Photograph by Catherine Mauger.
Happy Birthday, Sharon Olds.
Sharon Olds is one of my very favorite poets. I fell in love with her poems in the early 80's. This is one of her most beautiful, most devastating poems.
I Go Back to May 1937
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
* * *
I once had the pleasure of reading this poem at a fund-raiser.
And from today's edition of The Writer's Almanac:
It's the birthday of best-selling poet Sharon Olds, born in San Francisco on this day in 1942. Her collections include Satan Says (1980), The Dead and the Living (1984), The Gold Cell (1987), The Matter of This World (1987), The Sign of Saturn (1991), The Father (1992), The Wellspring (1996), Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), The Unswept Room (2002), Strike Sparks (2004), and One Secret Thing (2008). Since she began publishing in the 1980s, her poems have appeared in more than 100 poetry anthologies.
She grew up in Berkeley, California, where she was brought up as a "hellfire Calvinist," she said. Though a nonbeliever from a young age, she said that she was greatly influenced by the "great literary art and bad literary art" of her church. Psalms were great art, she said, and hymns were not. She said, "The four-beat was something that was part of my consciousness before I was born."
She went across the Bay to Stanford for college, where she studied a bunch of different languages, including French, German, Greek, Italian, and Middle English. And then she moved to New York City to do a Ph.D. in literature at Columbia. She wrote her own poems, but she wasn't happy with them. She felt as though she were imitating the poets she studied for grad school. She was 30 years old, desperately wanting to find her own voice, and had what she calls a "religious experience" wherein she made a deal with the devil on the steps of Columbia's library. She once described it like this:
"I said to free will or the pagan god of making things, or whoever, let me write my own stuff. I'll give up everything I've learned, anything, if you'll let me write my poems. They don't have to be any good, but just mine." It was in the syntax of her prayer that came an epiphany. She explained: "What happened was enjambment. Writing over the end of the line and having a noun starting each line — it had some psychological meaning to me, like I was protecting things by hiding them. Poems started pouring out of me and Satan was in a lot of them. Also, toilets."
She started going to writing workshops at the local YMCA, and eventually she published her first collection of poems, called Satan Says (1980). She later realized that she wrote in the structure of the hymns of her youth, which is what felt comfortable to her, but that she "had to ride over the end of the line" to craft her poems.
When her first book was published, she was a few years shy of 40. Within a decade, she'd released several highly acclaimed, best-selling collections, and she'd also become the director of the Graduate Writing Program at NYU. She was so busy that she decided for one year she would not watch TV, read a newspaper or book, or go hear music, just so that she'd have enough time to do her job and keep writing poetry.
She was poet laureate of New York from 1998 to 2000. She still teaches creative writing at NYU, and she writes poems from her apartment on the Upper West Side, in a rocking chair with a view of the Hudson River. She uses different colored ballpoint pens to compose poems, and sometimes puts stickers on the pages of her drafts, which remind her of the stained glass windows of her religious youth. She said that she loves "odd" or "strange" words. She said: "By the time I see that it's a poem, it's almost written in my head somewhere. It's as if there's someone inside of me who perceives order and beauty — and disorder. And who wants to make little copies. Who wants to put together something that will bear some relationship to the vision or memory or experience or story or idea or dream or whatever."
She once described poetry as coming from her lungs, and said that to her, "Poetry is so physical, the music of it and the movement of thought." She said that over the years, she has noticed that ideas for poems will come to her when she's dancing or running, and that these ideas seem to come to mind with the act of breathing deeply, with the intake of oxygen. She said, "Suddenly you're remembering something that you haven't thought of for years."
Her advice to young poets is this: "Take your vitamins. Exercise. Just work to love yourself as much as you can — not more than the people around you but not so much less."
She once said: "I'm not asking a poem to carry a lot of rocks in its pockets. Just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion."
And, "Poets are like steam valves, where the ordinary feelings of ordinary people can escape and be shown."