Author Bio

Poet of the Month: Sharon Olds

posted: 11.16.09 by archived

Sharon Olds‘s confessional poems have been hailed as paragons of honesty and denounced as pornography; they have made her one of the most popular and celebrated poets working today.

Happy birthday, Sharon!

A native of Berkeley, California, where she was born on November 19, 1942, Olds received a doctrinaire Calvinist upbringing, and her reaction against that repressive world was integral to the development of her particularly confessional style of poetry.  Olds completed her undergraduate education at Stanford and received a Ph.D. in English from Columbia, writing a dissertation on Emerson’s poetry.

At 37, Olds published her first collection of poetry, Satan Says, which won the first San Francisco Poetry Centre Award.  Since then Olds has published eight more books and volume of selected poems. Her work has garnered critical acclaim—The Dead and the Living was the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1984 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and The Father was a National Book Award finalist and was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry.

Her straightforward style has garnered Olds a reputation for accessibility, and popularity has followed on the heels of critical acclaim. The poems featured on and the Poetry Foundation’s Web site highlight her intelligence, style, and recurring themes: sex, social politics, and family history.

A long-time instructor in NYU’s MFA program, Olds looms large in the landscape of American poetry. While she’s a popular teacher and guest reader, criticism of her work has been polarized. Adam Kirsch writing in The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry argues that Olds’s work “written directly out of the trivia of her life” serves only to console: “Olds’s poems are everything that testimony should be: sincere, resounding, unambiguous, consolatory. But art has other demands, and these, most of the time, she does not even want to meet.”

But, what Kirsch sees as vice, poet Peter Redgrove calls virtue: “I cannot praise [her poetry] enough. It seems to me not only faultless, but it also deals effortlessly with urgent subjects that are left out of so much contemporary poetry. Every poem is a wonder—strong, actual, unsentimental and without bullshit—in a world glowing with solid reality.”

The curious reader can find a wealth of resources on Olds around the Web. In addition to the links above, readers can investigate these interviews with Olds and numerous videos of her readings.


Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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Categories: Creative Writing, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature
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