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Sharon Olds at Media Lab -- love her or hate her


Works by Sharon Olds and Galway Kinell.

Bartos Theatre, Wiesner Building.

Thursday, October 18, 7:30.


POETRY AT THE MEDIA LAB has been running successfully now for three years under the apparently competent guidance of Uri Wilensky -- himself a poet about to be published -- and the evening with Sharon Olds was the second in the current series. It was, according to Wilensky, the most difficult in his three years to arrange, as her poetry has been referred to as "seeing description as a means to candor," "having no subject off limits," and having "shattered pious conventions for poetry."

Olds herself said last night that she initially felt "poetry was something one should do absolutely by oneself" but that now she feels it is something to be shared . . . in general. She currently has three books to her name, all collections of her poetry and all published since 1980, and is about to have her fourth published.

The format of the poetry series is such that each visiting poet reads first from their favorite poet(s) and thus allows the audience to gain greater insight into the poet and his or her poetic influences, a system which is both commendable and successful. Thus Sharon Olds started with readings from one of her favorite poet's books, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone -- since it was this book's birthday yesterday -- and then continued with readings from her unpublished collection, The Golden Cell (her third book), and Satan Says.

Before analyzing her poetry, it must be said that Sharon Olds cannot read aloud (not necessarily to her shame, as T. S. Eliot himself was equally monotonous). This is, of course, irrelevant to her work, but is very directly involved with a poetry reading and must lead to the advice that, unless you would like a signing, you should not attend a reading by Sharon Olds. It will detract from her work, should you appreciate it in the first place.

But what about her poetry?

It seems that where Sharon Olds is concerned you will either love her work or hate it. Her poetry is highly introspective and self-indulgent, dealing almost entirely with bad sexual experience. It seems she feels that the whole human race wants to be "fucked senseless," (please leave -- it is VERY relevant to the article -- she used this specific phrase several times --peter) and nothing more, an opinion which is very sad to hear.

In a Plath-like way she deals with personal pain and rage using words which suggest she has never had a loving sexual relationship and is indeed almost afraid of love ("love would mean we are helpless" -- from "You Kindly"). It seems she feels like a poor victim who must try to be strong and constantly says, "don't worry I'll be fine" in a more than slightly unconvincing tone. This viewpoint was emphasized when she said that her heroine was Muriel Rukeyser and then described her as "a very strong woman." She obviously feels that to be open and in love is in some way weak.

She is also not lacking in her share of pretension -- both in her work and in her following. She included words like `penis' and `his sex' at a rate of 11/2 (nic counted --peter) times a minute during the reading, using them in a very unnatural manner, suggesting that she felt such words should be used rather than that they come naturally -- totally the opposite to the style Henry Miller began with such flare in the early sixties. Likewise the audience included its share of people who said "mmmmmm" at the end of every piece and nodded vigorously in agreement (there was one man who even did this display of `understanding' after a poem about menstruation -- a topic pioneered by Plath).

In some ways, such poets who are obviously in tremendous pain deserve sympathy, but in other ways they inspire rage. Life is tough but you're always better off than someone else, and it is a shame that poets like Sharon Olds do not seem to realize this. More often than not it is simply their own paranoia that makes them a victim rather than true unfortunate circumstance, and it is those to whom fate has been truly unkind that really deserve our attention. Furthermore, it is usually those who suffer most that have the greatest patience and understanding, rather than an inner bitter anger which seems to arise out of mediocrity.

Sex does not have to be a bad or empty experience, love really does exist, and poets like Sharon Olds should turn their attention from themselves more frequently and produce material that is less dated and self-piteous.

But then again, it is this quality that separates the Ezra Pounds from the Rupert Brooks, and the Lord Byrons from the John Clares, and there is a large public who empathizes with poems with such internal pathos. These people obviously greatly appreciate writings such as these; they are themselves neither mediocre nor self-piteous, but merely more sincerely in pain (i.e. rather than `artistically' in pain).

If you enjoy Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes' early work or, indeed, Galway Kinell, then read Sharon Olds . . . otherwise stay away. However, whatever your preference, if you enjoy poetry, attend the rest of the series at the Media Lab. It promises to be interesting if not necessarily enjoyable.