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An Excerpt from an Interview with Olds

Would you say your poems are in the confessional tradition?

I have an old-fashioned vision of the word confession. I believe that a confession is a telling, publicly or privately, of a wrong that one has done, which one regrets. And the confession is a way of trying to get to the other side and change one’s nature.

So I have written two or three confessional poems. I would use the phrase apparently personal poetry for the kind of poetry that I think people are referring to as "confessional." Apparently personal because how do we really know? We don’t.

You don’t talk about your family at all in public, yet your poems seem to be a lot about them. What is the distinction?

I guess I’m trying to lead two lives, the life of art and the life of life, and to keep them as separate as possible from each other. Emily Dickinson talks somewhere about the "someone" in her poems. That seems to me a useful way to think about it.

I thought when Robert Lowell wrote the poems in The Dolphin about his former wife and daughter, quoting verbatim from their letters, for instance, that he had cleared the way for almost anything.

Those are not, for me, his strongest poems. And I would wonder, when does the poet ask the bearers of the names about the appearance of the names in the poems?

This is part of what I have come to think of as the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal. On the loyalty side is silence, and out toward this end of the spectrum is absolute silence, the poems not written, the thoughts not even thought, a kind of spiritual suicide of the writer and, perhaps, therefore, in a way, of a part of the culture. On the other side of the spectrum is song, and out at the far end perhaps very little consideration for other people’s privacy--even, at the extreme, a kind of destructiveness or spiritual murder. The way we learn our place on the spectrum seems to be the usual way of learning--by making mistakes.

Where do you fit on the spectrum?

Names are a big concern for me and for a lot of poets, I think, perhaps especially children’s names. I have gone back and taken names out of the next printings of two books. Another concern is for clarity. I discovered, from an introduction at a reading, for instance, that a poem of mine, "What if God," which I had thought to be partly metaphorical, had been read by at least one reader as completely literal. Understandably, in a writer who is often apparently literal. So I rewrote it for the next printing. Sometimes language comes to us that is partly literally physical and partly a physical image for a spiritual or psychological reality.

Like the image of a hole to describe emotional emptiness. T.S. Eliot called it the objective correlative.

Yes. But one has to be careful, because the use of metaphors that are literal for others can be deeply inaccurate. The use of Holocaust imagery, for instance: I’m going back and looking at that again in my poems. There is sometimes a tendency, I think, in some of us to use with some lightness, or lack of gravity or proportion, another person’s absolute heaviness. Often we’re so solipsistic in terms of sexual preference or race or class or history.

What you’ve said about imagery makes me think of Sylvia Plath. How do you see yourself in relationship to her, or Anne Sexton, or Robert Lowell--the confessional poets?

How do I see myself in relation to Sylvia Plath? I see her as having the gift of a great poet. And then, she had her fate. But her gift is another thing. Her writing about family was very important. Anne Sexton’s writing about family was very important. I didn’t really know Lowell’s work until I was somewhat older.

In the back of my mind, I knew there were people--perhaps especially these two women--writing about family, but I also had the idea that they were people in terrible pain and I was afraid of them. The poets who most opened things up for me were the poets at the first anti-Vietnam war reading in New York City that I went to. I think the year was 1974. Muriel Rukeyser was the first reader. Then came Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, Etheridge Knight, Robert Bly, and others.

I was in the front row. I was at toe-of-shoe level. If I had had the guts to be happy, I would have been happy that I had found something that night. I had been writing poems all my life, but that’s when I heard poets who were writing about family, writing about birth, poets who were writing and were alive. Muriel has that poem "Not To Be Said, Not To Be Thought, Not To Be Spoken":

I’d rather be Muriel
Than be dead and be Ariel.

Muriel had tremendous knowledge of depression and tremendous humor. She knew how to cock a snook at the destructive powers in others and in herself. I loved that!

When I finally read Lowell, I was amazed by the level of activity of his language, the way it bristled. I was amazed by his nouns and consonants. In a way I didn’t deeply notice the personal or emotional side of his work. What I saw was language genius.

But those three [Plath, Sexton, and Lowell] were not important to me--heart, soul, and body--the way the poets on stage that night were--along with Philip Levine and Ruth Stone--many of whom had been early bloomers. I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.

From Laurel Blossom. "Sharon Olds." Poets & Writers Magazine September/ October 1993: 30-32.

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