Pittsfield poet Sharon Olds wins Pulitzer Prize for collection about divorce
Poet Sharon Olds, photographed in November 2008. (Concord Monitor photo/Ken Williams) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Sharon Olds, who lives and writes much of the time in a house overlooking a Pittsfield pond, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in poetry yesterday. The winning book is Stag’s Leap, a collection of poems about the breakup of her marriage more than a decade ago.
“This is something I thought would never happen in my life,” Olds said in a telephone interview after the prize was announced. She recalled that when she began publishing poetry collections 33 years ago, “a lot of people despised my work, and they let me know it. All I wanted then was what all poets want: to write our poems and see what happens, or doesn’t.”
The Pulitzer citation called Stag’s Leap “a book of unflinching poems on the author’s divorce that examine love, sorrow and the limits of self-knowledge.”
The Pulitzer Prize board selected Stag’s Leap from among three finalists chosen by a panel of poets. Earlier this year the book also won the T.S. Eliot Prize, awarded annually for the best poetry collection published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. That prize came with a cash award of 15,000 pounds, about $22,500. The Pulitzer honorarium is $10,000.
In the 92-year history of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Olds is the eighth poet with strong New Hampshire ties to win it. Robert Frost, who began writing poetry in Derry, won four Pulitzers, including the 1924 prize for a collection titled New Hampshire. Charles Simic of Strafford (1990), Maxine Kumin of Warner (1973) and Richard Eberhart (1966), Dartmouth College’s poet-in-residence for 30 years, also won Pulitzers.
Olds, who is 70, splits her time between Pittsfield and New York City, where she teaches poetry and creative writing every other academic
year at New York University. For seven years she has lived much of the time at Graylag Cabins with her companion Carl Wallman, an environmentalist who helped found a vast land cooperative in the area. Graylag, a large tract overlooking Wild Goose Pond, was the Bob Cousy basketball camp during the 1950s and ’60s.
Stag’s Leap is Olds’s 12th collection of poems in a career that began in 1980. The book chronicles an intimate journey of love lost. It begins with these lines:
When he told me, I looked from small thing
to small thing, in our room, the face
of the bedside clock, the sepia postcard
of a woman bending down to a lily.
By the end of the poem, Olds has introduced a major theme of the book: the idealization of her lover during a marriage that lasted 32 years and was meant to last forever. Olds’s gift for metaphor also announces itself in the image of wilting tulips in a vase:
When I opened
my eyes, I saw two tulips stretched
away from each other extreme in the old
vase with the grotto carved out of a hill
and a person in it, underground,
praying, my imagined shepherd in make-believe paradise.
“I didn’t want it to feel like a victim book,” Olds said during a recent interview at Graylag, where mud season flourished. The poems chronicle her recovery from the shock of betrayal and the end of a love she expected to last for life. The loss made her realize that hers had not been love of an actual person but of someone “higher or better or more beautiful” than her husband really was.
Once she had laid the ideal to rest, she discovered that she needed anger to move forward. “Now it may not be angry enough to look like anger to anyone else, but there is a poem that says, ‘Since you cannot harm him, wound him,’ ” she said. This natural anger of self-defense restored balance to Olds’s life and to the later poems in the book.
Her themes converge in a poem called “The Worst Thing.” While riding with a friend, the poem’s narrator – Olds – looks beyond anger and confronts her notion of love as an ideal:
I had been saying
that it hardly mattered to me now, the pain,
what I minded was – say there was
a god – of love – and I’d given – I had meant
to give – my life – to it – and I
had failed, well I could just suffer for that –
but what, if I,
had harmed love? I howled this out,
and on my glasses the salt water pooled, almost
sweet to me, then, because it was named,
the worst thing – and once it was named,
I knew there was no god, there were only
The halting pace of these lines mirrors the emotional struggle to discover a truth about the human condition. The smoother language toward the end of the passage shows what a breakthrough the moment was. The lessons from the split have overcome its sting. She can breathe again.
Seen in the rearview mirror, divorce has its rewards even for the jilted party. “When a marriage has worked for a long time, there’s a lot that’s positive,” she said. “And when a marriage has children, that makes it so positive. . . . The love of one’s children is an inspiration in trying to have a balanced view. Marriage is 50-50, divorce is 50-50, however that works out.” After a divorce, “you know where you really are. You know the truth. You know the other person, and one learns many truths about oneself. So it’s not like a death. It’s not like a sudden calamity. I know it can feel that way, but I don’t think it’s always that way.”
Stag’s Leap is organized by seasons, and Olds wrote nearly all the poems in the time frame the seasons denote. This was from 1996 to ’98, as the marriage crumbled. She promised her grown children she would not publish a book about the divorce for at least a decade. No one asks to have a poet in the family whose subject is family life, she said, but 10 years was time enough for them to absorb the change.
The delay fit the pattern Olds has long followed in her work. She writes while feelings are fresh but takes her time choosing which poems to publish in books. She uses the time to learn from the reaction of magazine editors and listeners at readings which poems resonate. She publishes those and sets the rest aside.
“I have to write a poem the moment it comes to me, or sometimes half an hour later, or the next day if I’m in the middle of something, because only then do I have the feeling that is so full in me that it feels the need to spill over into an expression of itself,” she said.
As closely as her art follows her life, they are separate realms for her. “I never think about poetry when I’m living,” she said. “I’m living.” But writing poems is a compulsive reaction to life. “It isn’t like something I do because I can. I need to do it.”
Making poems, even about a divorce, is a good experience. “I really enjoy writing,” she said. “I can’t sit down and just write a poem. I have to wait for it to come to me, and I’m grateful when it does, and I do the best I can with it. But it’s a pleasure – particularly the poems in this book – to take something painful and real and educational and try to make some kind of pleasure out of it – for myself, for the reader.”
Metaphors occur to Olds unbidden – a gift she describes as critical to her vocation. “When I focus on an idea or a thing, similes arise in my mind. They feel to me as if they come out of the end of my pen. I have no power to bring them on – except by sitting down and writing, but then it’s up to them. It really does feel to me as though they’re coming out of the pen as a result of this attention. . . .
“I think there’s a way that my brain wants to play while it’s working and wants to escape the present, but then it escapes by running off and playing. And then it brings back what it has found in play, which has some kind of beauty to it – intellectual, visual very often with me. Without that I wouldn’t be a poet.”
Although she revises, the published poems don’t stray far from the originals. She is adjective-prone in the first draft. “When I type it up and look at it, I try to take out half the adjectives and a third of the self-pity,” she said. “I’m joking, but I’m also not joking. There’s a certain amount of moral revision, where I can see things like self-pity, or any kind of lying including, the lying of idealizing.”
Stag’s Leap has made a connection with readers – one that the Pulitzer Prize will no doubt broaden. Many, but not all, of those who react to the poems have themselves survived a divorce. “In the early years of reading these poems of Stag’s Leap aloud, I remember someone came up to me and said her husband had died and they were in love throughout their lives together, but something in these poems was comforting to her. The loss was absolutely different, but the conveying of how much was felt to be lost she felt comfortable with.
“And of course this is for a poet – any kind of writer – this is what we hope for.”
Olds’s next book will include odes inspired by Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things. Inspired but not shaped by. “I found that my common things were distinctly female,” Olds said. “That book is going to have a partly humorous but also very serious feminist joy to it. I’m of the old school where the word feminist had no bad connotations. I just mean equality for all genders.”
Olds will receive her Pulitzer at a lunch on May 30 at Columbia University, the home of the prizes and the school where she earned her doctorate in English 41 years ago.