Sharon Olds was born in 1942 in San Francisco and was raised in Berkeley, California, as a “hellfire Calivinist.” She attended Stanford University and later earned a Ph.D. in literature at Columbia University. The author of nine collections of poetry, her work has appeared in over 100 anthologies and collections and won critical acclaim and a loyal following of readers.
Her poetry is remarkable for its honest chronicling of the everyday, for its unflinching depictions of relationships, and its continuous celebration of humans—as flawed, natural, pushing and pulling beings. Fittingly, her language has a physicality to it that cannot be denied, and her lines seem to move, drawing readers down the page with an unstoppable power.
“I’ve tried to make sense of my life,” Olds says, “…make a small embodiment of ordinary life, from a daughter’s, wife’s, mother’s point of view.” It is only recently that she has admitted as much. For years she maintained that her poetry and her life were separate and refused to speak publicly about the seemingly autobiographical nature of her work. Now, she has devised her own phrase, “apparently personal poetry,” preferring it to the more commonly used “confessional” designation. Nonetheless, her work returns often to the same themes, poems and images building on one another to create a layered understanding of a woman’s life. Religion and secularism return often, as does a troubled relationship between the “I” of the poems and her parents.
From her first book, Satan Says (1980), Olds has displayed a resolve to write like herself and has done so to consistent and outstanding acclaim. Her second collection, The Dead & the Living, was the Lamont Poetry Selection of 1983 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Other volumes include Strike Sparks: Selected Poems; The Unswept Room; Blood, Tin, Straw; The Gold Cell; The Wellspring; and The Father, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent collection is One Secret Thing, which explores her relationship with her mother and depicts her mother’s death. It was named as a finalist for the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection, a prestigious U.K. poetry award.
She currently teaches poetry at New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program. She divides her time between Manhattan and New Hampshire.
They tell you it won’t make much sense, at first,
you will have to learn the terrain. They tell you this
at thirty, and fifty, and some are late
beginners, at last lying down and walking
the old earth of the breasts—the small,
cobbled, plowed field of one,
with a listening walking, and then the other—
fingertip-stepping, divining, north
to south, east to west, sectioning
the little fallen hills, sweeping
for mines. And the matter feels primordial,
cystic, phthistic, each breast like the innards
of a cell, its contents shifting and changing,
steambed gravel under walking feet, it
seems almost unpicturable, not
immemorial, but nearly un-
memorizable, but one marches,
slowly, through grave or fatal danger,
or no danger, one feels around in the
two tack-room drawers, ribs and
knots like leather bridles and plaited
harnesses and bits and reins,
one runs one’s hands through the mortal tackle
in a jumble, in the dark, indoors. Outside—
night, in which these glossy ones were
ridden to a froth of starlight, bareback.
At night my mother tucked me in, with a
jamming motion—her fingertips
against the swag of sheets and blankets
hanging down, where the acme angle of the
Sealy Posturepedic met
the zenith angle of the box spring—she shoved,
stuffing, doubling the layers, suddenly
tightening the bed, racking it one notch
smaller, so the sheets pressed me like a fierce
restraint. I was my mother’s squeeze,
my mother was made of desire leashed.
And my sister and I shared a room—
my mother tucked me in like a pinch,
with a shriek, then wedged my big sister in, with a
softer eek, we were like the parts of a
sexual part, squeaky and sweet,
the room full of girls was her blossom, the house was my
mother’s bashed, pretty ship, she
battened us down, this was our home,
she fastened us down in it, in her sight,
as a part of herself, and she had welcomed that part—
embraced it, nursed it, tucked it in, turned out the light.
One Secret Thing (2008)
The Father (1992)
The Dead & the Living (1983), Lamont Poetry Selection, National Book Critics Circle Award
Satan Says (1980)
Sharon Olds on Salon.com
“The Beetle,” in The Paris Review
Interview with Olds in The Guardian