. I thought Satan Says was one of the best comprehensive bodies of poetry I’d ever read. I still do, but going back to it after The Unswept Room was a little like getting a peak at Olds’s high school journals. It was extremely passionate, monumental, and yet a little less mature in comparison. It is still brilliant, but reading these two works chronologically shows exactly what it should: An evolving poet, and her expanding work, subjects and perspective.

My critique must now, necessarily, turn to how Sharon Olds is received. Her work has been called sensationalist, pornographic, self-indulgent, egotistical [3]. Are her poems autobiographical? Yes, and so are Sylvia Plath’s. The difference is Plath is hailed for writing of all the horrible things happening to her, while Olds is almost belittled for writing of good moments too. And yes, her works are sexy, but did not Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg write of sex (the latter quite vulgarly, if I recall)? And aren’t all writers necessarily egotistical? But in acknowledging how harsh Olds’s work has been received, we must be wary of the opposing position—of hailing it as a triumph in “domestic” poetry.

I don’t stand on the feminist soap box often, but this term “domestic” is too often applied to women poets; it feels like a subtle way the patriarchal distinctions between men (greater) and women (lesser) stick around in this more enlightened era. Is some of Olds’s subject matter or settings “domestic”? Sure. Did I myself claim Hirshfield  portrays the domestic? Yes But there’s a difference between noting the use of the subject in poetry and marginalizing a poet’s work as “domestic”.

Olds writes about women, their bodies, children, mother-daughter relationships, and sex. But is poetry written by men about men and their bodies, their father-son relationships, and their sexual lives called “men’s poetry” or “domestic”? No. It’s poetry, damn it.

Okay, stepping off soap box. So do I recommend Sharon Olds? Absolutely. In fact, I think her work would be perfect for anyone who does not consider him or herself a reader of poetry. Her work straddles that line between being poised, dense verse and yet, it’s accessible if you take your time unlocking it. And once you do, you’re rewarded with a high yield.

So, please, read her and report back. Or if you have already, what do you think? Know of any similar poets? Please recommend them.







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7 Responses to Sharon Olds: Writing the Extraordinary Ordinary

  1. I don’t have anything to add. I agree with every word you wrote. And really, how beautifully this post is written pays homage to Olds; I can tell you’ve been reading her because your descriptions of her talent are in and of themselves beautiful. Yes, “domestic.” Yes, “visceral.” Yes, soooo worth it. I have Kenyon on my to-read list now, too. If you find any other poets that remind you of Olds (or Hirshfield, for that matter), please share them with me too!

    • Aww, shucks. Thanks, Annie. I’m glad you approve. I agonized over this post because I wanted it to be good to, like you said, pay homage to her. 🙂 I’m glad you think so. Btw, some poems that were my favorite in The Unswept Room: “First Hour”, of course, “First Weeks”, “The Tending”, “The Untangling”, “Herbal Wrap”, “Pansy Glossary, “49 1/2”, “Forty Years Later”, “Wilderness”, and “Grown Children”. I’m curious to know if any of these made it to your favorites. 🙂

  2. Ashley, I LOVE your poetry reviews. They make me want to read everything you read. (However, I’m not actually in a poetry-reading frame of mind right now, so I just keep adding titles to my list for later.) Honestly, I know that when I get around to reading these poems I’ll like them better because I had your introduction to them. I mean, how I can I read the line, “Here, each memory is extracted from the body like organs in an autopsy, and plopped, thick and wet on the table,” and not want to see the poems that made you write that? Thank you for helping my to-read list grow and for these beautiful images.

    • See? That’s why we’re writing buddies. Because you, too, see “organs plopped on a table, thick and wet” as beautiful 😉 Thank you, Carie. I hope you love them just as much. And you’re welcome for the ever-growing to-read list.

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