On American Poetry Criticism;
& Other Dastardly –Isms
Sharon Olds’ Orifices & The Inculcation Of Tedium
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/9/02
Jessica Schneider: ‘So, Don, what do you think of Sharon Olds?’
Don Moss: ‘Ugh, I’m so sick & tired of
that woman’s orifices!’
-from the Great Quotes of Don Moss, Volume 3, Quote # 1378
Thus, another Destroy essay conceived & now wending its way out of the vaginal cavity. Let me be blunt- Sharon Olds is a very bad poet- but 1 who has some glimmers of talent here & there- well, maybe; I can equivocate. She is a very lazy poet- this being the chief reason for her badness. She is a very self-indulgent poet- this being the reason for her popularity. She is a very imitative poet- can anyone say ‘5th rate Sylvia Plath, 40 years too late’? She is a very disingenuous poet- in dozens of interviews when asked of influences she cites bizarre & unrelated poets such as C.D. Wright while never once mentioning that glorious suicide on whose poetic tit she suckled. She is a very tedious poet- 20+ years & not an ounce of growth as poet nor person. She is a very boring poet- virtually all her poems are left margined free verse rants with poor enjambment- is that Gary Soto in drag? Wynona had a big brown beaver, indeed! She is a very trite poet- cliché is a word that was meant for SO. She is a very fetishistic poet- obsessed with her every foul & grotesque bodily function & part. She is a very lazy poet- oh, I mentioned that already. Still true, though- like John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Carolyn Forché, & Robert Bly- she traded in her talent & potential the second she got a whiff of fame’s poon- she’s coasted dully since her 1st book hit! So, now that I’ve listed the grievances; Chino- cue the wavy lines- it’s flashback time:
Time: 1998, summer Place: St. Paul
Minnesota- a library basement Scene: a room full of silver-haired
altacockers, & 1 30ish ex-New Yorker with an ax to grind.
the best of times, it was….OK, stop the Doris Kearns Goodwin tribute.
Load the correct reel. I was attending this Poetry Workshop series held by
the St. Paul Library system on 5 consecutive Thursday evenings. The series
was being run by a local poetaster & university professor named Patsy
Kirkpatrick. Patsy is a generic WASP Midwestern woman with little to offer
but a sheepskin, a professorship at a small Twin Cities College (Hamline
or some such intellectual juggernaut), & an evil eye to anyone who
dare cross her. The fact that she was married to noted local author,
apparatchik, & gladhander Bart (No Relation!) Schneider- then editor
of the abysmal Hungry Mind Review, & now director of local
& national literary abomination The Loft, well- fortuity, thy
name is Patsy.
The room was filled with about 30 older people there to learn of poetry. All but me were over 50. All but a handful were female. All but a handful were obese. A very obese woman of 70 or so was constantly smiling at me. I dared not think what was echoing through her cranial hollows! Patsy would cue each gathering to begin- then inanely declaim on some poet or subject. By now, those of you who know me- or have read some of my other prose writings- know about Patsy’s legendary moment of stolidity during a class reading of Allen Ginsberg’s humorous poem A Supermarket In California. If not, a brief recap: the poem is basically a sex farce- & meant to be read that way- click on the title above for proof. Patsy broke us up into groups of 5 or 6. We were given 20 or so minutes to read the poem, discuss it amongst ourselves, then discard what we learned & listen to Patsy’s brilliant interpretation of the poem. I was chosen to read the poem in our group- which included the 70something heifer. The woman nearly had a stroke- so rapt with my humorous read that the woman’s paroxysms of joy were violence-laden. All, in our group, agreed with the manifestly humorous read. Patsy called things to order. Several interpretations were foisted & shot down by the insecure poetastric professor. Included were the fat old lady’s comic burst. Patsy called things to order, again. She then solemnly read from the poem- Ginsberg did not wanna ram Walt Whitman up the ass! This was a spiritual moment about 2 souls joining in common bliss- or some other quasi-Eastern bullshit! Old Fatso turned to me & said, ‘What the hell poem is she reading from?’ Fatso objected & then asked for my backup. I gave it & denuded the quivering & red-faced Patsy’s interpretation with ease. Patsy tried to quell me- put me in my place. But the truth was out- this Empress was butt naked- & not too pleasing on the eyes! Other denture-wearing enthusiasts assented to my POV. Inside of a minute several turned to me to fully explicate the poem’s actual meaning- rather than Patsy’s pseudo-intellectualized masturbatory take on it. I did so. Patsy raged internally. From that moment on- in the 2nd or 3rd of the 5 classes, the oldsters consistently asked me questions before addressing Patsy. My plainspokenness, intelligence, & lack of condescension had defeated the horrible deceit, stupidity, & disdain of Patsy. To her, this brash youngster had STOLEN her class from her! I would pay- so voweth-ed Patsy! Not only had I struck a blow for common sense- but I’d shut up a dumb ass, to boot! The next session, though, Patsy swore she would show me up. We would be on her turf this time! After all, Ginsberg was a male poet- but NO MAN could out-critique her on her poetic hero: über-feminazi heroine Sharon ‘Am I Still Wet?’ Olds!
In Space, Can Anyone Hear Sharon Olds Scream?
I had a
dream. It was scary. It was a dream of a long time ago. Patsy K was
reading a terrible poem by Sharon Olds. I do not recall the horror’s
title. In it, the speaker is on a roof. Nothing of import happens. Lots of
melodrama abounds. Clichés suffocate. Poor enjambment gnashes the eyes
sore! I wake up in a sweat. But I am still dreaming. I am floating in
outer space- cut off from my ship. It’s sort of like the Gary Lockwood
character, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Frank Poole, in the
moments after HAL has severed his lifeline & doomed him to a frozen
death. But HAL is the PATSY 2867. This mad computrix has determined that
clichés are good- dissent is labeled as illogical. PATSY 2867 opens her
pod bay doors. The whiff of Sharon Olds’ vagina makes a frozen
interplanetary death seem appealing. The PATSY 2867 starts reading from
bad SO poems. I am a fetus again. I am about to be aborted….
Chilling, I know. That was just a vivid re-imagining (if Tim Burton can do it so can I) of the scene where Patsy K tried to shove Oldsian doggerel down the throats of helpless senior citizens. I don’t remember the particular poems- but they were bad. 1 of the good things about being a doggerelist, however, is that 1 can pick poems at random & the very same criticisms neatly apply. Before I dissect some of SO’s crap, let me just address what must be the obvious query you must have: Why do fools like Patsy Kirkpatrick & her ilk defend what is so manifestly poor poetry? Easy. It has nothing to do with art. This is yet another rearing of the Scylla & Charybdis of good intent & PC politics. ‘SO talks about things that women were shamed into silence over for eons!’ Well, no- not even poetically- see Plath, Sexton, Rich, Waldman, Di Prima, Rukeyser, Sappho, etc. ‘SO’s poetry breaks down the power structures that suppress female poetry- & women in general.’ Well, no (deux). Corporate titans do not quiver because some hausfrau with a ‘tude bitches in poor music. & I’ve yet to hear that SO’s, or any other woman’s, sexual cavities have become part of a national firestorm- sorry Monica Lewinsky, wrong orifice!
Needless to enunciate- but what the hell?: fools like Patsy know nothing about the fundaments of poetry. They cannot write it, nor read it well. She reminds me of the middle sister Joey, from Woody Allen’s Interiors, who is very much the dilettante artiste- with all the attendant angst & feelings of an artist, but none of the talent. Its is the Joeys/Patsys of the world who worship the SOs of the world- for their mere smidgen of more talent fools the Patsys into believing that being a ‘real artist’ is not unattainable- even as the SOs are not truly ‘artists’ to begin with. It must be a special, agonizing form of Perdition to be a Joey/Patsy K- thus why they are drawn to the Cult of the Cunt. In the Cunt Cult (CC) these truths DO NOT apply: merely having an artistic sensibility does not render 1 ‘artist’- this is where accomplishment comes in, & this is precisely where SO fails. Let us examine some of the tripe SO has inflicted over the years. 1 of the boons of the Internet is that crap like SO’s poems are ubiquitous online- as well as terrible interpretations of her work, import, etc. The poems assailed below are taken at random from the many available online. Be afraid, be very afraid!
‘Mistah Kurtz, He….’- Kill The Motherfucking
At random, let’s dive straight down the hellhole with an almost archetypal piece of SO tripe. I will supply this Legend, which I will use throughout the essay:
cliché of word choice
When I think of my
adolescence, I think
of the bathroom of that seedy hotel
in San Francisco, where my boyfriend would take me.
I had never seen a bathroom like that -
no curtains, no towels, no mirror, just ***
a sink green with grime and a toilet
yellow and rust-coloured - like something in a science experiment,
growing the plague in bowls.
Sex was still a crime, then,
I'd sign out of my college dorm
to a false destination, sign into ***
the flophouse under a false name,
go down the hall to the one bathroom
and lock myself in. And I could not learn to get that ***
diaphragm in, I'd decorate it
like a cake, with glistening spermicide,
and lean over, and it would leap from my fingers
and sail into a corner, to land
in a concave depression like a rat's nest,
I'd bend and pluck it out and wash it
and wash it down to that fragile dome,
I'd frost it again till it was shimmering
and bend it into its little arc and it would ***
fly through the air, rim humming
like Saturn's ring, I would bow down and crawl to retrieve it.
When I think of being eighteen
that's what I see, that brimmed disc
floating through the air and descending, I see myself
kneeling, reaching for my life.
Bad title- unsubverted. 2 underlined clichés. 4 poorly enjambed lines. 1 poem & already SO’s cuntal region is trying 1’s nerves. The poem is prose cut into line- no music for the ear nor a musical metaphor of symbols. A typical ‘coming of age’ melodrama’: a small moment is conflated into an act of wisdom or insight. This is all cliché, as well as prose broken into lines. Guess what? I could really go off on this but- in fact- this is 1 of SO’s better poems! Despite its total excessive prolixity. I will now show how this atrocity could be improved merely by condensing it (not adding a single word, nor playing around with enjambment nor line placement), & giving it another, more evocative title:
Sex was still a crime, then
When I think of my
adolescence, I think
San Francisco, a bathroom like that-
a science experiment: to get that
diaphragm in, I'd decorate it
with glistening spermicide-
it would leap from my fingers,
to land in a concave
I'd wash it to that fragile dome,
frost it again. Eighteen,
brimmed disc, myself
there are a # of ways I could have improved this poem with concision- go
ahead, you try- it’s easy! I did adjust some enjambments, but- other
than that- I did this rewrite just as I typed away on my computer. I did
not ponder over this for days- this is easy & standard Uptown
Poetry Group fare. My point is that SO either did not give any
real thought to revision- & if she did that speaks even more ill of
her poetic acumen. I have retained the essence of SO’s version, cut the
redundancies, & left the poem far more evocative & comic. Let’s
compare the 2 versions. My version leaves a more provocative title that
can be also be read as a de facto 1st line. Advantage- me. Now
line by line in my version: Line 1- a draw. Line 2- San Francisco becomes
a mode of thought- we all know the looser morés it implies, then we
naturally are drawn to the idea of a bathroom not quite like that in
Grandma’s home. Advantage- me. We lose 5or 6 lines of prose with this
condensation- plus allow the reader to imbue with their own experiences.
Line 3- also loses loose prose & connects the idea of sex with
science- kind of creepy- eh? Advantage- me. Lines 4-9- 1 comic moment
suffices, plays well against the cliché-rescued-cum-title, & dashes
alot more dull prose. Advantage- me. The last 3 lines I improved slightly-
the best I could, given the melodrama. By removing the my from
before life you reduce a redundancy & universalize the poem a
bit more. Also dropping the for life mellows the melodrama &
lets the reader supply what they feel is apropos to reach for. Advantage-
me. Game, set, & poem to me.
But is my version a good poem? Cum-see/cum-sa (~). But it is definitely better than SO’s original. Let’s look at an even worse poem from SO (Mind the Legend.):
I pull the bed slowly open, I ***
open the lips of the bed, get ***
the stack of fresh underpants
out of the suitcase—peach, white,
cherry, quince, pussy willow, I ***
choose a color and put them on,
I travel with the stack for the stack's caress,
dry and soft. I enter the soft ***
birth-lips of the bed, take off my ***
glasses, and the cabbage-roses on the curtain
blur to Keats's peonies, the ***
ochre willow holds a cloud
the way a skeleton holds flesh
and it passes, does not hold it.
The bed fits me like a walnut shell its ***
meat, my hands touch the upper corners,
the lower, my feet. It is so silent
I hear the choirs of wild silence, the ***
maenads of the atoms. Is this what it feels like ***
to have a mother? The sheets are heavy
cream, whipped. Ah, here is my mother,
or rather here she is not, so this is ***
paradise. But surely that ***
was paradise, when her Jell-O nipple was the ***
size of my own fist, in front of my ***
face—out of its humped runkles those ***
several springs of milk, so fierce
almost fearsome. What did I think
in that brain gridded for thought, its cups ***
loaded with languageless rennet? And at night,
when they timed me, four hours of screaming, not a ***
minute more, four, those quatrains of ***
icy yell, then the cold tap water
to get me over my shameless hunger,
what was it like to be there when that ***
hunger was driven into my structure at such ***
heat it alloyed that iron? Where have I ***
been while this person is leading my life
with her patience, will and order? In the garden;
on the bee and under the bee; in the ***
crown gathering cumulus and ***
flensing it from the boughs, weeping a ***
rehearsal for the rotting and casting off of our ***
flesh, the year we slowly throw it
off like clothing by the bed covers of our lover, and dive under.
Kitty-kitty….Let’s recap this utter disaster: A banal title that does
nothing to serve the poem. 44 lines- how many without a single 1 of our 3
bad writing markers? 8- & even these are little more than banal prose.
About 18% of the poem is a non-disaster- or about 82% of it is.
Furthermore 6 of the non-disaster lines come in the 1st 16
lines; meaning only 2 of the last 28 lines are not absolute shit. So, in
the poem’s last 2/3s, or so, when the drama should build to a crescendo,
the percentage of disastrous lines reaches almost 93%. Astonishing that
any editor would publish this SHIT! Let me RE-EMPHASIZE this point! I am
doing this evaluation on the fly, as I write. Any even capable
editor should be able to spot at least the bulk of this tripe in several
rereads. & I’m not even gonna bother to break down the percentages
for lines with multiple disaster markers! Now a much needed side-by-side
with a very good poet (Weldon Kees) who tackles a similar theme:
dirt scared me, because of the dirt
The porchlight coming on again,
Take a guess who wrote which poem? C’mon. Both poems’ titles are years, both denote the ages of the speakers, both mention personal names, both include murders, & both end with recognition of something. 1 poem states this recognition, the other implies it. Obviously SO’s is the crapfest on the left. WK’s is the great poem on the right. Reread both. 1 is barely poetry- if it is at all- the other is sublime. OK, I’ve shown how a piece of doggerel could be condensed into at least a passable proto-poem, I’ve demarcated the utter horror of an even worse piece of shit, & I’ve done the old reliable- compare a really bad poem to a really great poem that- in essence- is really the same poem as the piece of doggerel. Still not convinced that the best thing that could happen in SO’s life is to be sodomized by a band of roving Cossacks?
Plato, Newton, Shakespeare, Einstein, Olds….
Very well, if you insist. Let me now denude a piece of terrible pseudo-criticism-cum-objective-interview on a terrible little piece of ‘poetry ‘ by SO! This from an interview in the vaunted Salon.com: (Hint- I’m still sticking to my prior Legendry- but applying it to critical clichés as well!)
Salon: Your poetry
isn't necessarily known for its comic aspects. But I'm wondering
about your wonderful poem "The Pope's Penis," from "The
Gold Cell," where that came from and if it has proven
controversial. [This is what’s known as a grapefruit (a softball
term)- because the interviewer is not really engaging in a conversation-
just giving the interviewed a chance to state what is already known- &
possibly hawk their wares.- DAN]
SO: Life has a lot
of sorrow in it, but also has a lot of funny things in it, so
it makes sense to me to have that range. So many poets whose work I
love are funny now and then. We're just funny creatures, human
beings. But that particular poem -- I am careful where I
read it, not wishing to give maximum offense. It's a poem I
didn't get for a long time. I didn't ask myself: Why do you feel
okay about teasing this stranger? Why do you think that's okay? I was just
so startled when I noticed that this particular Pope was also a man. And I
thought: Well, that means .... [trails off]. And I just began musing on The
Other, in a way. [Disingenuity to the max- SO’s reply could be
appended to just about any other query; this is the artist-as-politician.
Do we really believe she just figured out popes are men? Puh-leeze! Then
the cutesy muffled asides- she must NOT say what she really thinks, after
all!] And I wasn't thinking, "I must not write anything about
a religion that is not mine because I have no business doing so."
I'm sure there are a lot of people who feel that way, that we
can write well only about what we deeply know and have known all our lives
-- that we can't write about very different experiences.
I don't think that's necessarily always true. I grew up in what I
now call a hellfire Episcopalian religion -- I think that phrase
communicates the atmosphere -- and I didn't feel light years away from
understanding the male hierarchy of power leading up toward the
male God. But I didn't understand, until years later, that
this poem was kind of a return gesture. This man, the Pope,
seemed to feel that he knew a lot about women and could make decisions for
us -- various decisions about whether we could be priests or not, and
who would decide whether we could have an abortion or not. He had crossed
our line so far -- this is according to my outsider's point of view
-- that hey, what's a little flirtatious poem that went across his line
somewhat? [SO very well intended controversy- don’t believe for a
second she did not write this poem to offend- that such crap does is
another story, but SO was very calculating in the poem as weapon. Would
that she spend a fraction of the effort in revising her poetry for
artistic excellence, as for political controversy!] It looks like a young poem now. It mixes its metaphors. So I don't tend to read
that poem, but I don't wish I hadn't written it. I don't want to
take it out of the book. And unlike maybe three other poems in that book
that I've rewritten -- in the latest printing they are different from what
they were -- it's okay enough for me that I don't feel like I have to, or
could, rewrite it. If I tried to fix the images it would just fall
apart. [Ugh!- Now SO is doing the old coy,
disavowal-cum-embrace of her poem-as-youthful-semi-indiscretion. Note the
abundance of codewords & clichés in both the interviewer’s &
What is truly ridiculous
is that this banal little poem was banned from the U.K. edition of the
book! The offending poem? Still Legendarily marked:
The Pope's Penis
It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate ***
clapper at the center of a bell.
It moves when he moves, a ghostly fish in a ***
halo of silver seaweed, the hair
swaying in the dark and the heat - and at night,
while his eyes sleep, it stands up
in praise of God.
I know it’s considered gauche to trumpet 1’s own work, & I really hate do so- but I just gotta compare this tripe with a poem of mine that is also on www.Cosmoetica.com! Here’s my poem:
Rape Of Mary
void is that she could never swallow:
when behind the ravening marketplace,
that pit of commerce, the alley growing
darker with each step, where that day expunged
moment it happened- removed her space-
from within. She encompassed its shudder,
or so she dreamt. She thought, then, tomorrow
she could begin to love this difference plunged
beyond her Lord. But that feral smile,
his mortal smells filled the Holy Mother
hung on a fiction that could never be:
the virgin's delight; the rapist plowing
past her desire to be defiled-
O to be fucked so immaculately!
SO’s poem says nothing & says it poorly. There is no idea here, save that of a naughty Catholic girl’s version of vengeance. But, hey, it worked! Dumb, fuckin’ British! Note the bad enjambment, clichés, predictable imagery, etc. I fully intended my poem as a ‘grabber’ & for years at readings it’s a guaranteed home run for left-leaning losers who want to rail. I play off of the familiar, but subvert possible clichés like the word plunged in a rape poem by the word that precedes it. I also play off the whole Virgin Birth bullshit in a novel way- my poem works both as ‘straight’ serious, well-written version of Mary’s impregnation & a dark parody of it. SO’s poem is a not-too funny example of marginalia from a High School spiral notebook. But enough backpatting- as with the Weldon Kees side-by-side, the difference between poetastry & great poetry is manifest if you really look objectively.
But, who said critics are ever objective? They are usually wannabe poetasters themselves- they will not offend another potential poetaster-cum-critic by pointing out even the most obvious flaws- lest that critic turn & savage their tripe later- out of spite, even if the doggerel might deserve it. Let’s now peer at SO through the critical eye, darkly (ain’t I clever?). Legend time:
Marilyn Hacker (love that name, eh?): "Satan Says is a daring and elegant first book. This is a poetry which affirms and redeems the art." Comment: Change the 1st 2 words & this blurb has been recycled endlessly. PS- Ain’t the ‘a’ before poetry swell? This means it's not ‘poetry’ but a specific ‘kind of poetry’ that has been excluded by the hetero-WASP-male canon!
Dinitia Smith, New York Times: "There is almost no major American poet
whose work is as sexually explicit, and as intimately evocative of a
distinct father, husband and children as Ms. Olds." Comment: The
underlined is the mold, the rest is fill-in-the-blank. Crit is so
Erich Vogel, Poetry Harsh website
from the review of Maxine
Kumin's Connecting The Dots: ‘Poems written about wars and like events as seen on
television are almost never powerful, even when tackled by an otherwise
excellent poet like Sharon Olds; for my money only Robert Bly ever
succeeds with such material, by moving it onto a grander philosophical
plane.’ Comment: Exhibit 1-A as to why even the few folks who dare to
write negative reviews on anyone are merely practicing their own versions
of the 10,000 Monkeys hypothesis. They’re usually just shilling for
their own pals &/or biases. Even they can have moments of consummate
stupidity. Not only does he wrongly praise SO & Bubby Bly, but in
another review he states Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris is the
best book of poetry ever written! Ugh! But, hey, no underlines nor italics!
Donna Seaman, Booklist: “If the body is the temple of the soul, then Olds is the priestess, and her poems are psalms in praise of sex, holy matrimony, and motherhood." Comment: Saracen Pig! She’s a Druid, dammit! (CC♥!)
Elizabeth Frank, Mirabella: "...it seems to me that quite apart form the people and experiences that make up Olds's life, she and her work are about nothing less than the joy of making - of making love, making babies, making poems, making sense of love, memory, death, the feel - the actual bodily texture, of life." Comment: Don’t you just love the disingenuous 1st 4 words? EF is saying- if you don’t see this you are obviously a misanthropic misogynist!
The Virginia Quarterly
Review (on Wellspring): ". . .another splendid
book by this remarkable poet. . .Having poetry like that of
Olds is like being blessed with another sense. One would live
without it, but not as whole." Comment: 1st ½:
generic off-the-rack remark; 2nd ½: Generic off-the-rack
gratuitous conflation of art with the spiritual/divine. Crit is so
difficult! (This time I’m serious!)
The Virginia Quarterly
Review (on The Gold Cell): "Olds
writes with great flair and often shows a resonant dramatic
intelligence in searching out the contexts, or the
frameworks of implication, in which to lodge and justify her dark
"Olds does not stand outside or above the people in her poems; she
speaks out but does not condemn; she is part of the same emotive
fabric as they are, and this identification lends her work
much compassion." Comment: Remember me when I submit to
the next contest you judge! Love, Carolyn (CC President- Tallahassee
Joyce Peseroff, The American Book Review: "What is most striking is Olds's vigorous and fecund metaphorical imagination... In a way, these poems describe a psychic world seen under water..." Comment: Mother warned me about hallucinogens.
Galway Kinnell: "In a very direct way she (Olds) is using herself as subject matter. There is no attempt to portray the outer world without one's self in it." Comment: I can give this bitch’s shit a blurb by neutering my comments very, very carefully….
David Leavitt, Voice Literary Supplement:
"Her best work exhibits a lyrical acuity which is both
purifying and redemptive. She sees description as a means to
catharsis, and the result is impossible to forget
... Sharon Olds is enormously self-aware; her poetry is
remarkable for its candor, its eroticism, and its power to move."
Comment: I had these thoughts when Jean-Luc was rimming me last night,
& just had to write them down. How I wish I had a cunt- YOUR cunt!
Just thought I’d share. Hugs-n-Kisses, Your boy, Dave (CC Wannabe L!)
Lucy McDiarmid, New York
Times (on The Wellspring): "Like
Whitman, Ms. Olds sings the body in celebration of a power stronger
than political oppression." Comment: When nothings’s
artistically there 1) invoke a greater artist for comparison & 2) trot
out the old schnauzer of ‘political oppression’.
Michael Ondaatje: "Sharon Olds's poems are pure fire in the hands--risky, on the verge of failing, 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." Comment: ‘I am still new to this country. I mean no harm to anyone. I am just trying to fit in.’ But ain’t it great SO’s poems are ‘complete’?
Peter Schmitt, Miami Herald: "At her best, Olds can build to an incantatory power. In The Promise, she returns her husband's vow not to prolong by machine the other's life when the time comes: 'if the ropes/binding your soul are your own wrists, I will cut them.'" Comment: Separated At Birth?: Shit/Schmitt. Scary, ain’t it?
Which stinks worse? The fear, or the dim intellects? Need I even comment? Surely someone besides me realizes SO is terrible?
Testicles Belatedly To The Rescue! Well, Sort Of….
Has anyone, prior to this essay, ever revealed SO’s full literary horror? Well, kinda- in a New Republic review of SO’s 1999 crapfest Blood, Tin, Straw, 1 Adam Kirsch leads what might best be called a minor rebuke- but only after a build-up. The best part of these selections is he is perhaps the 1st reviewer to openly brand SO a ‘Plath wannabe’- well, sort of. Got it? After his excerpts we’ll look at some of the weaker defenses:
poems are about the war of biology against theology, about the
"central meanings" of her poem "Prayer" (from her
first book, Satan Says, which appeared in 1980):
me be faithful to the central meanings:
the waters breaking in the birth-room which suddenly
smelled like the sea;
that first time
he took his body like a saw to me and
cut through to my inner sex,
the blood on his penis and balls and thighs
sticky as fruit juice;
the terrible fear
as the child's head moves down into the vagina ...
one who really believed in the sheer corporeality of sex and birth, out of
a pre-Christian paganism or a post-Christian materialism, would write
about them with such pointed prurience. Olds's aim is not clarity, but
A good point by AK- SO is nothing if not a shockhound- she lives
to draw attention to herself- which is not bad were it done with skill,
not just for attention’s sake. Also, SO’s aims do not include quality
nor originality, either. 3 decades after the Confessionalists indulged
themselves in the sexual repression of the ‘I Like Ike’ years, SO came
arollin’ & atumblin’:
most naughty thing, of course, is sex; and in contemporary American
culture, the only thing naughtier than sex is sex with one's parents or
one's children. Across her six books, every permutation of this sin is
played out: Olds imagines her parents having sex, and she imagines having
sex with her parents, and she imagines her children sexually. Thus
"Saturn," in which Olds's drunken, stuporous father is imagined
eating her little brother:
my brother's head between his lips
and snapped it like a cherry off the stem.
You would have seen
only a large, handsome man
heavily asleep, unconscious. And yet
somewhere in his head his soil-colored eyes
were open, the circles of the whites glittering
as he crunched the torso of his child between his jaws,
crushed the bones like the soft shells of crabs
and the delicacies of the genitals
rolled back along his tongue...
he could not
stop himself, like orgasm...’
The unasked query by AK is: Does
he or she really believe old Oedipus is pushing boundaries? Too much of AK’s essay lets SO off the hook. Then, when AK turns
on SO, it is not over the travesty of clichés, nor her poor technical
skills, but this weak thrust, which only bids its own scorn from the
the most significant problem with Olds's single-minded revolt is that it
breeds a disfiguring self-love in the rebel. Her foe seems to her so
all-powerful that she does not need to consider whether her aggression is
logical or dignified. Her personal struggle is as important a struggle as
the world can show. And this all-out attack implicitly confirms her enemy
in the power that she would deny it: it is as though the father, or the
patriarchy, or religion, is so strong that no weapon can really harm it,
so that all weapons can be fairly used.
rhetoric is pitched at the highest possible level:
had happened to others.
There was a word for us. I was: a Jew.
It had happened to six million.
And there was another word that was not
for the six million, but was a word for me
and for many others. I was:
a perfect narcissist would casually annex the Holocaust as a symbol for
her antipathy to her father.’
Hello, SYLVIA PLATH! Now AK makes the connection- yet he still lets
SO off, because the same con arguments were used against Plath, &
easily parried by the quality of her verse. Lacking such
quality should make SO an easy target, but AK lets her hide behind SP’s
skirts, & claim (in Reaganesque tones), ‘See, there they go
again!’, to the applause of her sick, demented, little Cunt Cult.
Belatedly, however, AK gets around to contrasting the obvious qualitative
differences- well, sort of:
it is here, at the level of style, that Olds diverges from Sylvia Plath,
the much better poet with whom she has some similarities. Olds's
blasphemies and affirmations are always in deadly earnest, which is why
they are devoid of two of the most appealing qualities of Plath's verse:
wit and artifice.
is a much more various poet, but even where her themes are closest to
Olds's--when she is attacking her father (infamously using the same Nazi
analogy as Olds) or mythologizing herself--she has the power of black
comedy in reserve:
To annihilate each decade.
What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot--
The big strip tease.
These are my hands
has also the excess of artifice, that margin of language beyond the
subject, that defines true poetry.’
On the plus side, AK points out the wit & humor that runs
through so much of SP’s oeuvre, & has gone largely uncommented on.
On the minus side he really doesn’t light in to SO the way he should
& could. Even given these examples he lets SO slide, & gives no
real reason for a young Oldsian to question their allegiance. Although he
ends with 1 of the strongest denunciations printed in a major magazine in
the last 40 years, it rings supremely hollow because, unlike my earlier
examples, AK fails to show HOW SO’s poems reek;
therefore the obvious flaws can be written off by the SO Cunt Cultists as
ad hominem (at worst), or mere opinion (at best). Gander yon:
‘There are always readers who want the kind of consolation that Olds provides, which is why she is one of the most fiercely beloved of living poets. Her poems are written directly out of the trivia of her life and can be directly assimilated by the reader; there is no abstraction and no surprise, only the videotape of life played back at full volume. Randall Jarrell once wrote that the poems he received from strangers in the mail were like torn-off limbs, with "this is a poem" written on them in lipstick: they were testimony, not art. Sharon Olds's poems are certainly everything that testimony should be: sincere, resounding, unambiguous, consolatory. But just as certainly they are not art.’
Wishy-washiness of this sort does nothing to advance poetry, nor its criticism. Even as he condemns he covers his ass by acknowledging that emotion- too- has a place; even as he mouths the opposite. In a court of law AK would get the gut ‘he’s right’ vote, but fail to prove the case on substance. AK lets SO walk- artistically. But her poetic crimes are not the issue with most critics- NO!
Testicles, Requiescat In Pace
Dives Deeper Yet Into the Body
by Michael Schneider [NO RELATION!!!!- DAN]
Blood, Tin, Straw
by Sharon Olds
Alfred A. Knopf. Cloth, $24. Paper, $15. [Obligatory nod to status as magalog piece.]
With her first book,
"Satan Says," published in 1980 by the University of Pittsburgh
Press, Sharon Olds launched a relatively late-blooming poetic career --
she was 37 -- that hasn't slowed. She's recognized as among the finest of
our living poets, and she's certainly one of the most popular. For serious
poetry, her books sell off the charts. Her second collection, "The
Dead and the Living" (1984), which won a National Book Critics Circle
Award, has sold over 50,000 copies. Her third, "The Gold Cell"
(1987), is in its 15th printing.
[There is no need for this info in a review of this length, popularity has nothing to do with critical rendering- better time could be spent on a cogent analysis. This is just the setup to let the reader know that there IS A REASON for his generic, yet glowing review! But, not the real reason- read on.]
Born in San Francisco, Olds was educated at Stanford and Columbia, where she endured [Huh? Endured? Well, she’s a feminazi- they endure to nosh on a bagel!] to obtain her literature Ph.D. while working to find her voice as a poet. [Finding one’s voice is code for excusing bad poetry while the poet is still young- a term which, in poetry circles, means until you get a full set of upper dentures or your 1st Social Security check- whichever comes 1st!] One poem from this new collection, "The Defense," recounts the ordeal of defending her dissertation. [Ordeals such as rationally backing up an argument- someone go bronze some gonads- NOW!] Known for intimate poems about sexuality and family life, Olds is seen by many as the center of a back-to-the-body movement in poetry, especially by women. [This is the coy attempt at apotheosis- the critic believes in the apotheosis, but wants the reader to feel they are doing their best Joe Friday on the contemporary poetic milieu.]
As a poet who sings the body, Olds extends a noble lineage. Whitman's poetry of "amativeness," tame stuff now, was provocative for mid-19th century readers and unsettling to many. Likewise with Olds. [The classic linking/conflation of a bad artist with a good for specious reasons. Taken to its full extent 1 can argue: Well, they laughed at Galileo & Darwin. That’s the reason they’re laughing at my proof of cold fusion by mixing Pepsi One with my semen- it’s all just jealousy & fear!] Noted critic Helen Vendler once called Olds' poetry pornographic. [That Vendler is a dipshit few take seriously is not at issue- SOMEONE blasphemed MY icon!] In "Blood, Tin, Straw," her sixth collection, Olds has done what some might have thought impossible -- go even farther in plumbing physical intimacy for deeply felt poetry. [In her next book, SO walks on water while reciting Odes To Her Labia Minora! Feeling deeply is not a critical assessment.]
Among poems of child-birth and parenting, early sexual experience and conjugal love, there are many beautiful lines not quotable here. [Why? You’re not writing for Jerry Falwell?] These -- from "When It Comes" -- suggest Olds often startling ability to observe and render sensual detail: [Remember my earlier Legend?]
at times, the last steps across the bathroom,
you make a dazzling trail, the petals
the flower-girl scatters under the feet of the bride. And then the colors of it,
sometimes an almost golden red,
or a black vermilion, the drop that leaps
and opens slowly in the water, gel sac of a galaxy,
the black-violet, lobed pool, calm
as a lake on the back of the moon, it is all
woundless, even the little spot
in jet and crimson spangled tights who ***
flings her fine tightrope out
to the left and to the right in that luminous arena,
green upper air of the toilet bowl . . . .
Probably obvious to women, this poem describes
menstruation. [I was thinking a Steve McQueen film- Damn!]
With this collection, Olds has drawn some sharp critical fire. (Interestingly, the negative reviews are from men.) [Therefore worthless.] Enough already with the sex, these writers seem to be saying. One critic calls her "the empirical queen of lovemaking." Another asks, sarcastically, "is there a more fulfilled poet in America?" Success in the arts often prompts a backlash, and I think we're seeing it. [Those were 2 critical tonguelashings, weren’t they? He’d call, no doubt, for Adam Kirsch to sing soprano if it were not so un-PC & gauche. You see, ANY dissent- to a PC Elitist- is an act of some –ism against some (usually persecuted) group!]
Olds herself sees this collection as a departure. [Totally not like the rest of her rants & moans.] In an interview (Hungry Mind Review) [Mike Schneider meet Bart Schneider in that Purgatory between SO’s thighs. (Slurp!)], she says one poem, "Poem to the Reader," which explores feelings of selfishness and unworthiness, exemplifies this book's spirit of speaking more freely -- "the speaker begins to say things that have always felt true, but that she hasn't been able to know she thought." [SO has always been so sinfully shamed into silence- Sing, O Muse!]
In some places, this freer voice looks a little loose, on the ragged side. [This is the line which says- SEE- I can be critical, too! I AM an objective journalist!] The poet is experimenting, taking risks. [Would that risk be having only 1 of the 13 quoted lines poorly enjambed?] A major influence with Olds is the now deceased poet Muriel Rukeyser, also a poet of frankness who wrote in an accessible voice. From Rukeyser, says Olds, she learned three things: Write about what they tell you to forget, write about what they tell you to forget, write about what they tell you to forget. [Conflation # 2 with a better artist- albeit another 1 who got worse with age.] Few do it with more acute sensibility and imaginative reach than Olds. [2 things totally undetailed in the piece, because they do not exist.] Write me for the bumper sticker. [Labia minora- Hmmm-Good!]
Michael Schneider, a poet who lives in Edgewood, has taken workshops with Sharon Olds. [The REAL reason: Are you even mildly surprised? If you are it’s only that Mikey would be so upfront about it. Give him props- he’s a gonad-licker, but honest about it!]
Now, wanna even take a guess at the relationship between SO &
this ‘reviewer’?- ahum!:
‘Olds, Sharon. Blood, Tin, Straw. Oct. 1999. 112p. Knopf, $24 (0-375-40742-1); paper, $15 (0-375-70735-2). DDC: 811. [Obligatory nod to status as magalog piece- #2!]
If the body is the temple
of the soul, then Olds is the priestess, and her poems are
psalms in praise of sex, holy matrimony, and motherhood. Olds has always
been a daring poet of the flesh, but now in her fifth book,
a major work, she embraces the entire universe from its microscopic
swirlings--tail-lashing sperm, the dividing of cells in a fertilized
egg--to such cosmic spectacles as a blazing star or the volcanic shudders
of the earth. Everything is eroticized. She sees galaxies in a sprinkling
of sand on skin, the curve of a planet in the arc of an eye, and the
whole of creation in the act of coitus. Lovers become so intimate,
they inhabit each other's bodies, and Olds writes more forthrightly about
women's sexuality--the hunger, blood, tensility, and heat of it--than any
of her sister poets. This collection is poetry as memoir,
mined from the very core of her being, and washed clean in the
salt of the sea and of sweat, made sweet with mother's
milk and honey, and blessed by the light that shines on each page
from the entranced and grateful eyes of her readers. -Donna Seaman
(Booklist/October 1, 1999)’ [Thoughtful of her to even give us
the ISBN #s, eh?]
Or this, by Olga Kenyon, from: http://www.nhi.clara.net/bs0263.htm ?
‘Sharon Olds: Blood, Tin, Straw
- blood, tin, straw - what they
These lines come from the poem CULTURE AND RELIGION where a child remembers two influential films, making an astonishing link between the Crucifixion and the Wizard of Oz.
Olds has the ability to speak metaphorically yet clearly about experience that could be interpreted as highly personal. But she refuses the Romantic myth of the autobiographical poet [Huh?] as she stated on BBC Radio 3 on 7 July 2000.
I leave a lot
out, most of my poems you never see, if I find them too stuck or whining.
Unless the I works in some way for the reader, unless the reader
can slip into that I, have some experience through that I,
then the poem is not worthwhile, it's more like a diary entry in rhyme. [Incredible
how SO can be so clueless, eh?]
this, her sixth book, Olds writes with even greater lyrical punch. Her
previous poems were remarkably honest [Art’s
in their portrayal of the physical reactions of women. Here she
writes about her father with more understanding:
in noticing more of the other person's point of view. There's an easing of
the borders, less wanting to protect a sense of self. In 'ONCE' the
vulnerability of the aging man on the toilet is revealed 'so
unprotected... a human peace, a shorn lamb... I had found his flank
unguarded' [Psychobabble braised in bad metaphor.]
collection opens and closes with the joy of love-making. In ANIMAL MUSIC
the images of erotic love offer a striking combination of cubism and
colour in the torso
sang to the outer curve of his iris
the gazes skinned and skewed
the second drink, at the restaurant,
holding hands on the bare table,
we are at it again, renewing our promise
to kill each other. [Love/death- there’s so much unsaid….]
Hers is the unusual gift of being able to write lyrically about every part of
the anatomy which is stimulated in love-making - THE GIFT:
would retract those tiny lips
he kisses a god's small tongues in them
She has been called pornographic, but points out:
My work is not
exciting in that way, it's not meant to be arousing, nor do I think I have
that effect. It seems ordinary to me that someone might think these things
walking down the street. [Disingenuity alert!]
At last, an honesty that feminists have been
seeking. [So, all the rest of the CC have been lying bitches?] Orgasms
are described in fierce, unusual images:
am the curve of his buttock, supple fork-
lightning of each hair, follicle and
pore, and underlying bone, the [Good enjambment is not that hard!]
death-god of the skeleton
and the intricate, thrilling anus
my home, colourless bliss,
passion is grounded in nature metaphors - THE SHORE:
saw in your eye-crypt Joy
in physical sensation is felt in even small events - OUTDOOR SHOWER: The
sluice courses, down your shin,
and meshwork, the pure sea.
when you, your pupil swelled, grew
and grew, like a time-lapse flower in the dark on the
screen - bud , half-blossom, blossom, then the
full bloom, stretching as if it were
coming toward me
each drop hit
and its tiny waves vibrate out
in a swirling motion, milk smoke, the
silky rush of fresh water, supple and alkaline.
in physical sensation is felt in even small events - OUTDOOR SHOWER:
sluice courses, down your shin,
I saw you as lines of spore As they grow older, she
voices the mother's mixed feelings: he
is on his way, there is nothing
chevroning out in a dish, if I saw you
as cracks appearing in the groin's double crystal,
showing the night inside...
more we can do for him. Whatever is
As they grow older, she
voices the mother's mixed feelings:
is on his way, there is nothing
book is organised into five sections, of five elements: blood, tin, straw,
fire and light, with themes roughly arranged round these titles, giving a
satisfying form; it allows the inclusion of other topics, such as
politics, death, Jesus, illness, aging, memories of her parents. The
section on 'Light' does not deal obviously with this topic, except in AT
THE BAY on light at changing times of day. But FIRE opens boldly,
preferring death by fire to rotting in the earth as:
want, dead, to go out as a pugilist.
The verse seems blank, but has a fairly regular four beat rhythm which gives a powerful yet flexible unity. Olds admits she only recently discovered that:
these are the
rhythms of the church hymns I grew up with. I like to say, rather
tongue-in-cheek, that I'm a formal writer in heavy disguise.
This understanding of
metrical possibility allows her to range from conversational overflow in
THE TALKERS to the taut PROTESTOR on a young man who prefers not to kill
in Vietnam, though he realises he'll be raped in prison.
This is an impressive collection, that men will enjoy as much as women. Do buy it.’ [Please, stick SOMETHING in me, anyone!]
I admit it, this crap is as easy to vivisect as SO’s poems-
almost too easy (so I laid off in this last 1); EXCEPT that no one dares
to do it- at least in Academia! SO is so atrocious, yet even her most
hated rivals lay off- in fear of angering THE CUNT THAT SWALLOWED
CLEVELAND (or some such imagined retribution on SO’s part). Even horrid
Nuyoricans chuckle at SO! But, note the insistence of biography into the
criticisms. Let me end this all with a brief bio of the Queen of Cunts,
& a final piece of schlock to dissect.
The Monster In Her Hole
bio is ubiquitous- here’s its nutshell form (note how much she
SO was born in 1942, in San Francisco. Torture began by being raised as a hellfire Calvinist in- Berkeley. (Brrrrr…..). This plot did not deter her from going to both Stanford & Columbia to get a Ph.D. So underprivileged. Further pains included being forced to write in the style of noted misogynist poets George Oppen & Gary Snyder (both winners of that totem of Dead White Male oppression- the Pulitzer Prize)! I take what happened next verbatim from numerous websites devoted to disseminating SO’s legend: ‘But after earning her doctorate she stood on the steps of the library at Columbia University and vowed to give up all that she learned at Columbia in order to write her own poems, even if they were bad.’ Don’t you just love it when such drama occurs in real life? University steps. The seats of power. A lone white woman. A vow. & an unexpected self-fulfilling prophecy. Anon. ‘This vow freed her to finally develop her own voice, to stop trying to write according to others' standards. Thus, Olds began a seven-year apprenticeship in writing which included an influential class with Muriel Rukeyser.’ SO then worked her way up Academic orifices- workshopping at such places as the Omega Institute, the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, & the In the Wilderness program. She founded NYU's creative writing program for the handicapped at Goldwater Hospital in New York City, & is/was (as of a year or so ago) an NYU Professor of Creative Writing.
So burdensome, I know. Variations on this bio abound- most in much more obsequious form. How in the hell can this woman claim to be oppressed? Regardless, why has she not spent an iota of time revising her crap? Her poems are so SAFE- they say absolutely nothing but the most PC stands for or against very safe causes/issues- how many people are really pro-rape or pro-incest? Her poems illude to being dangerous by dropping expletives or farts or bowel movements or sexual topics- not because they actually push boundaries. She could write bumper stickers or political slogans, or even Madison Avenue tripe- but not poetry. Her clichés are clichés not because of their phrases, but because she uses them over & over, exactly where you expect them to be! & this is the very reason her acolytes adore her- she mouths the clichés so fundamental to their existence, BUT admixes it with a love of bodily fluids & excretions- even in the sandbox kids are both repelled & attracted to the kid whose diapers stink the most of shit!
Let me round out this essay by returning to my earlier equivocation in this essay’s 1st paragraph: ‘Sharon Olds is a very bad poet- but 1 who has some glimmers of talent here & there- well, maybe; I can equivocate.’ Let me end with a poem of SO’s that I think shows a little of that glimmer- yet SO’s obliviousness to its good qualities damn it, her poetry, & herself to a quick descent out of publication & poetic memory once she cashes in her chips. Recall the Legend:
The hair I pull, out of my
drifts off, from the rail of the porch.
It is curled on itself, it folds, kneels,
bows and buckles over onto our earth.
This is the soil I came from, sour ***
tang of resin and baked dust.
I saw my father's ashes down
into the dirt, except for the portion I ***
put on my tongue like the Host and swallowed and ate.
I have always wanted to cross over
into the other person, draw the ***
other person over into me. Fast are the naked palms to the breasts
from behind, at the porch rail, fast
is a look. Slow is the knowing where I come from,
who I might be, like a dream of matter
looking for spirit. Now the hair
rises on an updraft, wobbling, reddish,
in a half-circle, it wavers higher--
the jelly head of the follicle has the tail of the hair in its mouth, it rolls back
up, toward me, through the morning, as if ***
someone, somewhere, were saying, to me, we are one now.
This is, unfortunately, all part of the ritual of tedium that poets with publicative power never seem to let go of- a tedium that starts with the terrible verse they write & publish, grows through their workshopping, connection-building days, & is rewarded with either sinecures in already bloated English/Creative Writing/MFA departments of universities- or with publication of their usually young, unformed, & masturbatory apprentice verse, which because of early publication, praise, blurbery, etc. lulls the dimwitted jacked-off poets in to believing they have ‘made it’ as poets. The result? They never grow. & like SO, their verse stagnates year upon year. This inculcation of tedium, via laziness in all respects, is why SO (& to be fair, 100s of other published poetasters) is so consummately atrocious. She (& they) soothe readers with bland homilies (despite her cunt & shit obsessions SO is a patently dull poet) that never spur a reader to independent thought nor analysis, & do not encourage reread because only a retard could not get the blatant flag-waving (i.e.- boosterism of some sort), & only an immature (or non-self-confident) person would desire to reread the balms that are cast. Yet, this is the state of contemporary published poetry today, as well its parasitic critical form. I have railed against this before & will, little doubt, have to do it again, because this inculcation of tedium is VERY entrenched- the Patsy K’s of the world (the Cult Cunt & its like-minded sororities & fraternities of assorted woes) outnumber folk like me, or you, by 100-1 (& I’m being optimistic: 1000-1 or worse is more likely), & they NEED to know what is in SO’s cunt, why it is there, & what she feels about it. It is this fetishism that causes a Don Moss despair, & makes essays like this almost too easy. I feel twinges of embarrassment that I may be condescending to many of my readers to have to address these ills which are manifest to readers like us. Then, again, as any beer-bellied softballer will tell you: When you get a grapefruit in your gearhouse- SMASH THE MOTHERFUCKER!
[This essay can also be found on www.plagiarist.com .]
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