Sharon Olds (Born 1942) is known for the bluntness in her poetry. Raised Calvinist but fully atheist, one will quickly realize that there is an aggressive opposition to the religious and socially acceptable standards. Where this is admirable to a point, especially in poetic works where one strives to go beyond that of the common man and definitively wants to get beyond the standards of the “progressive” world, her works tend to teeter on an edge of vulgarity that leave the reader wondering “what is the point in this?”.
The Ugliness of Life
Sharon Olds makes no attempt to ease the reader into the turmoil’s of her life. Quite to the contrary her life is presented. The reader finds that they are thrown, sometimes quite forcibly upon the stones of abuse, fear, loss, and sexuality. The advantage to such bluntness is that the reader is given the same experience as the writer in that they do not have a choice but to experience the emotion head on and in all its ugliness. This therefore allows for the reader to have a crisper grasp of the emotion which is presented in poetic form.
The negative in the presentation is that there are those which would take such bluntness as being crude to the point of being non-poetic. I am quite sure that those which would address such to the poet would be met with her credentials and recognition as being the poet Laureate for 1998-2000 for the state of New York. Yet, these readers do pose a point which needs to be addressed. Is the work of Sharon Olds poetic or just a good literary rant? Due to the structure of the work as well as the overall rhyme oration of the works when recited (though there is no clear rhyme scheme to her work), the works are poetic. Whether one agrees with the content is left to personal convictions.
One of the leading factors, I believe, in Sharon Olds popularity as a modern poet is her feminist sexuality. By this it is meant that Sharon Olds addresses sexuality only from the perspective of the female. Such would tend to make since given that she is a member of that sex. Even so, the manner in which sexuality is addressed is skewed so that the woman generally has the upper hand. It does need to be acknowledged that there are a great deal of neutral sexual poems where one could argue that the main character is either male or female (or both interchangeable) such as in Sex Without Love where she compares casual sex to those n a marathon race trying to beat their last record.
Here one can see that either sex could be represented. However, this is not the norm within her work as one can see from works such as in True Love and After Making Love in Winter that the character is definitely female.
Though Sharon Olds has stated that there was an apology from her mother later in life, her poetic works tend to still show that there is an unresolved wound which refuses to be healed. Like a ghastly wound whose surface scab is continually plucked and left to ooze, so is the bitterness to be found within her poetry on life and the experiences of life.
One can certainly understand the usefulness in having a literary outlet in which to focus the frustrations and the traumas of one’s life. Yet, one has to ask if such experiences have been duly noted and expressed completely? If so why has there not been a shift in the tones within her works. Even Dickinson (for whom Sharon Olds studied for a PHD) changed her tone somewhat during the course of life.
Sharon Olds has stated that she wants the freedom of the modern poet without the restraints to form that the classic poets were limited to. However, I would venture to say that the freedom and the structure of her poetry has taken a format as one can see throughout her poems. Where they are interesting to read, the poems tend to have the same narrative structure to be found throughout, all centered around the base tangent of unresolved issues or sex.
It is not being stated that the poet is not at peace with her own life, but rather that her market and targeted audience has been left in a state of unresolved conflict. There does seem to be a slight shift, though very subtle towards a more calming end. These are especially true in her poems on sexuality where the crispness of the knife has been somewhat dulled allowing the reader to enjoy the sensations of the poet rather than feel the victim of some erotic poetic groping.
Poems of purpose
Whether you like Sharon Olds’s works or not, the fact remains that she still poses a very dominant presence in the modern poetic world. She has over 100 published works and has received countless awards for her poetry. Though the content may be hard to swallow for some, it would appear that there are a great many who would love to fix a buffet of her works.
It would be wise for any poetic scholar to at least sample the work of Sharon Olds and look upon it not with a cynical eye, but with a mind that there is to be some truth revealed about life which most would not attempt to address. If one does so, then the poetry will reveal why it is still so popular.