Sharon Olds | Critical Review by Andrew Hudgins

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Sharon Olds.
This section contains 648 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Andrew Hudgins

SOURCE: A review of The Gold Cell, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XL, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 517-27.

Hudgins is an American poet, short story writer, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, he offers a mixed assessment of Olds's The Gold Cell, admiring its powerful imagery and narrative flow, yet faulting its haphazard structure and sensationalistic themes.

Whatever reservations you may have about Sharon Olds's poetry—and I have a number—there's no denying that she's a lot of fun to read. [In The Gold Cell the] poems always open with a great "hook" to grab the reader and the endings are even better—kickers, stunners. But the movement between the opening and the conclusion is usually a headlong rush in which one line collapses into another because the poem is in such a hurry to get to its payoff. The piling up of weak words, especially articles and conjunctions, at the end of a line can create a pell-mell, head-over-heels tumble but it can also, when overdone, cause the line as a unit to lose its integrity:

                 And I called the
       hospital, I remember kneeling by the
       phone on the third-floor landing of the dorm, the
       dark steep stairs down
       next to me….

The result is a narrative held together not by measure or rhythm but by the facts of the story and the intensity of their expression—the same things that hold us transfixed when a friend tells a wrenching story about his or her life. But I wonder about how these poems will hold up to repeated reading. The same emotional propulsion that makes the poems so hypnotically readable also causes some sentimentality, when the emotion veers out of proportion to the situation it arises from; sensationalism ("The Pope's Penis"); and simple silliness ("Mouse Elegy," "Gerbil Funeral"; and consider too the opening of "Alcatraz": "When I was a girl, I knew I was a man / because they might send me to Alcatraz / and only men went to Alcatraz").

Olds very deliberately puts herself in the tradition of Plath and Sexton, and that may be a mistake. Her poems lack the wild, yet nimble, associative leaps that make Plath's poems so dazzling and the deeply-felt spiritual yearning that unites Sexton's body of work. If Plath identifies her father with Hitler, Olds in "History: 13" takes second best among the three Axis leaders and identifies her father with Mussolini. The father comes home one night with blood on his face and lies down

               on the couch, his arms
        up, like Mussolini hanging
        upside down in the air, his head
        dangling where they could reach him with
            and their
        fingernails, those who had lived
        under his tyranny.

In concluding, the poem directly evokes Plath's "Daddy":

                I turned my back
       on happiness, at 13 I entered
       a life of mourning, of mourning for the Fascist.

The obvious next question is, "How well does this poem stand up next to Plath's?" Not very well, I think. Perhaps Olds is a writer of poems more than she is a writer of books of poems. If I pick up the book and read three poems, I'm knocked out by at least one of them, by the sheer power of individual utterance. But reading the book as a whole I begin to worry about the Freudian or Jungian or self-revealing "punch lines" that suddenly snap at the end of too many poems. The move begins to seem more like a reflex than a vision.

But, for all these reservations, I don't want to scant the power of these poems, especially those in the first section when Olds writes in the third person or employs a persona—techniques that allow her more distance from her subjects. And in the final section there are some very touching poems about her children: "The Moment the Two Worlds Meet," "The Signs," and "Looking at Them Asleep," which ends: "When love comes to me and says / What do you know, I say This girl, this boy."

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This section contains 648 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Andrew Hudgins
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