Sharon Olds: Blood, sweat and fears

The American poet Sharon Olds has won international acclaim for poetry of startling intensity. She talks to Christina Patterson about art and life

When Sharon Olds was a child, she was told she was going to hell. "I did worry," she confesses, "that if a beam of eyesight is made of dust, me looking at a flower would get some of the dust of my sinful nature on the flower." It's an unlikely start, perhaps, for a poet who went on to write some of the most sexually explicit poems of the 20th century, one who has won an international following for her celebrations of the human as animal. In Olds's poems, we are creatures who bleed, suck, give birth and - to use her uncompromising word - fuck. "Sexual love," says Olds, "is a subject that moved me immensely. Talk about a total challenge to one's descriptive powers!"

It is a challenge she has met with spectacular courage and candour, and one that has won her rapturous acclaim. "Sharon Olds's poems are pure fire in the hands," said Michael Ondaatje on the publication of her first Selected Poems, The Sign of Saturn. The British poet, Peter Redgrove, agreed. "Every poem," he said, "is a wonder - strong, actual, unsentimental and without bullshit - in a world glowing with solid reality." "This," said the poet and playwright Glyn Maxwell, "is the sound the confessional hordes have been trying to utter since Lowell."

"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". This quotation, from "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure" in her first collection, Satan Says, sets the tone, intensely personal and unflinchingly physical, that is the keynote of Olds's entire œuvre. Later in the same collection, she writes of the "infinite bliss" of discovering sex and her knowledge that "I could never live apart from them/ again, the strange race with their massive/ bloodied hooves". In "The Language of the Brag", a poem that might serve as an early manifesto, she writes of the physical act of giving birth as some kind of Whitmanesque celebration of the self and the written word. It's an early indication, perhaps, of the fascinating, and complicated, relationship in Olds's work between life and art.

In later collections, she 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" - and of her father's gradual, painful death. She writes about the joy of birth, the visceral pleasures of bathing and feeding a baby, and, most of all, she writes about love. More than any other poet I can think of, she writes about the fierce, animal ecstasy of marital love, the "complete friendship" and "huge invisible threads", the promises to kill each other in case of illness or harm. She also writes, ominously, of the threat of love's loss. "Do not tell me this could end," she writes in the penultimate poem in her Selected Poems, published by Jonathan Cape last year. And then, in the final poem in the collection, she presents a litany of broken objects - "whelk shell", "wishbone tossed unwished on", "chicken foot" and "Wrasse skeleton" - and their shadows, "fancies of crumbs/ from under love's table". It is, presumably, no coincidence that these poems coincided with the breakdown of her marriage.

It is, however, a question I cannot broach, because Sharon Olds made a vow 25 years ago never to name people in the poems or to speak publicly about her family. With her religious background, a vow is not something you break lightly. As a child, she says, she was by nature "a pagan and a pantheist", but one who had been "taught the theory of the elect" and imbibed the view that she was "a bad being". She channelled the creative energy her parents tried to crush into making things: "paper dolls" and "baskets of coloured paper", little dioramas and, of course, poems. "I was in a church where there was both great literary art and bad literary art," she explains, "the great art being psalms and the bad art being hymns. The four-beat," she adds, "was something that was just part of my consciousness from before I was born."

A Calvinistic childhood is not something you leave behind without a struggle."I think I was about 15 when I con- ceived of myself as an atheist," she reveals, "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." Her disavowal of God was, she confides, "also a prayer to lessen belief" because "the psyche keeps believing". Certainly, her work is shot through with the passionate intensity that often supplants religious fervour and the shadow of "an angry giant boy watching everything to see who he can burn up".

The intensity is there in the person, too. Sharon Olds, who is here in the country for a punishing schedule of readings, may be going grey, but her figure remains slender and strangely childlike. She speaks slowly and with unfailing courtesy, listening attentively and thanking the waiter at one point for a coffee "perfect in its composition and delivery". Her voice is gentle and her manner is, too. This is a woman who has lived and loved with great passion but who has, I think, also lived in fear of being hurt. She did escape the vicious father, and the vicious God, but it has taken quite a while. As for many Americans, therapy helped. "It's very wonderful," she says, "to talk to someone who's seen a lot of people in similar circumstances, who can tell you how crazy you are. Not very crazy," she adds with evident relief. "In fact, not crazy."

The serious poetry also started with a vow. It was after collecting her PhD, on the prosody of Emerson's poems, that she stood on the steps of the library at Columbia University and "gave up poetry". "I said to free will," she remembers "or the pagan god of making things, or whoever, let me write my own stuff. I'll give up everything I've learned, anything, if you'll let me write my poems. They don't have to be any good, but just mine. And that," she says, "is when my weird line came about. What happened was enjambment. Writing over the end of the line and having a noun starting each line - it had some psychological meaning to me, like I was protecting things by hiding them. Poems started pouring out of me and Satan was in a lot of them. Also," she adds, more surprisingly, "toilets. An emphasis on the earth being shit, the body being shit, the human being being worthless shit unless they're one of the elect."

Within a couple of years, she was publishing poems in magazines and teaching poetry workshops, first in her home and then at universities. She felt free to write what she liked, because "no one would ever read" what she was writing. "It was extremely rude and disloyal," she explains, "but no one would ever read it." She even made up a pseudonym, but she soon realised that if she was to have any life as a writer, she would need to use her own name. And so it was that this shy, fragile figure, reciting poems about fellatio, or her father's penis, or her diaphragm, became a regular, and electrifying, figure on the poetry circuit.

Perhaps inevitably, there were comparisons with the so-called "confessional" poets - Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. In fact, says Olds, it was a different group of poets - people like Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks and Galway Kinnell - who had a greater influence on her work. "Those were the poets," she says, "whose lives I loved and whose work I loved. Although I felt, once I read her, that Plath was a great genius, with an IQ of at least double mine, and though I had great fellow feeling for Anne Sexton being the woman in that world, their steps were not steps I wanted to put my feet in."

It was, says Olds, her "beloved, late colleague" Mack Rosenthal who coined the term "confessional", because of Lowell's conversion to Catholicism and "Mack's thinking that Lowell had started writing that way because of his experience in the confessional". For her own work, she prefers the term "apparently personal". Because, she insists, the reader doesn't know. "I've never said that the poems don't draw on personal experience," she says, "but I've never said that they do. The dialogue that I'm comfortable having about them is one to the side of that actual subject. Art," she adds firmly, "is so different from life. It's just so different."

Sharon Olds will be reading her work as part of Poetry International in the Purcell Room on London's South Bank on Sunday 29 October at 7pm

Biography: Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds was born in 1942 in San Francisco. She was, in her own words, raised as a "hellfire Calvinist". After studying languages at Stanford, she went on to do a PhD in literature at Columbia University. Her first poetry collection, Satan Says, received the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Centre Award. Her second collection, The Dead and the Living, won the 1983 Lamont Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other collections include The Gold Cell, The Father, which was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, Blood, Tin, Straw and, most recently, Selected Poems. Sharon Olds was the New York State Poet Laureate for 1998-2000. She lives in New York and teaches poetry workshops at New York University.

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