Autobiography as blood sport: Being Sharon Olds

Poets aren’t rock stars, not anymore. (And thank goodness for that, am I right, Mary Shelley?) We don’t obsessively follow their every moves, and Poetry World gossip is, frankly, petty in a way that rock star gossip isn’t, because Poetry World is so insular. It’s like gossiping about your cousins with your grandma: someone is gonna come out looking bad here, and it’s as likely to be the gossiper as the gossiped-about.

Besides, a whole lot of people who read poetry were English majors in college, which these days means you’ve got at least a glancing notion that you’re supposed to think of the author as “dead,” meaning that you’re supposed to see “Firstname Lastname” as a symbol of the idea of “author” rather than, you know, a real person named Firstname Lastname who wrote the words you are reading. Mind you, it’s not like we English major types really believe that, deep in our cold withered hearts, but we’re supposed to act like we do. The author is dead, long live the author-function!

But let’s get real: if you’re interested in reading works that are not from the Big Book of Dead White Dudes, you are likely to read stuff by people who are actually alive. With blood and organs and everything. And while you may not be tracking their every romantic liaison on Jezebel (more’s the pity), you can often see traces of biography moving through their poems across the decades. Sometimes it’s subtle; sometimes it’s obvious; most times it can break your heart.

***

I recently taught a college class on feminism and poetry, and had the pleasure of introducing my students to Sharon Olds’s poems. Olds has been, at times, a controversial poet, because her poetry is firmly in the “confessional” mode: it seems to reveal intimate secrets about the author, her family life, her desires, her sexual adventures. Some readers (hi!) love this; others hate it. (I firmly believe that some of the backlash against late confessional poetry is rooted in slut-shaming, but that’s another essay altogether.) Love it or hate it, if you’ve read Sharon Olds’s poems, it’s hard not to feel, at least a tiny bit, like you know her. You know that penises remind her of slugs; you know her parents once tied her to a chair all day, unfed, unspoken to; you know she gave birth vaginally and proclaims that as a big fuck-you to the dudely American literary tradition. And you know, if you’ve read her most recent collection, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Stag’s Leap, that her husband left her after 30 years.

I made my way through Stag’s Leap as I taught that college class, thus gaining a weird binocular vision of Sharon Olds, young wife and mother, and Sharon Olds, acclaimed poet and jilted woman. My mindset, as a reader, weirdly mirrored her own mindset in “I Go Back to May 1937,” when she imagines warning her parents that their pristine young love will soon turn into an abusive nightmare. (Seriously, that poem. “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.” Oh my god.) Reading about 2012 Sharon Olds’s divorce, I wanted to scream at my book as though it were a horror movie, “Don’t trust him! He’s going to leave you! …Uh, eventually.”

Then I realized, to my horror, that Olds beat me to it. Stag’s Leap has a poignant poem addressed to the fetus Olds miscarried as a young woman:

That he left me is not much, compared
to your leaving the earth—your shifting places
on it, and shifting shapes—you threw off your
working clothes of arms and legs,
and moved house, from uterus
to toilet bowl and jointed stem
and sewer out to float the rivers and
bays in painless pieces.

—from “To Our Miscarried One, Age Thirty Now” (Stag’s Leap, p. 44)

And this poem, strangely peaceful as it is, reminded me of the early poem “Miscarriage,” which reads so differently now than it did before Stag’s Leap:

… A month later
our son was conceived, and I never went back
to mourn the one who came as far as the
sill with its information: that we could
botch something, you and I. All wrapped in
purple it floated away, like a messenger
put to death for bearing bad news.

—from “Miscarriage” (Strike Sparks, p. 19)

We could botch something, you and I. Oh, Sharon. He’s going to leave you!

***

It is suspicious, some literary critics (hi!) say, that the postmodern commitment to the Death of the Author was established as a key theoretical tenet right around the same time that marginalized writers gained ground as serious voices. Oh, this author is a woman? A person of color? An out queer person? Forget you know that—caring about authors as historical persons is sooooo mid-20th-century. But it’s not just that any given author is not necessarily dead: it’s that writing is a way of being a person, of claiming a space in the world. And sometimes, that space starts to seem like a black hole:

…And when I wrote about him, did he
feel he had to walk around
carrying my books on his head like a stack of
posture volumes, or the rack of horns
hung where a hunter washes the venison
down with the sauvignon?

—from “Stag’s Leap” (Stag’s Leap, p. 16)

What was it like to be Mr. and Mrs. Sharon Olds? I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet it’s not like being dead. I’m betting it’s more like being Russell Crowe faced with a tiger, with Joaquin Phoenix in the stands sneering his pretty sneer.

Russell Crowe stares down a tiger and/or literary critic

How Pulitzers are awarded.

I want to write a brilliant conclusion to this post — in the draft, I just put “BRILLIANT ENDING TO COME” — but I don’t have one. I don’t have one because part of what I am trying to say is that the end to autobiography is death. If we are invested in literature not just as an artifact of the past but as a vital, ongoing part of contemporary culture, we have to allow our authors to be alive in every sense of the word. That doesn’t mean ignoring the intentional fallacy; it doesn’t mean worshiping writers as oracles; it doesn’t mean good authors have to be good people. But I do think it means acknowledging that being embarrassed by or ashamed for autobiographical writing — and, more significantly, ashamed about our own strong desire for “real” stories — is a displacement of a more complicated and interesting experience: guilt. Complicity.

Autobiographical writing is the literary equivalent of a blood sport: if we love the art, we’re complicit in the harm of its making. Poetry, World’s Craziest Dead White Dude (™) Ezra Pound tells us, is news that stays news. Sharon Olds’s poetry is bad news that stays bad news.

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One response to “Autobiography as blood sport: Being Sharon Olds

  1. Pingback: Art that’s smarter than its artist | Floating Poems·

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