Uncivil Poetry

A young friend recently asked for my help writing an essay about "I Go Back to 1937."  I was not familiar with the poem, but the name Sharon Olds rang a bell.  After a bit of research, I was quickly reminded of her very public declination of an invitation in 2005.  I then became appalled at how her poetry has been promoted by taxpayer dollars in spite of its off-color subject matter and language.  Lastly, I found some great inconsistencies in her views.

During George W. Bush's second term, Olds, a winner of the National Book Circle Critics Award, was invited by Laura Bush to participate in the National Book Festival.  She chose to decline in a widely quoted open letter in The Nation.  The poet explained that she could not "stomach...breaking bread with" the First Lady married to a president who "represents the administration that unleashed this [Iraq] war."  How participating in the Festival activities in Washington would have compromised her set of values, I was never quite sure, though the manner in which she chose to decline the invitation certainly provided her a soapbox to stand on.  

Olds, whose work is now widely anthologized, was awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1982.  She was New York State Poet Laureate from 1998-2000.  Her poetry has been read by Garrison Keillor on NPR's A Prairie Home Companion, and by herself, on PBS.  Though it may be common for free verse to be featured on those airwaves, it has never appealed to me -- I do tend to be partial to the rhyming and metrical genius of such poets as Christina Rossetti, or William Shakespeare.  (I decided once to try my hand at an Elizabethan sonnet, discovering quickly the challenges involved.  How amazing, I thought, that The Bard produced one hundred fifty-four!)  Free verse, something Robert Frost likened to "playing tennis without a net," is not all that makes Sharon Olds' poetry unappealing; what she sees as an attempt to break down barriers in language and subject matter seems to me to be nothing more than adolescent profanity with no redeeming value.  A good example of this is "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure" from Strike Sparks.  The erotic aspect of some poetry about her very own children' s genitalia -- "Six-Year-Old Boy" and "Pajamas" -- is disturbing but perhaps is overlooked by many because the poet is a woman.

Then there are the hypocrisies.  In protest of the pro-life stance of Pope John Paul II, Olds wrote "The Pope's Penis" (The Gold Cell, published in 1987).  Interviewed on Salon.com regarding that poem, she explained: "This man, the Pope, seemed to feel that he knew a lot about women and could make decisions for us...whether we could have an abortion or not."  Because she disagreed with the head of the Catholic Church in his opposition to abortion, she felt justified writing something in very poor taste about his private anatomy.   At one time, in the not too distant past, such a poem would not have been published, since it shows a serious lack of respect for the personal boundaries of another human being.

My exposure to her work is very recent, since being asked by a community college student to help her analyze "I Go Back to 1937" for English 202.  This poem, typical of Olds, deals with angst over familial dysfunction and, according to her interviews, reflects how she views her own childhood environment.  Nowhere, in her poems I have read, though, have I discovered any real evidence of physical or sexual abuse. (Being raised with "hellfire Calvinism" -- her words from online biographies -- does not by itself qualify  as abuse.)  Taking her word, then, for the abuse out of which she has made a career expressing her anguish in poetry, I need to ask this question: Is not "abuse" really a lack of respect for the personal boundaries of another human being?  And is this not something she herself was guilty of, in writing something like "The Pope's Penis" for publication?  What about the incestuously inclined poems about her son and daughter?

Most hypocritical, though, is the fact that Sharon Olds would berate anyone at all for opposing abortion.  In what is probably an autobiographical poem, "I Go Back to 1937," the narrator goes back in time, seeing her parents individually before their disturbing marriage and parenthood.  She wants to warn them that they are mismatched and that they should not marry; however, upon the realization that her life would not have been possible without their union, she exclaims: "I want to live."  She accepts their marriage and parenthood, however badly flawed, for the sake of her own conception. "I Go Back to 1937" is most decidedly an affirmation of life!  How, then, could she fault the head of the Catholic Church for reminding his billion-plus faithful to respect that very gift?  Or is Sharon Olds's life the only one important enough to protect?
A young friend recently asked for my help writing an essay about "I Go Back to 1937."  I was not familiar with the poem, but the name Sharon Olds rang a bell.  After a bit of research, I was quickly reminded of her very public declination of an invitation in 2005.  I then became appalled at how her poetry has been promoted by taxpayer dollars in spite of its off-color subject matter and language.  Lastly, I found some great inconsistencies in her views.

During George W. Bush's second term, Olds, a winner of the National Book Circle Critics Award, was invited by Laura Bush to participate in the National Book Festival.  She chose to decline in a widely quoted open letter in The Nation.  The poet explained that she could not "stomach...breaking bread with" the First Lady married to a president who "represents the administration that unleashed this [Iraq] war."  How participating in the Festival activities in Washington would have compromised her set of values, I was never quite sure, though the manner in which she chose to decline the invitation certainly provided her a soapbox to stand on.  

Olds, whose work is now widely anthologized, was awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1982.  She was New York State Poet Laureate from 1998-2000.  Her poetry has been read by Garrison Keillor on NPR's A Prairie Home Companion, and by herself, on PBS.  Though it may be common for free verse to be featured on those airwaves, it has never appealed to me -- I do tend to be partial to the rhyming and metrical genius of such poets as Christina Rossetti, or William Shakespeare.  (I decided once to try my hand at an Elizabethan sonnet, discovering quickly the challenges involved.  How amazing, I thought, that The Bard produced one hundred fifty-four!)  Free verse, something Robert Frost likened to "playing tennis without a net," is not all that makes Sharon Olds' poetry unappealing; what she sees as an attempt to break down barriers in language and subject matter seems to me to be nothing more than adolescent profanity with no redeeming value.  A good example of this is "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure" from Strike Sparks.  The erotic aspect of some poetry about her very own children' s genitalia -- "Six-Year-Old Boy" and "Pajamas" -- is disturbing but perhaps is overlooked by many because the poet is a woman.

Then there are the hypocrisies.  In protest of the pro-life stance of Pope John Paul II, Olds wrote "The Pope's Penis" (The Gold Cell, published in 1987).  Interviewed on Salon.com regarding that poem, she explained: "This man, the Pope, seemed to feel that he knew a lot about women and could make decisions for us...whether we could have an abortion or not."  Because she disagreed with the head of the Catholic Church in his opposition to abortion, she felt justified writing something in very poor taste about his private anatomy.   At one time, in the not too distant past, such a poem would not have been published, since it shows a serious lack of respect for the personal boundaries of another human being.

My exposure to her work is very recent, since being asked by a community college student to help her analyze "I Go Back to 1937" for English 202.  This poem, typical of Olds, deals with angst over familial dysfunction and, according to her interviews, reflects how she views her own childhood environment.  Nowhere, in her poems I have read, though, have I discovered any real evidence of physical or sexual abuse. (Being raised with "hellfire Calvinism" -- her words from online biographies -- does not by itself qualify  as abuse.)  Taking her word, then, for the abuse out of which she has made a career expressing her anguish in poetry, I need to ask this question: Is not "abuse" really a lack of respect for the personal boundaries of another human being?  And is this not something she herself was guilty of, in writing something like "The Pope's Penis" for publication?  What about the incestuously inclined poems about her son and daughter?

Most hypocritical, though, is the fact that Sharon Olds would berate anyone at all for opposing abortion.  In what is probably an autobiographical poem, "I Go Back to 1937," the narrator goes back in time, seeing her parents individually before their disturbing marriage and parenthood.  She wants to warn them that they are mismatched and that they should not marry; however, upon the realization that her life would not have been possible without their union, she exclaims: "I want to live."  She accepts their marriage and parenthood, however badly flawed, for the sake of her own conception. "I Go Back to 1937" is most decidedly an affirmation of life!  How, then, could she fault the head of the Catholic Church for reminding his billion-plus faithful to respect that very gift?  Or is Sharon Olds's life the only one important enough to protect?