Sharon Olds was born in 1942 in San Francisco. She was raised as a “hellfire Calvinist”, as she describes it. 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." 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.
Olds has been the recipient of many awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the San Francisco Poetry Center Award. She currently teaches creative writing at New York University.
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".
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."
Old's first collection 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,
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
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.
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. Charles Bainbridge (11 February 2006).
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.
Honors and awards
1980 Satan Says inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award.
1984 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.
2009 One secret Thing, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize
Sometimes I can almost see, around our heads,
Like gnats around a streetlight in summer,
The children we could have,
The glimmer of them.
Sometimes I feel them waiting, dozing
In some antechamber - servants, half-
Listening for the bell.
Sometimes I see them lying like love letters
In the Dead Letter Office
And sometimes, like tonight, by some black
Second sight I can feel just one of them
Standing on the edge of a cliff by the sea
In the dark, stretching its arms out
Desperately to me.
... to a poet, the human community is like the community of birds to a bird, singing to each other. Love is one of the reasons we are singing to one another, love of language itself, love of sound, love of singing itself, and love of the other birds.