When I read her book, The Father, Alfred A. Knopf 1992, I became brave. She wrote bravely and I could do the same. This collection of poems became a touchstone for poems I knew needed to be written. What she wrote about (the dying of her father) and the way she wrote about it did not mince words. She used skillful diction and structure to come at this topic with honesty. Death and dying was taken off the pedestal of veiled sentiment or sentiment at all, and placed right there in front of us. Death, and in particular slow dying, was no longer a topic to be hedged, but was confronted in its nakedness and inevitability. We all secretly want to know, but no one was talking about it. Certainly no one was talking about it like Sharon Olds. Here is a poem that exemplifies that for me:
My Father's Eyes
The day before my father died
he lay there allay with his eyes open,
staring with a weary dogged look.
His irises had turned hazel in places
as if his nature had changed, bits
of water or sky set into his mineral solids.
and he swerved his blurred iris toward me and with-
in it for a moment his pupil narrowed and
took me in, it was my father
looking at me. This lasted just
Then his vision sank back down
and left only the globe of the eye, and the
next day his soul went out
and left just my father there
I'd never read such a thing. No overt emotion whatsoever, no flowery speech, just clear vision, inspiring diction. The poem shows what is possible in the intimate moments of our lives and our deaths. The rest of the poems in the collection are as barefaced, some even more so. I wanted to write with such clarity, such attention, such bravery. Olds' work gave me permission.
I'd always written safe poetry. I did not tackle topics that were lurking in me. It was not that I did not want to/need to write about being molested as a child, or about my father's post WWII PTSD, or my difficult relationship with my mother. I very much wanted to write about those things, not just to serve my need to vanquish them, but because I knew (have always known) that others had similar experiences. Maybe they needed to hear someone else say these things out loud. But who would say them? Maybe me? But I was a good girl poet. I was concerned about whether or not I came off as a good girl in what I wrote. I was trapped in the good girl image fostered by my very proper parents, an image I eventually held for myself too. I chose silence because that was what good girls did, to the point that my poems were too safe to be real.
Along came Sharon Olds and her book. For the first time in my reading life, a woman writer was telling some big Truths. She was writing in such a way that there was authenticity even boldness, all the while using the tools poetry uses to attract. Her skills as a poet showed me how to write. I could say the previously unsayable and still be a good girl. Good had nothing at all to do with Truth in writing. I could get at the reality in my own life and connect to the lives of others if I was brave enough. I did not need to shy away from the tough parts and hide in the shadows of safety, but it would be a dance. I would need to balance my writing to expose Truth through careful diction and style. Fortunately I have had great teachers and models for doing this. Sharon Olds, unbeknownst to her, played that role for me. When I think of the balance, the dance, I remember these words from Ric Masten about relationship:
Let it be a dance we do
Let it be a dance for two.
In the good times and the bad times too,
Let it be a dance.
Once I discovered my bravery in writing, I was faced with figuring out how to tell my own truths without disrupting the life I wanted to live as wife, mother, daughter, friend. Since that moment I have defined and redefined Truth and revised my way of getting to it. I am certain this will be an ongoing project as I move along my own timeline as a writer, as a woman, as a woman writer. It is not a simple thing to stay authentic in writing. It would be easy to slip back into the bowl of vanilla ice cream, that safe place where no one is ruffled by my writing. It is too easy to back down, back off, back away deferentially. But I will not back up and become the timid writer I was.
Until last evening, I had never met Sharon Olds in person. I did not yet have a copy of her latest book of poems, Odes. (by the way, the ode is not my favorite kind of poem to write, or to read). I was privileged to hear her read and to meet her afterward as part of the 16th Annual Terry Plunkett Poetry Festival, where I was a featured reader. The topic for the festival this year: Poetry and Truth. It was wonderful to hear her read, to engage with her audience for Q & A. A high point of the evening for me was meting her, getting her to sign my First Edition copy of The Father as well as her new book, Odes, and being able to thank her for helping me to become brave.
Her new book is all about being brave even within the parameters of form (the ode) and I discovered in these poems a bravery coupled with humor, pun, word play, and liveliness of expression. I have only read (or heard) five of these odes, but I can tell you that there is another lesson for me therein. I urge you to find a copy for yourselves and read it. If you dare. It is a risky book. But then again, why not take the risk and discover something. I look forward to another expansion for my own work, thanks to this book and thanks again to Sharon Olds.