|Adrien Helm (at right) at October Wednesday Poets meeting |
with [from left of Adrien] Elaine Wright, Carol Perron, and MaryLiz Riddle.
Steve Hickey stands back at the coffee table but doubtlessly is listening up.
It's the birthday of poet Sharon Olds (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1942). When she was eight years old, her teacher asked the students to write poems, and Olds handed in a poem she had read in the post office, which began: "Neither wind nor rain nor gloom nor dark of night ..." When the teacher demanded to know whether she has written it, she explained that of course she had, because it was in her handwriting. It was the first time she realized that writing a poem meant actually making it up, not just writing it down. She said: "My early influences for good writing were the Psalms, and for bad writing were the Hymns. Four beats, the quatrains, that form. [...] I didn't know until I was 55 that my craft was the craft of the Hymns I had grown up singing. I was writing in a way that felt comfortable to me."
Her parents were unhappily married, and her father was physically abusive and an alcoholic. She said, "I grew up in a Calvinist, punitive atmosphere - hell featured in the future, punishment in the present." She escaped her unhappy household at the age of 15, when she was sent to boarding school in Boston. She went on to Stanford, and after college she moved to New York City. She said: "All my life I wanted to get to the Empire State Building and put my arms around it and hang on. I'm in love with New York City. New York is so public. Every day you see a lot of strangers. And I like that. It's the opposite of a little house in the woods."
She got a Ph.D., studying Emerson, and the day she finished she decided to change course. She said: "I was walking away from Columbia with my Ph.D. in my pocket, and I was carrying a couple of children, and I was grinning from ear to ear. [...] I made a vow to myself: I'll give up all that I've learned, all that this degree represents, just to do my own work and lead my own life. What I wanted to do was not let the poem escape, whether it was right or wrong, nice or nasty." The feeling came to her as an epiphany, what she called a "vow to Satan." She had been suffering from writer's block, but the next day she wrote a handful of poems, and she didn't stop for five years.
She wrote about her parents, about sex, about being a wife and mother. When she finally submitted her first poem to a literary magazine, she was rejected. She said: "They told me: 'This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies' Home Journal." But she kept writing, and when she was 37 she published her first book of poems, Satan Says (1980). She said, "I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky."
Olds went on to write many books of poetry, including The Dead and the Living (1983), The Father (1992), Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), and most recently Stag's Leap (2012) about the end of her 32-year marriage