Sharon Olds is one of contemporary poetry’s leading voices. She is known for writing intensely personal, emotionally scathing poetry which graphically depicts family life as well as global political events. Born in 1942 in San Francisco, Olds grew up in Berkeley, California where she was raised, she has said, as a “hellfire Calvinist.” She attended Stanford University and earned her PhD at Columbia in 1972. She was thirty-seven when she published her first book of poems, Satan Says (1980). Over several volumes, Olds has carved out a unique place in contemporary American poetry. Steve Kowit noted that Olds “has become a central presence in American poetry, her narrative and dramatic power as well as the sheer imagistic panache of her work having won her a large following.”
something deeply right about
the physical elements – atoms, and cells,
and marrow – of my mother's body,
when I was young, and now her delicate
insignias receive the direct
touch of the sun, and scatter it,
unseen, all over her home.
– from 'The Relics'
In a Seattle Times review of Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), Richard Wakefield noted that Olds writes "poetry more faithful to the felt truth of reality than any prose could be." And Poetry Flash reviewer Richard Silberg commended Olds for "taking on subjects not written before, or not written in these ways . . . the best of these poems have a density of inspiration line by line."
Olds's work is often built out of intimate details concerning her children, her fraught relationship with her parents, and her sex life and is known for its accessible and direct free verse style. As Dwight Garner put it in a Salon piece, "Domesticity, death, erotic love – the stark simplicity of Sharon Olds's subjects, and of her plain-spoken language, can sometimes make her seem like the brooding Earth Mother of American poetry." Often first-person narratives, her poetic voice is known for both its precision and versatility. In an interview with Salon, Olds addressed the aims of her poetry:
I think that my work is easy to understand because I am not a thinker. I am not a… How can I put it? I write the way I perceive, I guess. It's not really simple, I don't think, but it's about ordinary things – feeling about things, about people. I'm not an intellectual. I'm not an abstract thinker. And I'm interested in ordinary life.
Olds won both the Pulitzer Prize and the T.S. Eliot prize for Stag's Leap (2012), which included poems that explored details of her divorce. In awarding the T.S. Eliot prize, Carol Ann Duffy, chair of the final judging panel, said: "This was the book of her career. There is a grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet. I always say that poetry is the music of being human, and in this book she is really singing. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed." In an interview for Divedapper, Olds referred to her newest collection, Odes, as "a wild book." (Her poem 'Spoon Ode' is highly playful and contains hand-drawn, hieroglyphic-like images.)
Olds has won numerous awards for her work, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and she has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Widely anthologized, she was New York State Poet from 1998 to 2000, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at New York University.
Odes, Knopf, New York, forthcoming September 2016
Stag's Leap, Knopf, New York, 2012
One Secret Thing, Knopf, New York, 2008
Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002, Knopf, New York, 2004
The Unswept Room, Knopf, New York, 2002
Blood, Tin, Straw, Knopf, New York, 1999
The Wellspring: Poems, Knopf, New York, 1996
The Father, Knopf, New York, 1992
The Sign of Saturn, Secker & Warburg, 1991
The Matter of This World, Slow Dancer Press, 1987
The Gold Cell, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987
The Dead and the Living, Knopf, New York, 1984
Satan Says, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1980
Sharon Olds reads 'First Thanksgiving', Poetryfoundation.org
Sharon Olds reads 'Still Life', Poetryfoundation.org
Essential American Poets, Poetryfoundation.org
Poetry magazine podcast: September 2011, Poetryfoundation.org
Poetry Off the Shelf: 'The Problem with Mothers', Poetryfoundation.org
Advice to Young Poets: Sharon Olds in Conversation, Academy of American Poets