Oct 18, 2010
In case I haven’t mentioned it, I’ve been leery of poetry readings for as long as I can remember. Both the performer and the audience conduct themselves, sometimes, in a manner more suited to a rock star and his groupies.
Listeners and readers can forget that the poem consists of its words, which must last and stay relevant long after the author's death. A skillful orator, a jazzy performer, can inflate those words by singing, chanting, whispering, shouting, or constructing improbable emphases and gestures that induce the audience to gasps—the famous “oooooooohh” after occasional, orgasmic lines. And those other forms of genuflection—“How many cloves do you put in your herbal tea? Do you pray for your pencil? What brand of computer? Boxers or briefs?” And the inverse: good or great poems reduced to mediocrity by a poet who’s not much of an oral performer or self-promoter.
So imagine my surprise at the 2010 Dodge Poetry Festival when I found myself won over by Sharon Olds, in spite of her cowboy boots, her de rigueur costume, maybe, though she's a longtime New Yorker. I don’t recall what she read that night, but I ended up surrendering to it. I laughed, I cried, I cringed because her poems’ words, delivered without histrionics, led me there. Brava.
The Introducer (Martin Farawell) was right. Sharon Olds looks into the eyes of scary beast-subjects, with a humor and an apparent honesty that the rest of us cannot muster. I surrendered.
It would have been false to resist, though I’m stuffy enough to be troubled by some elements of Ms. Olds’ work. Its leaning toward prose, its confessionalism, its exposure of mental and physical experiences that should perhaps remain private, its willingness to expose in detail the failures of a father, or the personal lives of her children (or “some poet’s children”?)—these are fair game as subjects, and now we add her odes to body parts such as the hymen, the clitoris, the penis . . .
Ms. Olds’ work is indeed ingenious and does indeed behold new frontiers, which she then crosses in ways that might be healthy for readers and all humans to witness, ponder, absorb.
But I need to say too that Sharon Olds’ poems sometimes make me feel like a big, old, empty box, some deserted trailer by the side of the road, beneath a hillside full of people laughing with their mentor, their guru, in a show of color and confidence about how in touch they are with each other and the universal tragicomedy of the human toilet and sex bed.
In the case of the four poems with links posted below, from the 2008 Dodge Festival, I laugh too. Although I am male and the poems often center on female physiology, this might be the openness I claim to wish for, to cut through our silos of isolation from each other. I would be a party-pooping drudge if I didn’t laugh at these hip poems about topics that make stuffy people squirm, a discomfort they deserve, because, after all, they bothered us with their stuffiness, stifled us, judged us—they were not hip in the least.
But sometimes I drift (against my will?) toward stuffy stuff, like wondering when it’s poem and when it’s pandering. Or, to repeat, when it’s poem and when it’s prose. Or when it’s poem and when it’s hootenanny. I'm pretty sure I've never asked these questions about Richard Wilbur or Robert Penn Warren or Yusef Komunyakaa or Karen Volkman or a host of others. I can forgive a bad poem; everybody's been there. But a piece that's faking poemhood feels like a larger violation.
I suppose I need to be more modern, go along to get along, laugh as directed (with an ironic, slanted half-grin that’s something like a sneer). After all, in my very presence, pointless Puritan taboos are being shattered and transformed by the group to gaiety, and we’re all just a big crowd of cool, knowing dudes and babes, gathered in kindly omniscience under a tent, where we can feel the autumn breeze ruffling our skirts and boxers and genitalia. We are the tender and adoring young, the new intellectuals who want it fast and easy. We gather now in fellowship under the big top, in the know.
YouTube - Sharon Olds Reading in the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival Saturday Night Sampler - 9/27/08
YouTube - Sharon Olds reading two poems at the Dodge Poetry Festival 9/26/08