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Pittsfield poet Sharon Olds wins Britain's T.S. Elliot prize

Last modified: 2/13/2013 3:54:26 PM
Certain Brits may be feeling a tad bent out of shape at the moment. New Hampshire’s own Sharon Olds has won the coveted T.S. Eliot Prize, an award bestowed on an American just once before in its 20-year history.

“I was very surprised. It’s very touching to me,” said Olds, who is the first female American to win the prize, considered one of the top poetry awards in the world.

“I was particularly grateful because of the feeling that by them awarding my book this honor, they were saying, ‘You’re one of us. We’re all in this together,’ ” she said.

This generosity of spirit and urge for kinship is why it’s hard to conceive of Olds truly provoking ire, had she ripped the prize out of an Englishman’s hands herself. Likewise, the collection of poetry that won her the prize, a series of poems about her divorce some 15 years ago, is astonishingly long-suffering and benevolent even as it opens deep veins of sadness.

Judges for the prize called Stag’s Leap “a tremendous book of grace and gallantry which crowns the career of a world-class poet.”

Like most of her poetry, the collection is raw with candor, grappling not just with loss but with the particular horror of being cast aside for another. It’s a candor that Olds, surprisingly, is quite comfortable with.

“I think it’s a bit weird of me, but at a reading I get up and read poems that are very apparently personal and I’m not embarrassed,” said Olds, who lives in Pittsfield when she’s not teaching at New York University. “I cut myself the same slack that I cut all the poets in my workshops. We talk about the poem as a work of art not connected to the life of the writer. . . . I think that’s really important because I think one of the hardest things for writers is the fear of being seen as foolish or wicked or something. It gives a little protection which might make us capable of a little more daring.”

Along with being intimate and daring, the poems are gorgeous in their own right, said former U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic, who lives near Olds and has been friends with her since the 1980s, when they served on a panel for the National Endowment for the Arts. “People always say, ‘Well she’s a confessional poet, she writes about intimate matters,’ as if what makes her poems interesting is her subject matter. But it’s the quality of the individual poems that makes them beautiful.”

Simic said he’s read several reactions to the award in British papers. “They tend to lean toward their own and understandably . . . they were a little surprised,” he said.

Simic, however, was not. “She’s one of the best poets writing today,” he said. “She writes about this whole tragic event with great compassion. It’s her quality of intelligence and, on the other hand, the excellence of the poetry.”

Olds herself has no explanation for why she’s earned the distinction of first female American to win the award, which carries a prize of 15,000 pounds ($24,000) and is supported by the estate of American-born poet T.S. Eliot, who lived most of his life in England. “I have no idea,” she said. “I can’t answer that because I haven’t been able to find it on the webnet or the netweb or wherever.”

Stag’s Leap was published in Britain by Jonathan Cape. It was selected from 131 submissions by a panel of poets chaired by Britain’s poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

Olds traveled to England to be recognized with the nine other finalists and participate in the festivities that accompany the award. “I was very proud and honored to be in that group,” she said. “We were in this very beautiful home, sort of like a palace . . . and I had the chance to hang out a little with the other poets. That was a deep pleasure for me, and affirmation. It’s really fun to hang out together and just sit around joking.”

Olds has published numerous books of poetry and won several awards and fellowships, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.


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