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



Anonymous said...

I went through the first reading, well, most of it. She has some good one-liners, but I got bored. I didn't care. Hasn't somebody said all this before?

Jean Spitzer said...

Back later. Read your take on it, just haven't gotten to the "it" yet.

Barbaro said...

Yes--Anne Sexton said most of it, Cosmo the rest. I've always liked Olds, but she's got a long way to go to match Neruda. I wonder if she's getting tired of her own bodily obsessions as she gets older, wishing she hadn't boxed herself in so in younger days.

I agree with pretty much everything in the OP, but somehow I've been to far more sepulchral readings than showy ones, so I find myself pining after much of what Banjo complains about, even though I'd prob tire of it myself.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I'm bored.
I'm tired of her body and its functions.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Really, why does everything have to be new to be engaging? Throw down your pastels Jean why I take a match to my studio

Kick me in my big fat post feminist ass but I rather like hearing the story of a woman's body being told by it''s owner/operator.
I have a book on hold called "Cherry" by poet Mary Karr. I'm expecting confessional and looking forward to it.

Banjo52 said...

AH, Barbaro, Brenda, I hear you and part of me agrees, but I also hear PA's second paragraph. (PA, I've had mixed experiences with Karr [sp?], but have considered trying one of her THREE memoirs . . . ).

Not to put words in anyone's mouth, but if the Adam and Eve legend, more or less, amounts to the HONEST, actual core of human history, how can I not be interested in Eve's secrets?

But maybe they've been secrets for good reasons? And maybe Eve should stop short of doing dirt on Cain and Abel, or her earthly daddy, whoever he was.

And if Eve-ian confessionalism can stir up such ambivalent thoughts and emotions, maybe that means we SHOULD listen to it . . .

I worry about sensationalism and tawdry self-promotion in the Plath-Sexton-Olds tradition, but I also worry about what we conceal or lie about in the name of things like honor, dignity, self-respect.

But honesty can be overdone. Besides, who would claim to be earth's one honest soul?

Maybe the bottom line is, Banjo worries about every damn thing.

Anonymous said...

Adam and Eve do nothing for me either. I like the Norse gods.

Jean Spitzer said...

It's official. I too liked this stuff. I'm easily amused. Sounds like the writers and serious readers don't.

And I too like the owner/operator aspect.

Must admit, though, I'm not going to retain these, the way I retained Carlin's seven dirty words.

PJ said...

I'm listening to her as I read the comments and now my reply. I think that means I'm interested but not engaged. I like the piece you've written much better as well as the photos accompanying it, it's one of your very best. And tell me if I'm wrong but I get the feeling that maybe, like me, you've grown weary of people who write pretty words but don't have the force of character to anchor their work so ultimately it seems, well, compostable?

Leslie D. said...

I'd say the difference between poetry and hootenanny is sometimes a very fine line.

Banjo52 said...

AH, Thor the Dude. Isn't there one seminal couple in the Norse biz?

Jean, George Carlin vs. Sharon Olds. Maybe both would find that a hoot? (oops, no CONSCIOUS play intended on hootenanny).

Paula, thanks. I'm not sure about the character vs. artist thing. Do we have ANY major writers whose character is widely considered noble or well-balanced? Of course, the jury's still out on those still living.

Again, that line: "Society creeps ever forward on the backs of its neurotics." Wish I knew who said it.

PJ said...

"Society creeps ever forward on the backs of its neurotics."

Hah hah! Love eet!

Have you been listening to the discussion about Mark Twain's [neurotic] autobiography???

Banjo52 said...

LD, at least at the readings, I agree.

Paula, no, alas, to the Mark Twain. Just saw that it's on. Which night(s) and how many episodes?

Max Byrd's historical novel, GRANT, includes Twain as a fairly important supporting character. I enjoyed listening to it; don't know about reading it.

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