Odes – Sharon Olds


I must first admit a bias for poetry that can speak, and offer something, to almost anyone that picks it up. Probably because such poetry flies in the face of that general sense, put to me most bluntly by my father (‘Poetry is for dicks’), that this is a virtually inaccessible medium only open to a pretentious lot with a university education. Yes, like many contemporary poets, Sharon Olds is highly educated. She attended Stanford and Columbia; she teaches at New York University. Her writing, however, has no required reading. In Odes she champions the unnoticed within the everyday (as well as more familiar ground), reconciling the niche with the universality of what she knows.

My father’s summary resonates in all sorts of ways with the career and works of Olds, who was told by a literary magazine to which she made an early submission that poetry should be reserved for ‘male subjects’, and whose most recent collection Odes (Cape Poetry, 2015) includes such poems as ‘Ode to the Penis’, ‘Blow Job Ode’, and ‘Ode to to the Glans’. Yet, she writes first to the hymen, prefacing a collection (which also sings to the clitoris and vagina) with an exploration of the body, sexuality, family, life and death, with wit and startling curiosity that signposts what is to come.`

In ‘Ode to the Hymen’, Olds praises the ‘one-time piñata’, celebrating its purpose and departure from her body. She personifies it, becoming a mother figure to her own body,  perhaps most strikingly in the lines ‘I was proud of you,/turning to a cupful of the bright arterial/ingredient.’ The lack of ceremony of the event (‘It happened on the rug/of a borrowed living room,’) is juxtaposed with Old’s mythologising (but I felt/as if we were in Diana’s woods-‘) to an effect both funny and sweet. Humour and poignancy go hand and hand in Odes. In ‘Ode to the Hymen’, the hymen is protection, associated with Olds’s freedom to decide to have sex: ‘…And how lucky we were,/you and I, that we got to choose,/when, and with whom, and where, and why…’

As with Whitman or Ginsberg, her heraldic tone cuts at embarrassed conservatism. The boldness of her poetry is disarming. That which could so easily come off as melodrama in less stable hands is powerful. When Olds admits more self-consciousness than her predecessors, she smiles it wryly away. ‘Second Ode to the Hymen’ begins:

My partner says that what I write
about women is self-involved – ‘You’re sixty
something years old,’ he exclaims, ‘and still
writing about the first time you got laid!’
But it isn’t just my hymen –

Reliance on autobiographical material is permitted, she implies, because it allows her to speak for the many. In this second hymen poem Olds widens her scope, addressing experience that is not hers. She writes, ‘why not lament the hymen being hunted/and plundered, impaled on a pike in a public/square like a tiny severed head.’

It is interesting that she addresses her partner’s criticism not in dialogue with him but to her readers, and perhaps as such she preaches to the converted instead of engaging with the unconvinced. She has also adjusted her poetic mode in response to his criticism. Feeling the need to explain herself at all sets her apart from Whitman and Ginsberg. As Olds celebrates the female body and sexuality there is still a sense, even from the poet, that she needs to ask permission. The rest of the poem could be viewed as a quiet protest (as she does not say this aloud in the body of the poem), making the case for the celebration of female matters. By the end of ‘Second Ode to the Hymen’ the hymen (and the praise of it) has become a ‘bright civil right’. Poems such as ‘Ode of Girl’s Things’, ‘Sexist Ode’, and ‘Ode for the Vagina’ deal more explicitly with questions of gender equality. ‘Ode for the Vagina’ explores the poet’s relationship with the organ, shaking off her own shame, and finally underlining the entrenched sexism of that word:

and now I understand I need not
apologise, I can say vagina
and look you in the eye, even though
she was named after the penis, after its
need for her – from the Latin, vagina,
‘scabbard, sheath’.

Odes covers stages of the life cycle, from conception to an imagined death. The poems within celebrate the ageing process and the parts of our bodies (fat, cellulite, arthritic bones) that are more often cursed or wished away. It often reads like a series of love letters to experiences and entities which are not otherwise appreciated, even the less than pleasant ones, and provides an affirmation of the overall beauty of life. And it proves that if poetry is for dicks, it’s for vaginas too.


Sabine Durrant – Sharon Olds: Confessions of a Divorce (The Guardian, 23rd January 2016)

Alexandra Schwartz – Sharon Olds Sings The Body Electric (The New Yorker, 22nd September 2016)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s