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, the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the first San Francisco Poetry Center Award in 1980 She currently teaches creative writing at New York University.
Sharon Stuart Cobb was born on November 19, 1942 in San Francisco, California, but was brought up in Berkeley, California along with her siblings.. She was raised as a “hellfire Calvinist”, as she describes it. Her father, like his before him, was an alcoholic who was often abusive to his children. In Olds’ writing she often refers to the time(or possibly even times) when her father tied her to a chair. Olds’ mother was often either unable or too afraid to come to the aid of her children.
The strict religious environment Olds was raised in had certain rules of censorship and restriction. Olds was not permitted to go to the movies and the family did not own a television. As for the literature granted in the household Olds once said she won a singing contest in church choir. "[The prize] was a book of child martyrs who had been killed for their belief and died very politely." She liked fairy tales, and also read Nancy Drew and Life Magazine. As for her own religious views and her exposure to religious literary art 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.”
For schooling, Olds was sent east, to Dana Hall School, an all girl’s school for grades 6 to 12 in Wellesley, Massachusetts that boasts an impressive list of alumnae. There she studied mostly English, History, and Creative Writing. Her favorite poets included William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, but it was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems which she carried in her purse through tenth grade.
For her bachelor’s degree Olds returned to California where she earned her BA at Stanford University in 1964. Following this Olds once again moved cross country to New York, where she earned her Ph.D. in English in 1972 from Columbia University. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on “Emerson’s Prosody”, because she appreciated the way he defied convention.
On March 23, 1968, she married Dr. David Douglas Olds in New York City and, in 1969, gave birth to the first of their two children. In 1997, after 32 years of marriage, they divorced, and Olds moved to New Hampshire, though she commutes to New York three days a week. There, she lives in the same Upper West Side apartment she has lived in for the past 40 years while working as a Professor at New York University. In New Hampshire she lives in Graylag Cabins in Pittsfield with her partner of seven years, Carl Wallman, a former cattle breeder.
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”.
Following her PhD on Emerson’s prosody, Olds let go of an attachment to what she thought she 'knew about’ poetic convention. 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.”
When Olds first sent her poetry to a literary magazine she received a reply saying,"This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies’ Home Journal. The true subjects of poetry are... male subjects, not your children.”
Olds eventually published her first collection, Satan Says, in 1980, at the age of 37. 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,
The collection is divided into four sections: “Daughter”, “Woman”, “Mother”, “Journeys”. These titles echo the familial influence that is prevalent in much of Olds’ work.
The Dead and the Living was published in February 1984. This collection is divided into two sections, “Poems for the Dead” and “Poems for the Living”. The first section begins with poems about global injustices. These injustices include the Turkish Massacre of the Armenians during WWI, the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and even the death of Marilyn Monroe. After this Olds returns the familiar subjects of childhood, love, marriage, and motherhood.
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.” 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" 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.
Stag’s Leap, her most recent collection, was published in 2013. The poems were written in 1997, following the divorce from her husband of 32 years. The poems focus on her husband, and even sometimes his mistress. The collection won the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. She is the first American woman to win this award. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
The political context of Sharon Olds’ The Fear of Oneself can best be understood by looking through the lens of her political views and beliefs. While many of her poems have been criticized for their focus on herself, what some critics even go so far as to call “self obsession,” there are certainly commentaries on the political climate within her works despite her self-reflection. Olds explores the level of “courage” it would take to be able to withstand torture in the face of protecting her own children. She cringes at the idea of “women standing naked on the frozen river, the guards pouring buckets of water over their bodies till they glisten like trees in an ice storm.” This vivid and negative imagery of torture of women prisoners speaks to Olds’ opinion on the subject of torture. She is moved to tears in this poem not only by the thought of her own lack of courage, but also by the thought of women forced to brave such pain. What gives these lines even more political context is the fact that Olds declined an invitation to read at a White House book fair in 2005 because of her conflicting political views with those of the Bush Administration. In her letter refusing the offer Olds writes, “We should not have invaded Iraq…with the resultant loss of life and limb for our brave soldiers, and for the noncombatants in their home terrain.” She also notes her participation in creative writing outreach programs that have worked with women’s prisons. In light of this evidence, this poem becomes more than an exploration of self-courage, it is also a strong critique on the atrocities of war that lead to horrific scenes of torture. Moreover, the line of Olds’ letter that fully elucidates her stance on torture reads, “I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration…flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.” Olds loudly depicts her anti-war stance around the time of the Iraq War by recounting images of torture that soldiers and even civilians are forced to endure.
 JP O’Malley, “Sharon Olds’ fear and self-loathing,” The Spectator, 2012.
 Sharon Olds, “Open Letter to Laura Bush,” The Nation, 2005.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Olds did not participate in the Women’s Movement at first, but she says, “My first child was born in 1969. In 1968 the Women’s Movement in New York City—especially among a lot of women I knew—was very alive. I had these strong ambitions to enter the bourgeoisie if I could. I wasn’t a radical at all. But I do remember understanding that I had never questioned that men had all the important jobs. And that was shocking—well, I was twenty years old! I’d never thought, “Oh, where’s the woman bus driver?” So there’s another subject—which was what it felt like to be a woman in the world.”
Honors and awards
1978 Creative Artists Public Service Grant
1978 Madeline Sadin Award, New York Quarterly
1979 Younger Poets Award, Poetry Miscellany
1980 Satan Says inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award.
1981-1982 Guggenheim Fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation
1982-1983 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship
1983 The Dead and the Living Lamont Poetry Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
1992 The Father, shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and was a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award.
1993-1996 Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers Award
1998-2000 New York State Poet Laureate
2002 Academy of American Poets Fellowship
2002 The Unswept Room, Nominee for National Book Award in the Poetry category
2003 Judge, Griffin Poetry Prize; for “distinguished poetic achievement at mid-career”
2004 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Awards
2004 Became member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
2006-2012 Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets
2009 One Secret Thing, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize
2012 T.S. Eliot Prize, Stag’s Leap
2012 Stag’s Leap, named as one of “Oprah’s Favorite Reads of 2012”
2013 Pulitzer Prize, Stag’s Leap
2014 Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry
2015 Elected to become a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (to be inducted mid-May 2015)
Olds, Sharon (1980). Satan Says. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
1983 The Dead and the Living, Knopf ISBN 978-0394715636
1987 The Gold Cell, Knopf ISBN 978-0394747705
1987 The Matter of This World, Slow Dancer Press ISBN 978-0950747989
1991 The Sign of Saturn, Secker & Warburg ISBN 978-0436200298
1992 The Father, Secker & Warburg ISBN 978-0679740025
1996 The Wellspring, Knopf ISBN 978-0679765608
1999 Blood, Tin, Straw, Knopf ISBN 978-0375707353
2002 The Unswept Room, Tandem Library ISBN 978-0375709982
2004 Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002, Knopf ISBN 978-0375710766
2008 One Secret Thing, Random House ISBN 978-0375711770
2012 Stag’s Leap, Knopf ISBN 978-0375712258