When Sharon Olds’ 32-year marriage ended in 1997, she did what she has spent a lifetime doing: she picked up her ballpoint pen and began to chronicle the experience in the wide-ruled spiral notebooks she keeps for diary entries, drawing sketches, and, most important, writing poems.
Over the course of a celebrated career that has spanned 45 years and produced a dozen collections of poetry, Olds has frequently mined her own life and that of her family for material. She has a reputation for writing frankly about sexuality, the pleasures of the body, and the minutiae of everyday life, earning her frequent comparisons to Walt Whitman, whom Olds describes as “our greatest poet,” along with Emily Dickinson.
At the time Olds began writing about the dissolution of her marriage, she promised her two children (who have figured largely in her work) that she wouldn’t publish any of the material for a decade. It was, in fact, 15 years before those poems appeared in print in the collection Stag’s Leap. The book won plaudits from critics and earned Olds both the T. S. Eliot Award, given annually to the best collection of verse published in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and a Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer judges called it “a book of unflinching poems on the author’s divorce that examine love, sorrow, and the limits of self-knowledge.”
Tonight, Olds will read from her poems as the featured guest at the Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading at the Castle.
In addition to being compared to Whitman, she has also been branded a “confessional” poet in the vein of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Olds says she prefers to think of herself as a “poet of the personal, the intimate subjects like birth, sex, death, love, family, and other tribal things.”
She has written frequently about her abusive childhood, her parents’ strained marriage and her father’s alcoholism, and the “hellfire Episcopalian” environment she was raised in. “The emphasis placed, in my family, on the punishment and sin side of Christianity was unfortunate,” says Olds. “If a little kid thinks they are going to hell, to burn forever, this is not good. I guess my poems were in part an attempt to tell a story different from that. To try to build a self, and a sense of self that was more merciful, more truthful.”
Despite all of her prizes and the literary accolades, she remains unfailingly modest. After writing a poem in one of her notebooks, Olds says she’ll type it up “if I like it enough.” It is then, she says, that many of a poem’s flaws become apparent. “I will try to trim some excessive descriptiveness, bombast, whining, et cetera” before typing it up again, creating a stack of revisions. She admits that most of the poems she writes “don’t work well enough for me to show to anyone.”
For Olds, poetry is a social art, a way of communicating and telling stories. “A first line, or an image, or a story, or even just a word, will sort of surface in my mind so I can notice it and notice it wants to be a poem,” says Olds. “Then I sit down and begin, and try to bring it forth as itself, not haul it around too much to declare my ideas.” At the end, she says she hopes her readers find the poems “useful and/or a pleasure.”
It is largely because her poems are so accessible that Olds, now 72, has such a devoted following. In a review of her work in Salon, Dwight Garner writes, “Domesticity, death, erotic love—the stark simplicity of Sharon Olds’s subjects, and of her plain-spoken language, can sometimes make her seem like the brooding Earth Mother of American poetry.”
There may be few contemporary poets as adept at using metaphor and simile as Olds. In her poem “The Flurry,” from Stag’s Leap, she writes about “a flurry/of tears like a wirra of knives thrown/at a figure, to outline it—a heart’s spurt/of rage.” It’s a subject that fascinates her and that is rooted in her stern Calvinist upbringing. “In metaphor, we say something is something else. Magic! In simile, we say something is like something else….I think growing up with the idea of transubstantiation—the wine in the cup was Jesus’ blood—it frightened me so much I wanted to try to be very clear that something, for me, was itself—but it could be like other things,” she says.
In addition to writing, Olds is a highly regarded teacher, having taught poetry workshops at New York University’s graduate creative writing program for more than 25 years. She also helped establish several NYU-run poetry workshops, including one for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one for severely physically challenged patients at the former Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York City.
Teaching, she says, invigorates her. “I love teaching at NYU, hearing and seeing new poems each week, using our brain cells to try to describe the spirit we find in the worlds—long before making suggestions for any changes, trying to receive the vibes, images, ideas, form, shape that each poem is giving us. It’s a privilege as one gets older and older that one’s fellow poets around the workshop table seem to get younger and younger,” she says.
She offers some sound, if slightly unconventional, advice for aspiring writers: “Take your vitamins. Dance. Protect the temple of your body; it is your instrument for perceiving and writing. Beware of dope, don’t drink too much wine, and talk kindly to yourself when you’re alone.”
In keeping with tradition, Olds will be joined at tonight’s event by a recent alum of BU’s Creative Writing Program; Renee Emerson (GRS’09) will read from her collection Keeping Me Still (Maverick Duck Press, 2010). Emerson’s poems focus on motherhood, marriage, and the experience of growing up in the South.
“I write about what I love and what I fear about what I love,” says Emerson. “My writing is inspired by my life and the lives of my loved ones.”
A Christian who views the world from a Christian perspective—“that it is broken, but that there is hope in Christ,” Emerson says that “all writers’ beliefs, whether they write overtly about their faith or not, bleed through into their writing to some degree. When I am writing a poem, I am taking notice of one of the small, everyday moments of life, and searching for a higher meaning in it”—an act she describes as a “spiritual practice.”
Emerson says she most often writes in free verse because she loves the jazz-music improvisation it affords. “I love that it wrings out beauty from the most plain, everyday language that you hear at bus stops and grocery stores and post offices,” she says.
Nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010, she teaches creative writing and composition at Shorter University in Rome, Ga. Like many young writers balancing the demands of family and career, Emerson says she struggles to find the time to put pen to paper. “I write in the evenings, after my children have gone to bed and my husband has left for his night-shift job. Some nights I have to clean the kitchen or the tub, grade a stack of essays, or put together a casserole for the next day instead of write—but some nights I write.”
Emerson recalls arriving at BU “terrified of workshop, overwhelmed by my peers’ and professors’ level of talent. I had never felt more like a Tennessee hillbilly.” She remembers a seminal moment in Louise Glück’s workshop, when she handed in a poem knowing the ending wasn’t quite right. Glück, a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, former US poet laureate, and former College of Arts & Sciences visiting professor of creative writing, told her to write her a dozen different endings, until she got it right. “I had never been taught that kind of work ethic with poetry before—that you rewrite and rewrite until it is right. Not just an image, the right image….at BU, having some talent at writing wasn’t enough. I had to work, work hard.”
She has some advice of her own for aspiring poets: “Read poetry. Read it widely, read what’s new, what’s old, what everyone is talking about, what no one is. Read what you wish you had written and what you are glad you didn’t. Then, write often. I think that could make a writer of just about anyone.”
Robert Pinsky, a CAS professor of English and former three-time US poet laureate, says that the combination of readers for tonight’s event is particularly interesting. “Both Sharon Olds, with many memorable poems and books, and Renee Emerson, at the outset of a promising career, in their different ways combine narrative and lyric,” he says. “The poems, in both writers, have stories animating them, with the lyric element as an emanation of the story, lifting it and transforming it. These are kindred imaginations.”
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, featuring Sharon Olds and Renee Emerson, is tonight, Thursday, November 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Castle, 225 Bay State Rd. The event, presented by the College of Arts & Sciences Creative Writing Program is free and open to the public.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading series is funded by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.
See Sharon Olds read selections from her collection, Stag’s Leap, on a PBS NewsHour segment here.