Monday, October 31, 2005

Sharon Olds

I heard Sharon Olds read last week at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I really like her second book, The Dead and the Living, but find her later work uneven. Two poems in that book are especially fine: "The Connoisseuse of Slugs" and "Poem to My First Lover". Both are great examples of the use of metaphor. "Poem to My First Lover" braids several figures together: fish, water, deflowering, dining, soap as an image of purity. Her ability to generate fresh metaphors for human sexuality and sexual situations is astounding.

I know that a lot of people put her down: part of that seems to be the unevenness of her later work, part of it is misogyny, I'm sure. In writing about the family and the intimate aspects of the family, she doesn't cut corners or prettify things with symbolism, or obscure them through the use of metaphor. Olds shines a light on things a lot of people would rather not talk about. She challenges the notion of poetic subject matter. Which is why her work is important. To be bluntly feminist, without apology, a lot of the issues of domestic life and the relationships that women have with other people, particularly men, are not necessarily what men have been writing about for centuries. To write about some of these things is to ask that the subject matter of poetry be broadened.

Hearing her read, it was odd. I had expected someone dark and intense, but here was this 50-something slip of a woman with long, white-grey hair, who was actually kind of ditzy. She acknowledged that in the past when people asked her whether the people in her poems were characters or actual people, her tendency was to say they were characters, but that should have been accompanied by a big wink.

I think what is frustrating about her work is that she often seems to write the same poem over and over--this is an observation from reading her new Selected Poems. Is this because that's her subject matter and the project is to write a perfect poem or a handful of perfect poems about that subject matter? Damn the rest & the slackers? Is it because she is at heart, a pre-tech version of a blogger?

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