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My Turn: Sharon Olds writes poems of the heart’s knowledge

Last modified: 5/11/2013 11:00:37 AM
As we are all now aware, Sharon Olds of Pittsfield has won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Stag’s Leap, a book about the breakup of her 30-year marriage. This wise and moving book contains her best work in years, and its opening and closing poems seem to me the most extraordinary and original she has ever written.

This is saying a lot because Olds has been at the forefront of the American poetry scene for more than 30 years, winning many important awards, most recently the T.S. Eliot Prize.

I well remember discovering her first volume, Satan Says, back in 1980, and telling every poetry lover I knew about its poems, particularly those that dealt with the underside of family relationships. I didn’t realize then that what inspired me, in addition to those brave poems, was the opportunity I found in them for my own poetry about family. Looking back, I see that she influenced many other poets in this way.

After Satan Says, an Ur book that contained themes about daughterhood, motherhood and erotic love she would later develop, she went on to become one of the crucial poets of her generation. There is a straight line in American poetry that runs from Edna St. Vincent Millay to Anne Sexton to Sharon Olds. Like her forebears, Olds has rolled back the frontiers of feeling, exploring private and intimate subject matter with an intensity that is new to poetry. Like Whitman, she has traded poetic gentility for emotional truth, sounding her “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

Yet the tone of Stag’s Leap is different from that of her early collections, reflecting the perspective of an older poet. So this book does not simply present the heartbreak of a failed marriage. It shows how over time Olds comes “to look at love in a new way,” moving beyond her initial hurt to a larger vision of forgiveness and even gratitude, and reclaiming herself as a loving spirit. Poem by poem as she makes this journey, opening her “strictured heart,” she teaches us how profound and generous love’s influence can be.

“I am not an intellectual,” Olds has said. The benefit is ours. In Stag’s Leap and every book that precedes it, she has written poems of the heart’s knowledge that appeal not just to literary specialists but to all readers. The only homework required is that you have lived a life. Prepare to have your life transformed as you read this year’s Pulitzer winner in poetry – and to be proud Sharon Olds lives among you in the Granite State.

(Wesley McNair, a poet with New Hampshire roots, is Maine’s poet laureate. His latest books are “The Words I Chose: A Memoir of Family and Poetry and Take Heart,” an anthology of Maine poetry.)


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