Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds (born November 19, 1942) is an American poet. Olds has been the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry,[1] the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the first San Francisco Poetry Center Award in 1980.[2][3] She teaches creative writing at New York University.[4]

Sharon Olds
Sharon Olds in Ezra Pound's birth house, Hailey, Idaho
Sharon Stuart Cobb

(1942-11-19) November 19, 1942
Alma materStanford (1964, BA)
Columbia (1972, Ph.D.)
Spouse(s)David Douglas Olds (married 1969–1997)
Partner(s)Carl Wallman
AwardsPulitzer Prize in Poetry, T. S. Eliot Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award

Early life

Sharon Olds was born on November 19, 1942 in San Francisco, California,[5] but was brought up in Berkeley, California[3] along with her siblings. She was raised as a "hellfire Calvinist", as she describes it.[6][7] Her father, like his before him, was an alcoholic who was often abusive to his children. In Olds' writing she often refers to the time (or possibly even times) when her father tied her to a chair.[8] Olds' mother was often either unable or too afraid to come to the aid of her children.

The strict religious environment Olds was raised in had certain rules of censorship and restriction. Olds was not permitted to go to the movies and the family did not own a television. As for the literature granted in the household Olds once said she won a singing contest in church choir. "[The prize] was a book of child martyrs who had been killed for their belief and died very politely." She liked fairy tales, and also read Nancy Drew and Life Magazine.[9] As for her own religious views and her exposure to religious literary art she says she was by nature "a pagan and a pantheist" and notes "I was in a church where there was both great literary art and bad literary art, the great art being psalms and the bad art being hymns. The four-beat was something that was just part of my consciousness from before I was born." She adds "I think I was about 15 when I conceived of myself as an atheist, 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."[10]

For schooling, Olds was sent east, to Dana Hall School, an all-girls school for grades 6 to 12 in Wellesley, Massachusetts that boasts an impressive list of alumnae.[11] There she studied mostly English, History, and Creative Writing. Her favorite poets included William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, but it was Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems which she carried in her purse through tenth grade.[12]

For her bachelor's degree Olds returned to California where she earned her BA at Stanford University in 1964. Following this Olds once again moved cross country to New York, where she earned her Ph.D. in English in 1972 from Columbia University.[3] She wrote her doctoral dissertation on "Emerson's Prosody", because she appreciated the way he defied convention.[11]

Personal life

 I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live.

From "I Go Back to May 1937"
Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980–2002 (2004)[13]

On March 23, 1968, she married Dr. David Douglas Olds in New York City and, in 1969, gave birth to the first of their two children. In 1997, after 29 years of marriage, they divorced, and Olds moved to New Hampshire, though she commutes to New York three days a week.[12] There, she lives in the same Upper West Side apartment she has lived in for the past 40 years while working as a Professor at New York University. In New Hampshire she lives in Graylag Cabins in Pittsfield with her partner of seven years, Carl Wallman, a former cattle breeder.[14]

In 2005, First Lady Laura Bush invited Olds to the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. Olds responded, declining the invitation in an open letter published in the October 10, 2005 issue of The Nation. The letter closes:

"So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it".[15]


Following her PhD on Emerson's prosody, Olds let go of an attachment to what she thought she 'knew about' poetic convention.[10] Freed up, she began to write about her family, abuse, sex, focusing on the work not the audience. Olds has commented that she is more informed by the work of poets such as Galway Kinnell, Muriel Rukeyser and Gwendolyn Brooks than by confessional poets like Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath. Plath, she comments "was a great genius, with an IQ of at least double mine" and while these women charted well the way of women in the world she says "their steps were not steps I wanted to put my feet in."[10]

When Olds first sent her poetry to a literary magazine she received a reply saying,"This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies' Home Journal. The true subjects of poetry are... male subjects, not your children."[16]

Olds eventually published her first collection, Satan Says, in 1980, at the age of 37. Satan Says sets up the sexual and bodily candour that would run through much of her work. In "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure" she writes,

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.[10]

The collection is divided into four sections: "Daughter", "Woman", "Mother", "Journeys". These titles echo the familial influence that is prevalent in much of Olds' work.

The Dead and the Living was published in February 1984. This collection is divided into two sections, "Poems for the Dead" and "Poems for the Living". The first section begins with poems about global injustices. These injustices include the Turkish Massacre of the Armenians during WWI, the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and even the death of Marilyn Monroe.

Olds' book The Wellspring (1996), shares with her previous work the use of raw language and startling images to convey truths about domestic and political violence and family relationships. A reviewer for The New York Times hailed her poetry for its vision: "Like Whitman, Ms. Olds sings the body in celebration of a power stronger than political oppression."[17] Alicia Ostriker noted Olds traces the "erotics of family love and pain." Ostriker continues: "In later collections, [Olds] 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"[10] Olds' work is anthologized in over 100 collections, ranging from literary/poetry textbooks to special collections. Her poetry has been translated into seven languages for international publications. She has been published in Beloit Poetry Journal. She was the New York State Poet Laureate for 1998–2000.[18]

Stag's Leap was published in 2013. The poems were written in 1997, following the divorce from her husband of 29 years. The poems focus on her husband, and even sometimes his mistress. The collection won the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry.[19] She is the first American woman to win this award.[19] It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.[1]

Her most recent publication is Odes (2016).


Author Michael Ondaatje says of her work,

"Sharon Olds's poems are pure fire in the hands, risky, on the verge of falling, and in the end leaping up. I love the roughness and humor and brag and tenderness and completion in her work as she carries the reader through rooms of passion and loss."[10]

The New York Times noted in 2009,

"Olds selects intense moments from her family romance — usually ones involving violence or sexuality or both — and then stretches them in opposite directions, rendering them in such obsessive detail that they seem utterly unique to her personal experience, while at the same time using metaphor to insist on their universality."[20]

Charles Bainbridge stated in The Guardian,

"She has always confronted the personal details of her life with remarkable directness and honesty, but the key to her success is the way this material is lit up by a range of finely judged shifts in scale and perspective. Her poems are vivid morality plays, wrestling with ideas of right and wrong, full of symbolic echoes and possibilities."[21]

In 2010 critic Anis Shivani commented,

"Stylistically invariant since 1980, she writes about the female body in a deterministic, shamanistic, medieval manner. Infantilization packaged in pseudo-confession is her specialty... Her poetry defines feminism turned upon itself, chewing up its own hot and bothered cadaver, exposed since the 1970s. Female poets in workshops around the country idolize her, collaborate in the masochism, because they say she freed them to talk about taboo subjects, she "empowered" them... Has given confessionalism such a bad name it can't possibly recover."[22]

Women's Movement

Olds did not participate in the Women's Movement at first, but she says, "My first child was born in 1969. In 1968 the Women's Movement in New York City—especially among a lot of women I knew—was very alive. I had these strong ambitions to enter the bourgeoisie if I could. I wasn't a radical at all. But I do remember understanding that I had never questioned that men had all the important jobs. And that was shocking—well, I was twenty years old! I'd never thought, "Oh, where's the woman bus driver?" So there's another subject—which was what it felt like to be a woman in the world."[23]

Honors and awards



  • Olds, Sharon (1980). Satan says. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • (1983). The dead and the living. New York: Knopf.
  • 1987 The Gold Cell, Knopf ISBN 978-0394747705
  • 1987 The Matter of This World, Slow Dancer Press ISBN 978-0950747989
  • 1991 The Sign of Saturn, Secker & Warburg ISBN 978-0436200298
  • 1992 The Father, Secker & Warburg ISBN 978-0679740025
  • 1996 The Wellspring, Knopf ISBN 978-0679765608
  • 1999 Blood, Tin, Straw, Knopf ISBN 978-0375707353
  • 2002 The Unswept Room, Tandem Library ISBN 978-0375709982
  • 2004 Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980–2002, Knopf ISBN 978-0375710766
  • 2008 One Secret Thing, Random House ISBN 978-0375711770
  • 2012 Stag's Leap, Knopf ISBN 978-0375712258
  • 2016 Odes, Knopf ISBN 978-0451493644
  • 2017 Penguin Modern Poets 3: Your Family, Your Body by Malika Booker, Sharon Olds, Warsan Shire. Penguin. ISBN 0141984023

List of poems

Title Year First published Reprinted/collected
The Race 1985 "The Race". The New Yorker: 44. November 25, 1985. Olds, Sharon. (1992). The father (1st ed.). New York: Knopf. ISBN 0679411275. OCLC 24543273.

Audio of Sharon Olds reading the poem: "The Race". The Story. American Public Media. 31 May 2012. Retrieved 2019-04-11.

Sheffield Mountain ode 2015 Olds, Sharon (May 18, 2015). "Sheffield Mountain ode". The New Yorker. 91 (13): 52.
Her birthday as ashes in seawater 2016 Olds, Sharon (October 10, 2016). "Her birthday as ashes in seawater". The New Yorker. 92 (32): 86.
Ode to dirt Olds, Sharon. "Ode to Dirt". Center for Humans and Nature. Retrieved 6 April 2019. Olds, Sharon,. Odes (First ed.). New York. ISBN 9780451493620. OCLC 939909355.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)


  1. "Pulitzer Citation 2013".
  2. San Francisco Poetry Center Award
  3. Sharon Olds : The Poetry Foundation
  4. Sharon Olds, Faculty of CWP | NYU
  5. Academy of American Poets
  6. "About Sharon Olds". Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.
  7. Olds' Biog at Poetry Foundation
  8. The Barclay Agency Archived 2015-04-02 at the Wayback Machine
  9. Amy Sutherland (April 26, 2013). "Sharon Olds". The Boston Globe.
  10. The Independent
  11. Dana Hall School: Sharon Olds 1960
  12. "Fine Print: Sharon Olds Chronicles the End of Her Marriage in a New Collection". Vogue. September 2012.
  13. "I go back to May 1937". Poem at the Poetry Foundation. Accessed 2010-09-11
  14. Melanie McDonagh (January 17, 2013). "Sharon Olds: My husband left me after 32 years — but I refuse to be a victim". London Evening Standard.
  15. Sharon Olds (September 19, 2005). "Open Letter to Laura Bush". The Nation.
  16. Sabine Durrant (26 January 2013). "Sharon Olds: Confessions of a divorce". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 26 January 2013.
  17. "Sharon Olds, Author's Page". The New York Writer's Institute.
  18. Sharon Olds
  19. Clark, Nick (14 January 2013). "Poet Sharon Olds scoops TS Eliot Prize for 'confessional' work about her husband's affair". The Independent. London.
  20. Joel Brouwer (April 24, 2009). "Poetry Chronicle". The New York Times.
  21. Charles Bainbridge (11 February 2006). "Seeing things". The Guardian. London.
  22. Anis Shivani (August 11, 2010). "The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers". Huffington Post.
  23. Advice to Young Poets: Sharon Olds in Conversation
  24. OLDS, Sharon
  25. Issue 22
  26. Sharon Olds Guggenheim Fellowship Member Page Archived 2015-04-02 at the Wayback Machine
  27. Creative Writing Fellowship Winners and National Awards
  28. University of Illinois
  29. Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writers' Awards Archived 2015-04-02 at the Wayback Machine
  30. Walt Whitman Citation of Merit Awardees
  31. Academy of American Poets Fellowship Winners
  32. National Book Awards – 2002
  33. 2003 Judges
  34. Writers for Writers Awards
  35. List of Active Members by Class
  36. American Academy of Poets Chancellors
  37. BBC article and audio files 15 January 2010
  38. Mark Brown (22 July 2009). "Strong shortlist hailed for Forward poetry prize". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 21 March 2015.
  39. The Best Nonfiction of 2012
  40. The Pulitzer Prizes | Citation
  41. Mike Pride (26 April 2014). "Pittsfield's Sharon Olds wins poetry prize, to read in Concord". Concord Monitor. New Hampshire. Retrieved 23 March 2015.
  42. NEWS RELEASE: The American Academy of Arts and Letters Announces 2015 Newly Selected Members Archived 2015-04-02 at the Wayback Machine
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