Sharon Olds doesn’t need my good opinion; her trophy cabinet is pretty well full. Her first book of poems, Satan Says, won the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award in 1980. Her second, The Dead and the Living, snared the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Father was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize, and The Unswept Room was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Stag’s Leap won both the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and the T S Eliot Prize. Olds served as New York State poet laureate from 1998 to 2000 and was chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2006 to 2012. There is an implicit warning here: prizewinners and office bearers may satisfy the expectations of the current arbiters of taste, but poets have to go further out and deeper in.
As a graduate student who spent years of her life trying to understand the prosody of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even gave her son Emerson as a middle name, Olds was always going to struggle to get poetry. Poems develop their power through resistance; only when rhythm, metre, syntax and rhetoric are made to interact and counteract can the poetic shaft be got to fly. It is ironic that Olds should have been awarded the 2012 T S Eliot Prize when her view that free verse must be entirely devoid of artifice is exactly the opposite of Eliot’s.
Olds tells audiences at her readings that she was moved to put together her new collection, Odes, by the example of Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things, a selection of the poet’s Odas Elementales translated by Ken Krabbenhoft and published in the US in 1994. The distance between the English and Spanish can be guessed from the distortion in the very title of the translation. Neruda knew what an ode was supposed to be; he knew that the structure should include strophe, antistrophe and epode, and he chose to construct his odes on a Marxist dialectical model that American editors have laboured to obscure, mainly by suppressing the poems in which it is most obvious. Olds takes nothing from Neruda but permission to write paeans of praise to the lowliest of ordinary things, including the lowliest of body parts (as Neruda does not).
None of Olds’s odes so much as nods towards any of the masters of the ode in English. One of my cleverer students once identified an ode as a poem that begins with ‘O’ – as, for example, Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. But even Shelley would have thought the ending of Olds’s ‘Wind Ode’ a bit over the top.
Who is the mother
of the wind, who is its father? O ancestor,
O child of heat and cold, wild
Olds’s much-lauded ‘carnality’ is such that the only non-corporeal force she can imagine is one generated by sexual reproduction. The persona of the poems is unfailingly orgasmic and her monogamist heterosexual sex mutually and simultaneously orgasmic also. People who are ‘alone in orgasm’ are ‘spinsters’.
What is celebrated in ‘Wind Ode’ is not the wind but the poet herself. She assumes we know that ‘Wild Goose’ refers to the New Hampshire property of her retired cattle-breeder boyfriend, Carl Wallman, where, on a stormy day, from in and under the water of Wild Goose Pond, she looked at the marks of the wind’s action on the water and wondered if it could be traced to the Coriolis force. This is an odd form of name-dropping, but it is name-dropping just the same. Olds’s poetry has been called confessional. She is quite right in rejecting the appellation. A better word would be exhibitionist.
An ode to a tampon would once upon a time have been understood as a mock ode, and none but a man would have written it. Olds is evidently in earnest and for that she will not be forgiven. ‘Ode to the Tampon’ is a litany rather than an ode, being no more than a series of epithets that garland the tampon with grandiose attributes. It would be surprising if a seventy-year-old poet had anything vivid to say about a tampon, and in fact we learn little more than that the object in question has a cardboard applicator and is made of cotton. The tampon is but one subject in a whole series of poems that might be described as gynaecological. This includes odes to the hymen, the clitoris, menstrual blood, the female reproductive system, the word vulva and the vagina. These poems might be regarded as a subset of a wider anatomical theme, involving withered cleavage, a hip replacement, wattles, unmatching legs, fat, stretch marks and toxic shock. Men are included with odes to the penis, the glans, whiskers and a ‘Celibate’s Ode to Balls’. These are not fascinating subjects; Olds’s elaboration of them feels like an assignment carried out dutifully but without enthusiasm. The result is flat and over-explicit.
In ‘Ode to the Condom’, the condom is to be blessed as
separator of women and men
from abortion; separator of health
from death; separator of male
from male, of well from ill – costume of the
life force, best friend of the earth.
Costume of the life force? Words fail. If only she were joking, but no. Olds’s absurdity is all solemn. When audiences laugh at every line of Olds’s ‘Ode to a Composting Toilet’ (as they do), they are reacting to the subject, not its treatment.
Odes are lyrics – that is, songs. Olds is avowedly keen to escape the hymn metres of her Calvinist childhood. She has said that the ‘four-beat was something that was just part of my consciousness from before I was born’, presumably when she was in utero (though she occasionally imagines herself in her father’s testicle). Olds knew that the psalms as translated by Coverdale and Tyndale were great art, and the hymns bad art. She fled from droning sing-song towards chant and incantation, as well she might. The question has to be whether she ever got there.