Sharon Olds - American Literary Legend
- 12 August 2009
This article is from 2009.
Age of reason
With 30 years of writing behind her, Sharon Olds is a genuine American literary legend. Bidisha analyses the honest approach of this poetry master
It’s time to assess the sins of the father – and the mother. And there’s no one better to do so than one of America’s most influential poets, Sharon Olds, as famous for her tough stylistic swagger as her unflinching mind. Olds was born in 1942 and is the ultimate American creative myth made flesh, a small-town woman with a fire-and-brimstone Calvinist childhood who studied at Columbia and decided, standing on the steps after her graduation ceremony, that she would be a poet. With all the spirit of her nation’s famous chutzpah she did so, and her first collection, Satan Says, was an award-winning dissection of sex, love, power, violence and family written with slicing honesty and hard, glamorous panache.
Nearly 30 years have passed since that book and Olds has never put a foot wrong. Her work has grown in fierce power and intelligence, with her second volume, The Dead and the Living, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984. Seven subsequent collections have wrestled, in an epic bravado style, with the issues that get you right where you live. Not only that but she hit a personal high note in 2005 when she publicly threw Laura Bush’s invitation to read at the National Book Festival in Washington DC right back in her face. Writing elegantly of the ‘clean linens … and the flames of the candles’, she anticipated seeing at the reception, she sighed with mock despondency, ‘I could not stomach it.’
But the comic triumph of that diplomatic dig at the former First Family shouldn’t detract from her seriousness and importance. Her 1992 collection The Father – about father-daughter relationships and the loss of her own dad to cancer – is an acknowledged masterpiece, topped only by the most recent, One Secret Thing, a work of towering and fearsome might. Its world is one of beautiful but spurious ideals and careless, brutal violence and begins with a series of scorching pieces about the wretched degradations of war, before moving onto a terrifying confrontation with a once-tormenting, now-tormented dying mother whose body is growing ever weaker. The entire collection crackles with an awareness of human cruelty, everyday monstrousness and yearning pathos. One Secret Thing shoves the fantasy aside and rhapsodises the often vile reality.
Sharon Olds, 23 Aug, 7pm, £9 (£7).