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Sharon Olds: Poet

Updated on November 30, 2014

Sharon Olds Writes SENSE-ably

Olds sees common things from odd corners of refraction, where fantasy takes off from the given . . . (from an essay by Kenneth Lincoln)

This is a poetry which implicitly insists that all we know is the body, and our only reliable way of knowing is the body's way of knowing, whether that is a maternal knowledge and love or a daughter's compulsive love of a cruel father's long-shanked frame, or the gum-line tartar, its scent and texture, on a lover's teeth. It is a poetry insisting that to know the body is a little to crack the world's mysteries, but it is a knowledge hard to come by . . . (Roland Flint, poet Lore, 1988)

"Maybe we can use a metaphor for it, out of dance. I think for many years I was aware of the need, in dance and in life, to breathe deeply and to take in more air than we usually take in."

~ Sharon Olds ~

Her Career

In Short . . .

Poet. Lecturer-in-residence on poetry at Theodor Herzl Institute, 1976-80; visiting teacher of poetry at Manhattan Theater Club, 1982, Nathan Mayhew Seminars of Martha's Vineyard, 1982, Poetry Center, Young Men's Christian Association of New York City, 1982, Poetry Society of America, 1983, New York University, 1983 and 1985, Sarah Lawrence College, 1984, Goldwater Hospital, Roosevelt Island, NY, 1985-90, Columbia University, 1985-86, and State University of New York College at Purchase, 1986. Holder of Fanny Hurst Chair, Brandeis University, 1986-87; New York University, New York, NY, associate professor of English, 1992-, acting director of graduate program in creative writing. Founding director, New York University workshop program at Goldwater Hospital, New York.

born in San Francisco, 1942

born in San Francisco, 1942
born in San Francisco, 1942

Poem: The Daughter Goes To Camp

by Sharon Olds

In the taxi alone, home from the airport,

I could not believe you were gone. My palm kept

creeping over the smooth plastic

to find your strong meaty little hand and

squeeze it, find your narrow thigh in the

noble ribbing of the corduroy,

straight and regular as anything in nature, to

find the slack cool cheek of a

child in the heat of a summer morning-

nothing, nothing, waves of bawling

hitting me in hot flashes like some

change of life, some boiling wave

rising in me toward your body, toward

where it should have been on the seat, your

brow curved like a cereal bowl, your

eyes dark with massed crystals like the

magnified scales of a butterfly's wing, the

delicate feelers of your limp hair,

floods of blood rising in my face as I

tried to reassemble the hot

gritty molecules in the car, to

make you appear like a holograph

on the back seat, pull you out of nothing

as I once did-but you were really gone,

the cab glossy as a slit caul out of

which you had slipped, the air glittering

electric with escape as it does in the room at a birth.

What Do You Think?


See results

"I think that my work is easy to understand because I am not a thinker, I am not a...

How can I put it?

I write the way I perceive, I guess."

~ Sharon Olds ~

Her Books of Poetry

* Satan Says, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1980.

* The Dead and the Living, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.

* The Gold Cell, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.

* The Matter of This World, Slow Dancer Press, 1987.

* The Sign of Saturn, Secker & Warburg, 1991.

* The Father, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.

* The Wellspring: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.

* Blood, Tin, Straw, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.

* The Unswept Room, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.

* Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.

* One Secret Thing, Knopf (New York, NY) 2008

Poem: Primitive

by Sharon Olds

I have heard about the civilized,

the marriages run on talk, elegant and honest,

rational. But you and I are

savages. You come in with a bag,

hold it out to me in silence.

I know Moo Shu Pork when I smell it

and understand the message: I have

pleased you greatly last night. We sit

quietly, side by side, to eat,

the long pancakes dangling and spilling,

fragrant sauce dripping out,

and glance at each other askance, wordless,

the corners of our eyes clear as spear points

laid along the sill to show

a friend sits with a friend here.

"I think this is true for all artists. My senses are

very important to me."

~ Sharon Olds ~

Poem: The Unborm

by Sharon Olds

Sometimes I can almost see, around our heads,

Like gnats around a streetlight in summer,

The children we could have,

The glimmer of them.

Sometimes I feel them waiting, dozing

In some antechamber - servants, half-

Listening for the bell.

Sometimes I see them lying like love letters

In the Dead Letter Office

And sometimes, like tonight, by some black

Second sight I can feel just one of them

Standing on the edge of a cliff by the sea

In the dark, stretching its arms out

Desperately to me.

Just Wondering . . .


Sharon Olds on Video

"The teaching is very rewarding, and very time-consuming,

and very exhausting.

But it's wonderful.

The community here at NYU

is very precious to me."

~ Sharon Olds ~

Poem: I Go Back to May 1937

by Sharon Olds

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,

I see my father strolling out

under the ochre sandstone arch, the

red tiles glinting like bent

plates of blood behind his head, I

see my mother with a few light books at her hip

standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the

wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its

sword-tips black in the May air,

they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,

they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are

innocent, they would never hurt anybody.

I want to go up to them and say Stop,

don't do it--she's the wrong woman,

he's the wrong man, you are going to do things

you cannot imagine you would ever do,

you are going to do bad things to children,

you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,

you are going to want to die. I want to go

up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,

her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,

her pitiful beautiful untouched body,

his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,

his pitiful beautiful untouched body,

but I don't do it. I want to live. I

take them up like the male and female

paper dolls and bang them together

at the hips like chips of flint as if to

strike sparks from them, I say

Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

Hear Sharon read this poem. Go to Links (above).

According to My Vision . . .

"Well, one thing I'm really interested in, when I'm writing, is being accurate. If I am trying to describe something, I'd like to be able to get it right. Of course, what's "right" is different for every person. Sometimes what's accurate might be kind of mysterious. So I don't just mean mathematically accurate. But to get it right according to my vision. I think this is true for all artists. My senses are very important to me. I want to be able to describe accurately what I see and hear and smell. And what they say about those things not being good for one's longevity makes an impression on me also. So I did quit coffee and I did quit smoking. But I haven't managed that with drinking!"

(from a Dwight Garner online interview with Sharon Olds,

Library - 1st Floor

Interview Excerpt


INTERVIEWER: What you've said about imagery makes me think of Sylvia Plath. How do you see yourself in relationship to her, or Anne Sexton, or Robert Lowell--the confessional poets?

SO: How do I see myself in relation to Sylvia Plath? I see her as having the gift of a great poet. And then, she had her fate. But her gift is another thing. Her writing about family was very important. Anne Sexton's writing about family was very important. I didn't really know Lowell's work until I was somewhat older.

In the back of my mind, I knew there were people--perhaps especially these two women--writing about family, but I also had the idea that they were people in terrible pain and I was afraid of them. The poets who most opened things up for me were the poets at the first anti-Vietnam war reading in New York City that I went to. I think the year was 1974. Muriel Rukeyser was the first reader. Then came Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, Etheridge Knight, Robert Bly, and others.

I was in the front row. I was at toe-of-shoe level. If I had had the guts to be happy, I would have been happy that I had found something that night. I had been writing poems all my life, but that's when I heard poets who were writing about family, writing about birth, poets who were writing and were alive. Muriel has that poem "Not To Be Said, Not To Be Thought, Not To Be Spoken":

I'd rather be Muriel

Than be dead and be Ariel.

Muriel had tremendous knowledge of depression and tremendous humor. She knew how to cock a snook at the destructive powers in others and in herself. I loved that!

(From Laurel Blossom. "Sharon Olds." Poets & Writers Magazine September/ October 1993: 30-32.)

"To me, the mind seems to be spread out in the whole

body - the senses are part of the brain. I guess they're not where

the thinking is done."

~ Sharon Olds ~

Poem: The Pact

We played dolls in that house where Father staggered with the

Thanksgiving knife, where Mother wept at noon into her one ounce of

cottage cheese, praying for the strength not to

kill herself. We kneeled over the

rubber bodies, gave them baths

carefully, scrubbed their little

orange hands, wrapped them up tight,

said goodnight, never spoke of the

woman like a gaping wound

weeping on the stairs, the man like a stuck

buffalo, baffled, stunned, dragging

arrows in his side. As if we had made a

pact of silence and safety, we kneeled and

dressed those tiny torsos with their elegant

belly-buttons and minuscule holes

high on the buttock to pee through and all that

darkness in their open mouths, so that I

have not been able to forgive you for giving your

daughter away, letting her go at

eight as if you took Molly Ann or

Tiny Tears and held her head

under the water in the bathinette

until no bubbles rose, or threw her

dark rosy body on the fire that

burned in that house where you and I

barely survived, sister, where we

swore to be protectors.

What Others Say . . .

about Old's Poetry

"Her best work exhibits a lyrical acuity which is both purifying and redemptive. She sees description as a means to catharsis, and the result is impossible to forget ... Sharon Olds is enormously self-aware; her poetry is remarkable for its candor, its eroticism, and its power to move." - David Leavitt, Voice Literary Supplement

"Having poetry like that of Olds is like being blessed with another sense. One would live without it, but not as whole."- Virginia Quarterly Review on Wellspring

"What is most striking is Olds's vigorous and fecund metaphorical imagination... In a way, these poems describe a psychic world seen under water..."- Joyce Peseroff, The American Book Review

"Olds does not stand outside or above the people in her poems; she speaks out but does not condemn; she is part of the same emotive fabric as they are, and this identification lends her work much compassion." - Carolyn Wright

"Satan Says is a daring and elegant first book. This is a poetry which affirms and redeems the art." - Marilyn Hacker

"Sharon Olds's poems are pure fire in the hands--risky, on the verge of failing, and in the end leaping up. I love the roughness and humor and brag and tenderness and completion in her work as she carries the reader through rooms of passion and loss." - Michael Ondaatje

Contributed to the Following Anthologies

The Norton Introduction to Poetry, 2nd edition, Norton (New York, NY), 1981.

The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Robert Pack, Sydney Lea, and Jay Parini, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1985.

Three Genres, The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama, edited by Stephen Minot, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1988.

The Pushcart Prize, VIII: Best of the Small Presses, Wainscott, 1989.

Read to Write, Donald M. Murray, Holt (New York, NY), 1990.

The Longman Anthology of American Poetry: Colonial to Contemporary, edited by Hilary Russell, Longman (New York, NY), 1992.

The Armless Maiden: And Other Tales for Childhood's Survivors, edited by Terri Windling, Tor, (New York, NY), 1995.

For a Living: The Poetry of Work, edited by Nicholas Coles and Peter Oresick, University of Illinois Press, (Urbana, IL), 1995.

Our Mothers, Our Selves: Writers and Poets Celebrating Motherhood, edited by J. B. Bernstein, Karen J. Donnelly, Bergin & Garvey Trade, 1996.

The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone edited by Wendy Barker, Sandra M. Gilbert, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1996.

By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, edited by Molly McQuade, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2000.

Literature and Its Writers: A Compact Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, edited by Ann Charters, Samuel Charters, Bedford/St. Martin's Press (Boston, MA) 2004.

Poem: My First Hour

That hour, I was most myself. I had shrugged

my mother slowly off, I lay there

taking my first breaths, as if

the air of the room was blowing me

like a bubble. All I had to do

was go out along the line of my gaze and back,

feeling gravity, silk, the

pressure of the air a caress, smelling on

myself her creamy blood. The air

was softly touching my skin and mouth,

entering me and drawing forth the little

sighs I did not know as mine.

I was not afraid. I lay in the quiet

and looked, and did the wordless thought,

my mind was getting its oxygen

direct, the rich mix by mouth.

I hated no one. I gazed and gazed,

and everything was interesting, I was

free, not yet in love, I did not

belong to anyone, I had drunk

no milk yet--no one had

my heart. I was not very human. I did not

know there was anyone else. I lay

like a god, for an hour, then they came for me

and took me to my mother.

"I have learned to get pleasure from speaking of pain."

~ Sharon Olds ~

Before You Go . . .

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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I am totally amazed by this writer, and you presentation.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Wow, Sharon Olds is an amazing writer!

    • Titia profile image

      Titia Geertman 

      8 years ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

      Stumbled upon your lens and I'm glad I did. You write beautiful poetry. I write too, hesitate to call myself a poet, but others do. I don't know, I'm just writing what's on my mind, sometimes in rhyme, sometimes not. I published 5 little books, if you're interested: they're on my lens 'I call them Rhyming Images', (I combine photography and poetry). I've rated your lens and will put it in my favorites.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I just wanted to say I thankfully ran into your sight while looking for Sharon Olds information and so far this is one of the better sites by far. Thanks!

    • Bellezza-Decor profile image


      9 years ago from Canada

      Wonderful and haunting poetry - 5*!


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