This Day In Literary History
On November 19th, 1942, the famous American poet Sharon Olds was born in San Francisco, California, to an extremely religious "hellfire Calvinist" family. She would reject her religion and become a poet.
After graduating Stanford with an English degree, she moved East to attend Columbia University, where she earned her Ph.D. By the age of 30, Sharon had spent nearly a decade writing poems, none of which satisfied her. She felt she was just imitating the styles of her favorite poets.
So, she sought out her own poetical voice, and at the age of 37, her first poetry collection, Satan Says (1980) was published. It won her the very first San Francisco Poetry Center Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Her second poetry collection, The Dead and the Living, (1984) won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lamont Poetry Prize. It sold over 50,000 copies. One of my favorite poems from this book is The Connoisseuse Of Slugs:
When I was a connoisseuse of slugs
I would part the ivy leaves, and look for the
naked jelly of those gold bodies,
translucent strangers glistening along the
stones, slowly, their gelatinous bodies
at my mercy. Made mostly of water, they would shrivel
to nothing if they were sprinkled with salt,
but I was not interested in that. What I liked
was to draw aside the ivy, breathe the
odor of the wall, and stand there in silence
until the slug forgot I was there
and sent its antennae up out of its
head, the glimmering umber horns
rising like telescopes, until finally the
sensitive knobs would pop out the
ends, delicate and intimate. Years later,
when I first saw a naked man,
I gasped with pleasure to see that quiet
mystery reenacted, the slow
elegant being coming out of hiding and
gleaming in the dark air, eager and so
trusting you could weep.
Sharon's style of confessional poetry uses raw, often profane language and striking imagery within a plainly spoken narrative to convey truths in subjects such as family relationships, sexuality, the body, domestic violence, and political oppression.
She would continue to publish poetry collections; memorable volumes include The Gold Cell (1987), The Father (1993), and The Wellspring (1996).
Sharon's work has been anthologized in over 100 collections and has been translated into seven languages for international publication. From 1998-2000, she served as New York State Poet Laureate.
In 2005, Sharon became famous for a publication that had nothing to do with her poetry. First Lady Laura Bush had invited her to the National Book Festival in Washington D.C. She declined the invitation.
In an open letter published by the prominent liberal news magazine, The Nation, Sharon explained her reason for declining the invitation:
I tried to see my way clear to attend the festival in order to bear witness--as an American who loves her country and its principles and its writing--against this undeclared and devastating war.
But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.
What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition:" flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.
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.
In addition to her career as a poet, Sharon is also a teacher of English and creative writing. She lives in New York City, where she taught creative writing at New York University. Her 2012 poetry collection, Stag's Leap, made her the first American woman to win the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and also won her a Pulitzer Prize.
Sharon Olds' most recent poetry collection, Arias, was published in 2019.
Quote Of The Day
"The older I get, the more I feel almost beautiful." - Sharon Olds
Today's video features Sharon Olds giving a poetry reading. Enjoy!