Sharon Olds

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Sharon Olds (born November 19, 1942) is an American poet. Olds has been the recipient of many awards including the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry,[1] the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the first San Francisco Poetry Center Award in 1980[2][3] She currently teaches creative writing at New York University.[4]

Early life[edit]

Sharon Olds was born in 1942 in San Francisco. She was raised as a “hellfire Calvinist”, as she describes it.[5][6] She says she was by nature "a pagan and a pantheist" and notes "I was in a church where there was both great literary art and bad literary art, the great art being psalms and the bad art being hymns. The four-beat was something that was just part of my consciousness from before I was born." She adds "I think I was about 15 when I conceived of myself as an atheist, but I think it was only very recently that I can really tell that there's nobody there with a copybook making marks against your name."[7] After graduating from Stanford University she moved east to earn a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University on the prosody of Emerson's poems.[7]

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.

From “I Go Back to May 1937”
Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002 (2004)[8]

In 2005, First Lady Laura Bush invited Olds to the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. Olds responded, declining the invitation in an open letter published in the October 10, 2005 issue of The Nation. The letter closes: "So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it".[9]


Following her PhD on Emerson's prosody, Olds let go of an attachment to what she thought she 'knew about' poetic convention.[7] Freed up, she began to write about her family, abuse, sex, focusing on the work not the audience. Olds has commented that she is more informed by the work of poets such as Galway Kinnell, Muriel Rukeyser and Gwendolyn Brooks than by confessional poets like Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath. Plath, she comments "was a great genius, with an IQ of at least double mine" and while these women charted well the way of women in the world she says "their steps were not steps I wanted to put my feet in."[7]

Old's first collection Satan Says sets up the sexual and bodily candour that would run through much of her work. In "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure" she writes,

As soon as my sister and I got out of our
mother's house, all we wanted to
do was fuck, obliterate
her tiny sparrow body and narrow
grasshopper legs.[7]

Olds' book The Wellspring (1996), shares with her previous work the use of raw language and startling images to convey truths about domestic and political violence and family relationships. A reviewer for The New York Times hailed her poetry for its vision: "Like Whitman, Ms. Olds sings the body in celebration of a power stronger than political oppression."[10] Alicia Ostriker noted Olds traces the "erotics of family love and pain." Ostriker continues: "In later collections, [Olds] writes of an abusive childhood, in which miserably married parents bully and punish and silence her. She writes, too, of her mother's apology 'after 37 years', a moment when 'The sky seemed to be splintering, like a window/ someone is bursting into or out of'"[7] Olds’ work is anthologized in over 100 collections, ranging from literary/poetry textbooks to special collections. Her poetry has been translated into seven languages for international publications. She was the New York State Poet Laureate for 1998-2000.[11]

In 2013 her poetry collection Stag’s Leap, which details the collapse of her 30-year marriage, won the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry.[12] She is the first American woman to win this award.[12] It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. [1]


Author Michael Ondaatje says of her work,

"Sharon Olds's poems are pure fire in the hands, risky, on the verge of falling, 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."[7]

The New York Times noted in 2009,

"Olds selects intense moments from her family romance — usually ones involving violence or sexuality or both — and then stretches them in opposite directions, rendering them in such obsessive detail that they seem utterly unique to her personal experience, while at the same time using metaphor to insist on their universality."[13]

Charles Bainbridge stated in The Guardian,

"She has always confronted the personal details of her life with remarkable directness and honesty, but the key to her success is the way this material is lit up by a range of finely judged shifts in scale and perspective. Her poems are vivid morality plays, wrestling with ideas of right and wrong, full of symbolic echoes and possibilities."[14]

In 2010 critic Anis Shivani commented,

"Stylistically invariant since 1980, she writes about the female body in a deterministic, shamanistic, medieval manner. Infantilization packaged in pseudo-confession is her specialty... Her poetry defines feminism turned upon itself, chewing up its own hot and bothered cadaver, exposed since the 1970s. Female poets in workshops around the country idolize her, collaborate in the masochism, because they say she freed them to talk about taboo subjects, she "empowered" them... Has given confessionalism such a bad name it can't possibly recover."[15]

Honors and awards[edit]

Poetry collections[edit]

  • 1980 Satan Says, University of Pittsburgh Press
  • 1983 The Dead and the Living, Knopf
  • 1987 The Gold Cell, Knopf
  • 1987 The Matter of This World, Slow Dancer Press
  • 1991 The Sign of Saturn, Secker & Warburg
  • 1992 The Father, Secker & Warburg
  • 1996 The Wellspring, Knopf
  • 1999 Blood, Tin, Straw, Knopf
  • 2002 The Unswept Room, Tandem Library
  • 2004 Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002, Knopf
  • 2008 One Secret Thing, Random House
  • 2012 Stag's Leap, Knopf


  1. ^ a b "Pulitzer Citation 2013". 
  2. ^ San Francisco Poetry Center Award
  3. ^ Sharon Olds : The Poetry Foundation
  4. ^ Sharon Olds, Faculty of CWP | NYU
  5. ^ "About Sharon Olds". Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. 
  6. ^ Olds Biog at Poetry Foundation
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h The Independent
  8. ^ "I go back to May 1937". Poem at the Poetry Foundation. Accessed 2010-09-11
  9. ^ Sharon Olds (September 19, 2005). "Open Letter to Laura Bush". The Nation. 
  10. ^ "Sharon Olds, Author's Page". The New York Writer's Institute. 
  11. ^ Sharon Olds
  12. ^ a b Clark, Nick (14 January 2013). "Poet Sharon Olds scoops TS Eliot Prize for 'confessional' work about her husband's affair". The Independent (London). 
  13. ^ Joel Brouwer (April 24, 2009). "Poetry Chronicle". The New York Times. 
  14. ^ Charles Bainbridge (11 February 2006). "Seeing things". The Guardian (London). 
  15. ^ Anis Shivani (August 11, 2010). "The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers". Huffington Post. 
  16. ^ Academy of American Poets
  17. ^ University of Illinois
  18. ^ BBC article and audio files 15 January 2010
  19. ^ Sabine Durrant (26 January 2013). "Sharon Olds: Confessions of a divorce". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 26 January 2013. 
  20. ^ The Pulitzer Prizes | Citation

External links[edit]