. . . part of the hypnotic fascination of Olds’s poetry is its headlong, hell-bent hubris.
She trades in shameless prose chopped up into lines of poetry, lurid as a tabloid, returning to the primal scene more often than a therapist: her cold, sadistic father; her cold, masochistic mother . . .
If someone is raped in her apartment building, we never hear about the victim. We’re told instead about Olds having sex the next day . . .
Everywhere brute shock is taken as a sign of honesty.
Olds has as many teases as a strip show, and the psychology that drives her poetry is dourly exhibitionist.
‘Look at me! Look at me!’ the poems say, poems of someone never loved enough.
She loves to rub your nose in it: if you look away, you’re a coward; if you keep looking, you’re complicit.
Olds is sometimes mistaken for a confessional poet, but she has nothing to confess: she never feels anything as subtle or scouring as guilt, and it’s hard to believe she’d recognize a sin if it bit her.
. . . for all her radical pretense, she’s a homely Redbook moralist, believing in motherhood, family, and honey on her nipples.
Well, that ought to offer some of the flavor of both William Logan and Sharon Olds, whose poetry has provoked almost identical reactions from me. I’m particularly concerned with the question of whether it’s prose or poetry (as I am with many of the celebrated poets out there), and it’s comforting to have an aggressive intelligence like Logan on my side.
Although I'm a blogger, I’m also impatient (to put it nicely) with narcissism and exhibitionism (if there’s a difference), whether in blogs or poetry or conversation. I’ve often recoiled from Sharon Olds’ recurring exposure of her body, others’ bodies, others' vulnerabilities, her sexuality, and some other inglorious concerns, like her obsessive, repetitive hatred toward her father and her invasion of her children’s privacy (which is the way I see some of her poems about them).
However, there’s a counter-argument that Logan has not mentioned. Americans and other humans are slow to see their own flaws. Without an honest, humble reckoning of how disappointing or downright disgusting we are—cosmetically, , domestically, politically, morally—how can we begin doing better as sharers of the planet? If everyone looked at himself in the mirror as frankly as Sharon Olds does, no matter how uncomfortable the sights there, we’d surely be prompted to behave better—or at least more humbly. Or maybe we could simply get out of the paths of others who have found a better way to be.
Or would we? And that is one of Logan’s most important points: Olds may be willing to examine herself and her loved ones in full view of us, but the flaws she sees tend strongly to be minor, brief, or attached to other people. I rarely hear her reprimanding herself or feeling a need to change.
As Logan says, she’s not really a confessional poet because she doesn’t own up to any sins or guilt, without which she is simply demanding attention: “Look at me,” says Sharon Olds (and that’s undeniable). Logan replies, “Why should I? The only insights you offer are centered, microscopically, on your body, your psyche, and your very individual biography.”
However, I’m not comfortable thinking that’s the end of the discussion, whereas Logan might be finished. Ever the moderate, caught in the complex middle, I think there might be value in Sharon Olds’ invitation to think about what makes us uncomfortable and why. For one thing, it’s worth wondering about the undeniable centrality of sex in human lives. From burqas to strip joints to wondering whether less is more and bigger is better, we don’t seem to know what to do about this troublesome feature within us. Shall we try to smother it completely or give it free reign? How wide is the middle ground in between?
In any case, sex, along with war, will win out, however grotesquely we may twist and turn it in an attempt to wring out the hormones, control the thoughts and desires. Maybe Sharon Olds’ poetry is one small step toward getting the genie more happily out of the bottle. Logan himself makes an unconvincing attempt to state that he’s on the sex team: “Poetry in our prudent hour needs more sex, not less . . . .” But that’s one drop of honey in a bucket of vitriol he’s hurled across the distance between himself and Sharon Olds.
Still, William Logan’s challenge is essential: if we must be made uncomfortable by our intimate knowledge of Sharon Olds, and the part of her that's a part of us, what’s in it for us and the rest of the world? If we are not elevated by poetry, why not go straight to Hustler or petty Cosmo blurbs about starlets and their troubled lives?
Notice, by the way, all this presumes that the details of Olds’ life are factual. For a variety of reasons, I still insist on the traditional, valid distinction between poet and speaker. Olds’ poems certainly seem autobiographical, but we don’t know that, and we shouldn’t care.
I think you should love my fish, and I'm going to keep posting him until you do.