Jun 4, 2011

Sex, Literary Criticism, William Logan and Sharon Olds, Part Two

Here is William Logan writing about Sharon Olds, who is one of America’s most popular headliners at poetry conferences and other readings. 

. . . 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.



Anonymous said...

I like your fish. Looks like he is up there in years too.

Anonymous said...

Of the three, I know who'd be my dinner companion of choice.

Banjo52 said...

And old fish is a good fish.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Don't critics in their own way push hyperbolic language, bully and cajole as part of their personal style? Without examples of Oats overly worked "indulgences" the judgment actually starts to fall on the judges. I found this link to her poetry. There are people that can relate to this work. I do

Is the fish a tongue in cheek reference to a woman who focuses on her nether region?

A nice fish, carp maybe

Banjo52 said...

PA, you offer good food for thought. Hyperbole and bullying are certainly seem to flourish in reviewing, and judging the judges is an activity we should always consider. Logan does offer sufficient examples of Olds' "indulgences." Maybe I should've included some, but as you've discovered, Olds AND Logan are very available online.

I too like some of Olds' work, and I see its potential value, as I tried to say in the post. But I wonder if anyone can read five of her poems without understanding what has Logan so bothered.

On the flip side, has seen Logan seen all perspectives on Olds, and, what I did not say, does Olds deserve the intensity Logan offers, even if we tend to agree with him? If you are Sharon Olds, can you just shake off such venom and keep on writing? Do you choose not to read it? Can you succeed at that, when Logan is the same large voice in criticism that you are in poetry?

If you're Logan, can you ignore one of the best-selling, most adored poets and celebrities on the current scene? If your mission is to keep pure poetry afloat (yes, definitions are tricky), recognized and admired, can you afford to be gentle with someone who strikes you as a travesty, a fraud, an insult to your sacred cow?

I suppose there's some (or a lot of) commercial, marketing interest in all the above, but for both parties, there are also legitimate questions about an important art form (poetry), professional integrity and courage, and the profile of our culture over the last thirty years or so.

I do hope I've caused a few people to read (or re-read) some Sharon Olds AND some William Logan . . . . It's hard not to have an opinion, and I think I have two.

As for the lighter side, no biological humor was intended, but if it's there, that's OK. And I did, yes, wonder what kind of fish--wondered for about four seconds.

Banjo52 said...

PA, you're at least partially responsible (and get partial credit) for the June 7 post.

Lovers' Lane