An Experiment in Poetry: Sharon Olds Weaves Poetry from Suffering

Photo by Jenna Norman on Unsplash

Photo by Jenna Norman on Unsplash

An Experiment in Poetry is a weekly series here at spotlighting poets whose work points to transcendent values and encourages us to contemplate questions at the heart of the human condition.

How does someone endure a troubled childhood, defined by abuse and a father’s alcoholism, and survive, even thrive? For contemporary American poet Sharon Olds, that survival came through creativity; poetry was Olds’ method of coping and her means of escape. A self-confessed concrete thinker, Olds centers much of her work on transformation; she turns her traumatic upbringing into vivid poems that probe the human psyche and return insights, equal parts disturbing and profound, into the wonders and terrors of being alive.

Sharon Olds, image from  Poetry Foundation

Sharon Olds, image from Poetry Foundation

Olds may seem an unusual choice for a series like this, which spotlights poets whose work points to transcendent values, both because Olds typically avoids abstraction and because more often than not, her work is characteristically provocative. However, it is in Olds’ celebration of life, especially her insistence that life must go on, is worth going on in the face of tragedy that her place in this series makes most sense. Olds seems to have left behind the religious faith of her childhood, understandably so as its merciless hellfire Calvinist bent aligned too neatly with the abuse she endured at the hands of her family. It’s a difficult thing indeed to uncouple one’s vision of God from the destructive failures of damaging authority figures, exponentially so when those figures are one’s own parents. But there is in Olds’ poetry a nagging insistence on human dignity, an insistence that’s difficult to explain apart from some transcendent grounding whether or not she herself explores it.

Take “On the Subway,” for example, where the speaker (most likely a white woman) describes her encounter with an African American boy while riding the metro. The two people have little in common, and the speaker’s reflections run the gamut from guilt to fear to pity to, ultimately, a better self-awareness of her biases and own privileged position. She begins her internal monologue gruffly, reflecting in her tone and word choice her own confrontational attitude:

The boy and I face each other.
His feet are huge, in black sneakers
laced with white in a complex pattern like a
set of intentional scars. We are stuck on
opposite sides of the car, a couple of
molecules stuck in a rod of light
rapidly moving through darkness. 

This is not a position she would choose for herself, preferring instead isolation and emotional comfort, but by being placed in it, she is forced to examine her reactions to this harmless child, to consider their source and their implications. And eventually she finds solidarity with him, this stranger she knew only as a caricature mere minutes before. Come the end of the poem, she celebrates his worth while lamenting the cultural stigma he perpetually endures, even by the likes of her:

                                           . . . There is
no way to know how easy this
white skin makes my life, this
life he could take so easily and
break across his knee like a stick the way his
own back is being broken, the
rod of his soul that at birth was dark and
fluid, rich as the head of a seedling
ready to thrust up into any available light.

As this poem shows, Olds is an immanently accessible poet; her language is that of the everyday, as is her subject matter. But her easy style belies the depths that her best poems explore, and it can obscure her mastery of voice and emotional intensity. A careful reader of Olds’ poetry, Billy Collins once noted, will be delighted by “constant linguistic surprise.” Olds’ poem “Earliest Memory” is an example of this characteristic voice. Here, the poet searches for the right words to fit to a memory that seems to pre-exist the subject’s entrance into language. The resultant range of descriptors trips off the tongue, seemingly disconnected yet intimately linked as a melody of simple association:

Light—not bright, but deep. No beams,
light like heat, enclosed, a roomful
like a mouthful of light.

Somehow these elemental entities—time, space, light—weave together with effortless words to form an experience that sweeps the reader into the speaker’s past. We, too, wonder who the nameless figure is, moving “large and calm, back and / forth, back and forth,” by turns blocking out the light and being obscured in other shadows.

This poem is sheer beauty, but other of Olds’ poems are decidedly mixed. None more so than those where she grapples with motherhood, both with her own role as mother to her daughter and with her mother’s failures to her. In poems like “Mother,” Olds unflinchingly acknowledges her debt to this complex figure; she is the source of any gifts Olds herself has, not least of all her life itself. And yet her mother has cost her so much. It’s a paradox that both truths hold, as Olds herself recognizes. She cannot fully reconcile these difficult realities, but what Olds offers instead is her poetic gift that becomes itself the mother both she and her own mother have desperately needed.

In poems like these and many more, Sharon Olds exhibits what poetry does best, handling intensely personal, emotionally charged, complicated experiences and representing them vividly and evocatively to draw readers in. In this way, poetry like Olds’ serves to remind us of, and to let us experience, the jumbled, singular, and oh so precious nature of a human life.

Sharon olds reads her poems "Sheffield Mountain Ode" and "Ode to my Whiteness" at the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival.

Links for This Week’s Featured Poems

“Mother” by Sharon Olds

“First Thanksgiving” by Sharon Olds

“Earliest Memory” by Sharon Olds

“Wonder as Wander” by Sharon Olds

“I Could Not Tell” by Sharon Olds