Sharon Olds | Critical Review by Peter Harris

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Sharon Olds.
This section contains 1,690 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Peter Harris

SOURCE: "Four Salvers Salvaging: New Work by Voigt, Olds, Dove, and McHugh," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 262-76.

In the following excerpt, Harris describes the poems in The Gold Cell as "undeniably gripping," but questions whether the emotional intensity of Olds's verse is merely sensationalistic.

A would-be suicide on the roof of a city building; a subway encounter between a white person and a black who looks, to the speaker, like a mugger; a newborn child left in a garbage can; a torturer castrating someone; 17th-century Siamese twins, one of whom grows from the other's chest; a man being beaten to death for stealing food in Uganda; a rape victim who ends up being a pom-pom girl; talking penises left over from sex change operations; an apocalyptic fantasy about a "sex center" where customers stand under signs indicating their preferences; the nightly devotions of the Pope's privates; a mother watching the nuclear holocaust with her child, who thinks it beautiful. These are the first eleven poems in The Gold Cell, a volume unmistakably by Sharon Olds, whose poetry incorporates violence, cruelty, broiling sexuality, as well as love. Olds treats both the present and the past with a make-you-squirm explicitness that's buffered only by an ingenuous honesty about her relationship to the events she describes.

Close to two centuries ago, Wordsworth proposed his Lyrical Ballads as a potential antidote to what he saw as the "savage torpor" induced in the common reader by the sensationalism of the melodramatists in the popular press. His aim was to gentle us back to health, to make a rural-seeming space for quiet contemplation, a poet's revolution for the preservation of the psyche. There are vigorous poets still writing in the Wordsworth tradition. But they don't, like Olds, work in New York City, and few have seen the kind of alcohol-induced violence to which Olds apparently was subjected as a child. And most will never sell as many books of poems as Olds, books that share the subject matter, though not the outlook, of the tabloid press. Olds apparently never has had the privilege of believing, with Wordsworth, that nature never betrays the heart that loves her; and though she everywhere affirms the power of love, her affirmation is anything but gentle. She aims to shock us back to consciousness, to speak what Melville calls "the sane madness of vital truth."

People have responded. Both in The Gold Cell and in The Dead and the Living, which won the Lamont Prize and the National Book Award in 1983, Olds' work has excited a shock of recognition among a wide variety of readers, some of whom would ordinarily be strangers to poetry. Her confessional poems often blaze with a fierce and sometimes inexplicable love, even for the villains in her life. And Olds has the voice of a peculiarly exuberant survivor who speaks with gusto, whether relating the details of her present blessings or past deprivations. Many of her poems are undeniably gripping. But is the fact a poem is gripping necessarily a sign of its value?

Olds' work is open to two kinds of criticism—technical and moral. Other poets, when they criticize Olds, often fasten on her weak use of line, which has her ending many lines with "and," or "with," or especially "the," a strategy which lacks the compelling musical or dramatic motives that justify similar choices in the shorter lines of, for example, W. C. Williams or Robert Creely. But it is one thing to acknowledge that Olds' lineation leaves much to be desired and quite another to conclude that her poems lack art. Olds may share her subject matter with the tabloid press, but she's very much a poet. If, in The Gold Cell, the poems too often seem in the same voice, searching for the same kinds of insights with the same rhythm of acceleration as her last book, that should not obscure the fact that she writes with great flair and often shows a resonant dramatic intelligence in searching out the contexts, or the frameworks of implication, in which to lodge and justify her dark witness-bearing.

Olds is gifted, too, with a fertile metaphoric imagination that allows her, when she is going well, to enter completely into her subject matter; her analogical imagination often insightfully graces what otherwise would be raw reportage. A distinguished example of her gift for metaphor occurs in "The Food Thief," a poem describing a Ugandan man being slowly whipped to death for stealing food during a drought. The first, expository half of the poem eschews metaphor, but the rest of the poem is an extended conceit, amplified by a series of similes which compare the thief's body to the once fertile land. The comparison is not merely verbal because, in an elemental sense, the man is an inextricable part of the land, and she makes us see how they are dying together. After she has established that the thief is being driven along and "slowly, slowly" being beaten to death, the poem turns as the thief turns to face his attackers:

        with all the eloquence of the body, the
        wrist turned out and the vein up his forearm
        running like a root just under the surface, the
        wounds on his head ripe and wet as a
        rich furrow cut back and cut back at
        plough-time to farrow a trench for the seed, his
        eye pleading, the iris black and
        gleaming as his skin, the white a dark
        occluded white like cloud-cover on the
        morning of a day of heavy rain.
        His lips are open to his brothers as the body of a
        woman might be open, as the earth itself was
        split and folded back and wet and
        seedy to them once, the lines on his lips
        fine as the thousand tributaries of a
        root-hair, a river, he is asking them for life
        with his whole body, and they are driving his body
        all the way down the road because
        they know the life he is asking for—
        it is their life.

As Olds' extended comparison unfolds, it makes both the food thief's and Uganda's loss increasingly evident, until her concluding lines fix exactly how dire their plight is: at the end of an ecosystem, no one needs to be reminded for whom the bell tolls, though the tribesmen's insight into their mutual plight is more Darwinian than Christian.

In poems as potent as "The Food Thief," Olds' dubious line break strategy seems a relatively minor issue. Not so minor, however, is the objection that Olds relies too heavily on extreme situations, often highly personal and that, at times, her poems verge close to the level of self-dramatizing, melodramatic tattle-tales. What, to some, appear as brave, liberating acts of witness-bearing, to others seem a breach of propriety or the eradication of the virtues of privacy.

Her detractors, as well as her supporters, have good evidence to support their claims. Olds, however, deserves, like all other writers, to be granted her subject matter, though it be marital relations on the rug or a self-confessed fascination with her father's alcoholic nose. It's not the subject matter but the vision it serves that is the proper issue of judgment. For Olds, her violent father, no less than her relationships with her children, are subjects beyond ignoring. And it's true that none of her poems fails to move beyond graphic description to a consideration of the human implications of what has been described. But sometimes the insights seem, at least in part, unconscious excuses for exhibitionism. "It" is an ambiguous case in point. For many readers, the poem's description of sex with her husband makes public what probably should remain private, or at least less explicit. And yet her conscious aim is to affirm the extravagant pleasures to be had through the flesh, an aspiration which, in principle, and in light of the long tradition of erotic verse, is hardly reprehensible. Moreover, Olds hits upon a startling analogy by which to clarify the quality of the speaker's gratitude for fleshly pleasure. She says, "sometimes it is sweet as the children we had / thought were dead being brought to the shore in the / narrow boats, boatload after boatload." We may object that comparing orgasms to the rescue of innocent children betrays a lack of ethical perspective. That is just her point: intense pleasure obliterates distinctions and searches out unruly connections. In an over-rationalized age, and to audiences perhaps overadept at forgetting our animal natures, Olds has a point worth making. But the reader may well ask whether her purpose is best served by taking us into her bedroom.

There are other Olds poems, often those dealing with her father, that seem insufficiently conscious of the damage sustained in the family crucible. The father in the poems is a profound sadist who delights in frightening his children, sometimes to the point of incontinence. For example, one poem explores his habit of holding one of his children upside down in the laundry chute, threatening to drop him or her. That he doesn't drop them seems scant reason to conclude, as Olds' speaker does, that "although it's a story with some cruelty in it, / finally it's a story of love / and release, the way the father pulls you out of nothing / and stand there foolishly grinning." The affirmation rings false. In another poem, Olds' desire to be knowingly dramatic fuses with an apocalyptic despair and yields a declaration of the inevitability of nuclear holocaust, "I wonder now only when it will happen." While nobody can argue with such a feeling, we might well expect a poet who grapples with the nuclear dilemma to refresh our sense of crisis without helping to spread the demoralizing fallout of resignation.

At the same time, it's clear that despair is not characteristic of Olds' overall outlook. Indeed, her work is sinewed with affirmative bravery, and that bravery and resiliency constitute no small part of her appeal. Given her family history and given a world that wastes so much of its creative energies on engines of destruction, The Gold Cell is saner and more full of love than anyone could reasonably expect, which, in itself, argues indirectly against the inevitability of mutual assured destruction.

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This section contains 1,690 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Peter Harris
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