Sharon Olds: the frankest poet ever?

Rita Dove gave Sharon Olds two poems in her anthology: Olds is easy to anthologize: pick an Olds poem and you’ve got Olds.  Some of the poets in Dove’s book feel poorly represented, but Olds’ two poems are her.  Olds’ first poem beat Li-Young Lee in a close contest.  Here’s the one she hopes will defeat Gary Soto:

Suddenly my father lifted up his nightie, I
turned my head away but he cried out
my nickname, so I turned and looked.
He was sitting in the high cranked-up bed with the
gown up, around his neck,
to show me the weight he had lost. I looked
where his solid ruddy stomach had been
and I saw the skin fallen into loose
soft hairy rippled folds
lying in a pool of folds
down at the base of his abdomen,
the gaunt torso of a big man
who will die soon. Right away
I saw how much his hips are like mine,
the long, white angles, and then
how much his pelvis is shaped like my daughter’s,
a chambered whelk-shell hollowed out,
I saw the folds of skin like something
poured, a thick batter, I saw
his rueful smile, the cast-up eyes as he
shows me his old body, he knows
I will be interested, he knows I will find him
appealing. If anyone had ever told me
I would sit by him and he would pull up his nightie
and I would look at him, at his naked body,
at the thick bud of his penis in all that
dark hair, look at him
in affection and uneasy wonder
I would not have believed it. But now I can still
see the tiny snowflakes, white and
night-blue, on the cotton of the gown as it
rises the way we were promised at death it would rise,
the veils would fall from our eyes, we would know everything.
If art succeeds as art, there is one thing it is required to have: perspective.
It is the last thing any artist, any painter, any poet, masters.
Perspective is expressed geometrically in painting and grammatically in poetry.
The poem above relies on phrases which establish arcs of space and time, such as “lifted up…I turned my head away…he cried out…so I turned  and looked…If anyone had ever told me I would…and he would…I would not have believed it…But now I can still see…the way we were promised…would rise…would fall…would know everything.
Modern critics take for granted the way various and complex uses of grammar contribute to the physical, formal qualities of a poem—especially the modern prose poem in the Whitman tradition.  The impact of Olds’ poem relies as much on her use of “would” as on her strict content: the father’s naked, dying body which elicits a certain naked disgust.
Grammar, or intricate speech, simultaneously explains and distances any subject in powerful poetic ways.  One might call this style, or method, crowded prose.  The density of intricate grammar, the crowding  into a small vessel (“would” repeated over and over) is similar to the effect of meter and rhyme—which works (when it does work) in that similar crowding manner of “fine excess.” (Keats)
Soto has three poems in Dove’s anthology.  He battles Olds with this one:


At eight I was brilliant with my body.
In July, that ring of heat
We all jumped through, I sat in the bleachers
Of Romain Playground, in the lengthening
Shade that rose from our dirty feet.
The game before us was more than baseball.
It was a figure–Hector Moreno
Quick and hard with turned muscles,
His crouch the one I assumed before an altar of worn baseball cards in my room.

I came here because I was Mexican, a stick
Of brown light in love with those
who could do it–the triple and hard slide,
The gloves eating balls into double plays.
What could I do with 50 pounds, my shyness,
My black torch of hair, about to go out?
Father was dead, his face no longer
Hanging over the table or our sleep
And Mother was the terror of mouths
Twisting hurt by butter knives.

In the bleachers I was brilliant with my body,
Waving players in and stomping my feet,
Growing sweaty in the presence of white shirts.
I chewed sunflower seeds. I drank water
And bit my arm through the late innings.
When Hector lined balls into deep
Center, in my mind I rounded the bases
With him, my face flared, my hair lifting
Beautifully, because we were coming home to the arms of brown people.

Soto’s poem describes (“eight” “July” “I came here” “Father was dead”) without perspective—his poem is a flat list of items: a game is played, “bases are rounded,” “balls are lined into deep center” but we don’t really see it happening in any context; time and space do not come alive for us: the poem is mostly rhetoric.

Olds 99 Soto 83


  1. David said,

    May 24, 2012 at 5:49 am

    Olds gives us an excess of information, little if any of which is fine.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 24, 2012 at 2:48 pm


      Yours is perhaps the common response, and a legitimate one.

      Yours is perhaps an aesthetic philosophy to which I am no stranger: Art is beauty and belongs to the world of taste, of propriety, of civility, and the artist must know not only what to include, but what not to include in terms of putting more beauty in the world. Putting beauty in the world is the prime directive and all other considerations apart from beauty and taste have their time and place, in religion, for instance, or philosophy, or countless other subjects, but not in art.

      My only point, really, is that a phrase like “we would know everything” is significant because of the way it is stated: we would know everything” and this shows a certain amount of artistic talent in how to use language for maximum effect.

      And then we could also say the relationship between the father and the daughter in the poem is beautiful, noble, heroic, loving, understanding, pitying, merciful, sorrowful, etc. beyond the ugly descriptions.


  2. David said,

    May 25, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Tom, I agree with your last observation in particular. If Olds had described her relationship with her dying father in a prose memoir, it could have been beautiful indeed. Instead she poured that beautiful sentiment into an ugly poem.

  3. David said,

    May 25, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Poe would agree that mine is the common response, the response of common sensibility confronted with a poem that violates common expectation of what a poem should be.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 25, 2012 at 8:34 pm

      Poe might say a poem should always be aspiring to be what a poem should be, and that a poem should be perfected as a poem and nothing more—and to know a poem we would have to compare it and know it in terms of what a “prose memoir,” for instance, can convey.

      What can the poem do better than anything else? And how do we perfect what it does?

      If the poem is something useful, like a pillow, we will always have two criteria competing, such as softness v. hardness, and there will always be differing opinions on how hard or soft the pillow should be, or, how much beauty and ugliness should be in the poem, for instance.

      But if a poem is not a useful object, we cannot use such criteria as hard v. soft, or sentimental v. tough, or formal v. free, etc

      We should not get caught in the ‘useful’ criteria trap of either/or.

      Instead, we should measure the poem in terms of what the poem qua poem does better than all else.

      And this measure is not based on opposing properties, but rather a single, sliding scale of a single quality which defines what the ideal poem is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: