There was a whole lotta rejoicing among poets when the Academy of American Poets announced that Sharon Olds has received this year's Wallace Stevens Award, which recognizes mastery of poetry and carries a $100,000 cash prize. The portrait above is Vogue's version of Olds. While a reminder of her beauty, the version I've encountered in person is more endearing--spectacled, with a constellation of clips and barrettes holding back her thick, long hair. Whenever anyone mentions the need for a more professional haircut because of having reached A Certain Age, and I start to wonder about myself, I picture Sharon Olds and think, Nope. I'm keeping it long and unruly.
I've spent so many years looking up to her work, taking permission and inspiration for my own poems from collections such as The Living and The Dead and The Gold Cell. When I was in college, I gave my mother a copy of Blood, Tin, and Straw, hoping we could form some kind of mother-daughter book club. But I haven't gotten to spend much time with Olds in person. I've spotted her at a AWPs but she seemed both shy and rushed, and I was afraid of bothering her. When we both read at The New School for the 2010 Best American Poetry anthology, she mouthed "I love that poem" as I returned to my seat on stage after reading "Unit of Measure." I about died of happiness. I still didn't have the courage to strike up a conversation. I also spent the rest of the reading trying to see the audience from behind Gerald Stern's hat.
Navigating the creative writing world post-MFA, in the later 2000s, I had sometimes encountered a weird vibe surrounding her work...a weariness? a wariness? I'd mention Sharon Olds as a favorite, then feel like I had to defend myself--and her--the same instinct I had in mentioning Sylvia Plath, another "infamous" poet "of sex and psyche," which is how Billy Collins once described Olds.
When a poet has disproportionate influence over a subsequent generation, one easy way for insecure colleagues to diminish that accomplishment is to claim that the poet in question only has one stylistic mode; one story to tell. I see this sniping happen over and over. I see this happening now. But when Olds published Stag's Leap in 2012, a collection as powerful as anything she has ever written, those trying to do that to her had to bite their tongues. I didn't just carry that book around; I clutched it to my chest.
One way we develop as poets is by expanding our ability to show not just affection for a text, but respect. I have a generation of students in front of me, and I want them to take Sharon Olds as seriously as I do. So I don't just use her work as a gateway drug--a quick hit of thematic satisfaction. We slow down. We look at her decisions on a line-by-line, word-by-word basis. We talk about the metaphors and similes that drive "I Go Back to May 1937," the lineation system (that dangling "I"), and the ways in which the poem formally privileges the observer. We read the December 2015 interview she did with Kaveh Akbar at Divedapper. We immerse ourselves in "Stag's Leap," a study of the in media res opening:
Then the drawing on the label of our favorite red wine
looks like my husband, casting himself off a
cliff in his fervor to get free of me.....
I'm always urging my students toward close reading in their annotations and critical essays. Cite illustrating lines; apply your craft vocabulary; resist the urge to summarize. If reading is an act of computation, I'm more interested in you showing your work than in whether your final answer matches my own to the decimal point. Don't tell me what the poem is about; tell me what you notice of the poet's concerns. I imagine, at times, all this emphasis on close reading is a bit annoying.
What I don't say out loud, but what I believe, is that "close reading" is the first step to "canon-building." If we want the poets we love to be taken seriously, it's upon us to give future readers the tools to do so. There's a magic that happens when we go from "I really like this" or "this really moves me" to being articulate how, exactly, the poem is working (or playing) on the page. It's the same magic that happens the first time you point out to a student how Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" is in formal dialogue with the sonnet. One of my longterm projects is a collection of craft essays, and a component of that will be a half-dozen close readings; "I Go Back to May 1937" is at the top of the list. Maybe the next time I see Sharon Olds, I'll have the guts to say hello--and congratulations.