Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds. Courtesy Still Waters in a Storm.

Sharon Olds (born November 19, 1942) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet.


Olds was born in 1942 in San Francisco. She was raised as a “hellfire Calvinist”, as she describes it.[1] [2] 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." [3]

After graduating from Stanford University she moved east to earn a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University on the prosody of Emerson's poems.[3]

She teaches creative writing at New York University.[4]

Olds’ work is anthologized in over 100 collections, ranging from literary/poetry textbooks to special collections. Her poetry has been translated into 7 languages for international publications. She was the New York State Poet Laureate for 1998-2000.[5]

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 10th, 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".[6]


I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

From “I Go Back to May 1937”
Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002 (2004) [7]

Following completion her Ph.D. on Emerson's prosody, Olds let go of an attachment to what she thought she "knew about" poetic convention.[3] 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."[3]

Old's debut collection Satan Says, sets up the sexual and bodily candor that would run through much of her work. In "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure" she writes,

As soon as my sister and I got out of our
mother's house, all we wanted to
do was fuck, obliterate
her tiny sparrow body and narrow
grasshopper legs. [3]

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."[8] 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" " [3]

Critical reputationEdit

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. [3] 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.[9] 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.Charles Bainbridge (11 February 2006). "Seeing things". The Guardian. 

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.[10]


Olds has been the recipient of many awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the San Francisco Poetry Center Award.[11][12] She won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Stag's Leap.[13]




  • Satan Says. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980.
  • The Dead and the Living. New York: Knopf, 1984.
  • The Gold Cell. New York: Knopf, 1987.
  • The Matter of This World. Slow Dancer Press, 1987.
  • The Sign of Saturn. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991.
  • The Father. New York: Knopf, 1992.
  • Penguin Modern Poets 4 (by Liz Lochhead, Roger McGough, & Sharon Olds). London & New York: Penguin, 1995
  • The Wellspring: Poems. New York: Knopf, 1996.
  • Blood, Tin, Straw. New York: Knopf, 1999.
  • The Unswept Room. New York: Knopf, 2002.
  • Strike Sparks: Selected poems, 1980-2002. New York: Knopf, 2004.
  • One Secret Thing. New York: Knopf, 2008.
  • Stag's Leap. New York: Knopf, 2012.


  • (Author of foreword) Tory Dent, What Silence Equals. New York: Persea Books, 1993.
  • (Author of preface) Muriel Rukeyser, The Orgy: An Irish journey of passion and transformation. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1997.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[17]

Audio / videoEdit

Poet Sharon Olds Mourns and Heals the End of a Marriage

Poet Sharon Olds Mourns and Heals the End of a Marriage

  • Sharon Olds (cassette). Kansas City, MO: University of Missouri, 1985.
  • Sharon Olds Reading (CD). Aspen, CO: Aspen Writers' Foundation, 1989.
  • Yusef Komunyakaa / Sharon Olds (CD). New York: Academy of American Poets, 1993.

Except where noted, discographical information courtesy WorldCat.[18]

See alsoEdit

Preceded by
Jane Cooper
New York State Poet
Succeeded by
John Ashbery


External linksEdit

Audio / video
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