Pamela Johnson on the quest of Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds has been exploring the vertical dimension, writing about her roots, for over thirty years. There is nothing unusual about a writer drawing upon core childhood experiences – the young Virginia Woolf lying awake listening to the sea or Philip Larkin shrouded in boredom in Coventry, his childhood famously “unspent.” Woolf and Larkin explored these themes across a lifetime’s work, embedded in character or metaphor, sometimes directly as in Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.” Olds stands out as a poet of the continual direct address, turning her unflinching gaze on the minutiae of that fucking up.

Where others might codify or speak obliquely from behind a mask, Olds, in a conversational tone, takes us over the threshold of what is generally thought to be acceptable in polite conversation. Unembarrassable, she takes us right up to the father’s bourbon-soaked breath even tunnels, “all the way down to the beginning, the / curved chamber of the balls” (The Source), imagining single sperms waiting to become her siblings.

Such probing raises questions: does she go too far? Does it always make for good poetry? Few readers remain neutral about the work; it is easy to judge – love it, hate it – but, as Virginia Woolf cautions in The Love of Reading, the first act of reading is to begin “by sitting in the dock with the criminal, not by mounting the bench to sit among the Judges.” From an early age Olds knew she was perceived to be on the wrong side of ‘the law’: “I arrived in sixth grade, / a known criminal” (Mrs Krikorian). In one sense her writing might be seen as a means to clear her name.

You can’t choose your muse

In interviews (1) Olds refuses to talk about her family. It is from poems that we glean the dysfunction: the alcoholic, distant father, his “vast body / inert on the sofa, big hand / fallen away from the glass” (Saturn); the seemingly anorexic mother who “wept at / noon into her one ounce / of cottage cheese” (The Pact) and is so emotionally dependent as to seek comfort in the child’s bed at night: “I became a mother/ at seven” (For My Mother). There were childhood beatings – aged eight Olds was tied to a chair as punishment.

The rigidity at home was supported by a puritanical church. “I call it Hellfire Episcopalian. A male God had made and now owned every object and being, and everything meant something. Matter was God’s speech.”

The materiality, the visceral nature, of Olds’s work, centring on, around and inside the body, seem to be her way of countering this ‘hellfire’ view of matter; she claims the body and its objects as the only reliable sites of lived experience, where she may tune in to memory and feeling in order to re-materialise her world. It’s not surprising that apt but startling similes characterise her poetry, as in The Connoisseuse of Slugs where “umber horns / rising like telescopes, until finally the / sensitive knobs pop out the ends” is actually a prelude to recalling her pleasure at the first sight of an erect penis, this “elegant being coming out of hiding.” And, when remembering her mother’s visits to her bed, “her / long adult body rolled on me like a / tongue of lava from the top of the mountain and the / tears jumped from her ducts like hot rocks” (What If God).

She has talked frankly about her relationship to figurative language: “metaphors are scary to me… it’s important to me to believe that bread is bread and not flesh, that wine is not blood;” whereas, she says, “Simile is trying to report what is in the head in relation between different things.”(2)

There is something childlike – certainly not childish – about Olds’s gaze as if being true to what the child witnessed; yet exploring her early life is more than a blame game: “I know about the drinking, I know he’s a tease, / obsessive, rigid, selfish, sentimental, / but I could look at my father all day /… his eyes, / the way they bulge out as if eager to see and / yet are glazed as if blind” (Looking At My Father). The poet is trying to connect to any shred of love and deep attachment. In many poems she seems to see and speak on behalf of her father, singing’ where he could not. She writes of his cigar smoking: “It was / his only song, that drawing in” (The Cigars).

Olds came late to ‘singing’: thirty-seven when she published Satan Says. The seeds of her poems were buried deep beneath muffling topsoil, layers of socially imposed restrictions on language. Attempts to write the ‘right’ sort of poetry while studying for her PhD – a dissertation on Ralph Waldo Emerson – failed to satisfy. On graduation day, aged thirty, she made a pact with Satan: she would give up all her academic learning if she could write poems that were truly hers, “what I wanted was rising up in me. When I was a child, what I wanted that would rise up in me was not what I should want.”

Freed from the prohibitions of home, church and academia, she forged a new relationship with language. In re-negotiating her sense of self, Olds reclaimed the body and objects around the body such as the blue dress, the bourbon, the cottage cheese. These potent sites of memory and experience needed to be brought into the light and into language. Post-Satan Olds’s project was to be ‘accurate’, true to her lived experience.

“If your internal voice says your work is not good enough, turn around and answer back,” said Olds at a writing workshop in 2006 that I attended. There was much talking and listening before any writing. Olds went round the group questioning each poet in turn: Where do you come from? Where do you live now? Where do you feel you belong? What does the speech of your childhood place sound like? On the last go-round she asked: What are you feeling right now? As each person spoke she plucked a potent phrase that seemed, for that individual, to connect voice, past and present; this phrase became the individual’s writing prompt. Some powerful first drafts were produced that afternoon. Olds was not so much tutor as tuning fork guiding us to find the accurate pitch of voice and preoccupation, past and present. As we wrote she said: “Notice what is in your mind and catch that, not what’s supposed to be there.” This tuning process seems to be what she demands of herself, connecting authentically to what is perceived, what is recalled, the past reviewed from the present. Pinpointing the simile, however shocking, she is a poet of heightened, almost Keatsian, perception.

Memory and materiality

Since there is a strong relationship between material things and the way we store memories, potent nouns relating to childhood hold significance. Olds’s unpacking of the word “bourbon” alone – with its associations of glass, tumbler, amber, gold cell – plays powerfully across the collections. Also, memories are not fixed, but are dynamic processes imbued with new meanings each time they’re recalled; certainly for Olds, recall is not a commemorative act, it’s a process of working towards understanding. She circles around her father’s booze and his body, refracting experiences. First bearing witness, being true to the hurt child in a poem such as Saturn, recalling him unconscious each night, “our lives slowly / disappeared down the hole of his life.” Shifting to her father’s perspective she moves back in time in The Guild, imagining him “that young man / not yet cruel” being forced each night to drink when his own father drank, “he learned / the craft of oblivion.” Always in search of that founding love, in The Love Between Us she notes: “That love between us I called stillborn / hung by the feet – lately I have seen it / move, Father.” The feet image resonates powerfully when she writes of how, in his last moments, she “held his foot again, cold / foot of the nearly dead… we had hardly / touched since the nights he had walked the floor at my arrival” (Psalm). Here Olds’s ‘accuracy’ is not about seeking a verifiable, absolute truth, rather she makes poems out of her need to access shifting, subjective, emotional truths.

Many poems enact the process of memory itself. In Little Things a dab of maple syrup left on a plate sees her tunnelling back to her father and forward to her children with the realisation that she learned early to pay “attention to small beauties… as if it were our duty to / find things to love, to bind ourselves to this world.” Thus the reader is invited to heighten their own perceptions of everyday, small beauties, to process their own memories and shifting sense of self in relation to others.

On loyalty and betrayal

Writing frankly comes at a price. Some critics say she goes too far: looking for signs of her father in her children, writing explicitly about their sexuality. She admits that early on, having waited so long, voicing secrets took precedence over moral questions but now she monitors herself along “a spectrum of loyalty and betrayal.” Too much loyalty to the subject is, “a form of suicide for a writer,” but too much focus on self is “a kind of spiritual murder.” She admits she sometimes gets it wrong and has revised early editions: taking out names of individuals; and some poems just don’t get published. Though many poems seem written in the moment, there is often a long delay before publication. Most of The Father was written by the mid-eighties but the book was published in 1992.

Reading across the collections and the interviews, what emerges is Olds’s sense of responsibility to fully understand the cruelties of those founding years – as a daughter, parent, writer and citizen: “This is my / quest, to know where it is, the evil in the/human heart.” (The Quest).

A recent poem, Calvinist Parents, encapsulates Olds’s quest; one of its two epigraphs quotes a critic: “Sometime during the Truman Administration, Sharon Olds’s parents tied her to a chair, and she is still writing about it.” Olds revisits childhood beatings and the poem ends “under that roof, they labored as they had been / labored over, they beat us into swords.” This is a bold answer to a snide critic in a poem that repeats the very thing for which she is criticised.

The second epigraph widens the viewpoint, quoting George Bush Senior’s brother: “My father was a gentleman, and he expected us to be gentlemen. If we did not observe the niceties of etiquette he whopped us with his belt.” Taken together with the last line, we see why Olds, nearly seventy, reexcavates the chair experience; this is refraction rather than repetition. The wider political perspective is there across the work from Vietnam onwards; for Olds the personal is political.

She is often accused of being self-absorbed, but the work is not self-pitying; at her best she refracts incidents from a range of perspectives. Often a poem is formed – as with Calvinist Parents – by revealing connections between personal abuse hidden inside an outwardly respectable family, and political abuse. Olds, as “sword”, makes contest with words and storytelling; she is as true to Larkin’s second line – “they may not mean to” – as she is to his first.

However, there is a sense in each collection that one or two poems are more repetition than refraction. In this kind of editorial misjudgement she is not alone among poets but, given the high-risk nature of the work, this weakness can skew a reader’s response – isn’t Sharon going on a bit? It can feel as if she is, but reading across the collections, ignoring these lapses, this is remarkable work. Olds is a fine poet with a clarity and boldness of voice. Conversational, with moments of lyric intensity, it engages the reader in the processes of memory and understanding. Her forensic digging invites readers to dare to attend to areas of damage in order to encourage new growth above ground.

Sharon Olds was born in San Francisco in 1942. She has a BA from Stanford and a PhD from Columbia. Her first collection of poems, Satan Says (1980) was followed by The Dead & the Living (1983). Her other collections include The Gold Cell (1987), The Father (1992), (1995), Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), The Unswept Room (2002) and Strike Sparks: Selected Poems (2004). Her latest collection is One Secret Thing (Cape, 2009). Olds was New York State Poet from 1998 to 2000. She lives in New York City.

1. All quotes from Olds, unless otherwise attributed, are sourced from various interviews on the Modern American Poetry website:
2. Speaking at the Academy of American Poets, Poets’ forum, October 2008,