Paper written for a college class, Fall Quarter 2004
Everyone has their own story. No one experience is ever identical to the experiences had by another person. Poets in the past have attempted to share their stories through their works. The confessional poets of the sixties were famous for sharing their stories with the world to try to make sense of them. As a writer, I draw upon the events of my life to feed my characters in my fictional worlds. The use of these personal experiences adds a layer of realism to my characters that would not be there otherwise. Many published authors share this idea with would-be writers when they say, “Write what you know”. Sharon Olds is a poet who does just that. She throws the concept of using poetry to explore herself out into the wind. Because of this, she has often been compared to confessional poets. What sets her work apart, is that Olds herself is a willing participant in many of her poems rather than just a witness. One important characteristic of Olds’s poetry is the telling of specific personal events to convey a larger universal theme.
In her poem “The Promise,” Olds tells us the story of a speaker and her husband having dinner while they discuss a topic of great personal importance to them (221-222). During this dinner, the couple renews a promise they have made to each other: “we are at it again, renewing our promise / to kill each other” (lines 3-4). The tone here makes it clear that this is a grim ritual that the couple goes through every year. In the next few lines, the speaker tells us: “wherever we are, we are also in our / bed, fitted, naked, closely / along each other”. (lines 9-11). The fact that are so emotionally bound to one another that they can discuss this matter of great personal importance in a public place shows us the full scope of their closeness. As they sit there staring at each other, the speaker realizes, “You’re a little afraid / I’ll chicken out. What you do not want / is to lie in a hospital bed for a year / after a stroke, without being able / to think or die” (lines 15-18). This knowledge of one her husband’s deepest fears enables the speaker to be more comfortable about telling him what she truly feels. The speaker uses this comfort level to tell him directly: “you do not / know me if you think I will not / kill you” (lines 25-27). This direct confrontation of his fears tells us that the speaker does not want her husband to be tormented by this moral dilemma, and it shows us the universal theme of this poem. It is better to share your fears with someone you love and can trust, than to allow them to remain unsaid. Stanley Plumly, a poetry critic, also sees this theme running through Olds’s poetry: “The distinction in the material arrives with the insight that the speaker not only shares this mortal moment […] but has shared it, fatally, from the beginning” (Plumly). In this poem, we see the mortality of the speaker’s husband in the context of a private conversation. The sharing of this very personal moment enables us to better understand the universal moral quandary that they face, and that we will one day confront ourselves.
In “I Go Back to May 1937,” like “The Promise”, we meet a young woman who has been given the power to change her past, and see the difficulty she has in making a choice about weather or not she should use that power (217). As the scene opens, we see the speaker watching her parents as they walk out the gates of their respective colleges. Plumly has found that watching is another common feature of Olds’s poetry: “Seeing is the chief trope in the poem: indeed, memory, for Olds, has always been a form of watching or being watched.” (Plumly). In this poem, we see the speaker watching her parents as if in her memory. As she watches this scene, the speaker feels compelled to stop her parents from getting married: “I want to go up to them and say Stop, don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman, he’s the wrong man” (lines 13-15). The speaker feels that her parents’ marriage was a poor choice. This is further clarified as she goes on to say, “you are going to do things / you cannot imagine you would ever do” (lines 15-16). This foreshadows the horrible things that are to come in her parents’ relationship. These things are detailed for us in the next few lines: “you are going to do bad things to children, / you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of, / you are going to want to die” (lines 17-19). The idea that she wants to stop them from getting married to spare them this pain in the future tells us how deeply the speaker feels for her parents. As she continues to watch them, the speaker decides that she wants to live, regardless of the trials her parents will face. This feeling becomes very desperate in the next few lines: “I / take them up like the male and female / paper dolls and bang them together / at the hips like chips of flint as if / to strike sparks from them” (lines 25-29). Here it’s as though the speaker is wanting to live so badly that she is commanding her parents to conceive her. In the end, she resigns herself to the bad things that are to come, and she tells her parents, “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it” (line 30). The speaker resolves that she has a moral responsibility to use her knowledge of the past and share it with others. Wanting to go back to change the past is a universal feeling. We all want to go back in time and change the bad things that have happened in our lives, but by learning from and sharing these events with others, we can use them to reshape our future.
Olds shares another universal concept through the very personal context of a story, like the ones we have seen in “The Promise” and “I Go Back to May 1937”, in her poem “The Knowing” (220-221). In this poem, we meet the speaker as she stares at her husband the morning after they’ve had sex. They are still lying naked on the sheets as they look at one another, “I love / the curve of it against the white / that curve the sight of what has caused me / to go over when he’s still quite, deep / inside me” (lines 8-12). She’s lost in the euphoria of their experience, as well as the love for her husband. This private moment they share develops further in the poem and blooms into the speaker’s private thoughts about her husband. As she lays there staring at him she wonders at the kind of man he is, “I don’t know where he got / his kindness without self-regard, / almost without self, and yet / he chose one woman, instead of the others” (lines 14-17). This feeling that he chose her over every other woman in the world deepens her personal connection to her husband. This bond continues to grow in the poem and gives us the first glimpse of the universal concept we see in this piece: “For an hour / we wake and doze, and slowly I know / that though we are sated, though we are hardly / touching, this is the coming that the other / brought us to the edge of” (lines 36-40). The orgasm wasn’t really what they were waiting for. What they came to was the true depth and breadth of their feelings for one another. And at the poem’s close, a final universal truth comes to the speaker’s mind, “we are entering, / deeper and deeper, gaze by gaze, / this place beyond the other places / beyond the body itself, we are making / love” (lines 40-44). The confusion over the meaning of the term “making love” and the act of sex is one that is omnipresent in our society. It’s an incorrect perception. There is more to making love than simply having sex with someone. Through the telling of this very personal story we see a universal idea that anyone who has ever been in love can relate to.
Sharon Olds’s poetry is very thought provoking. The use of personal storytelling in her poetry allows it to resonate with all of us, without seeming at all elitist or strange. These stories are experiences that we can all share in and identify with by connecting them to our own individual stories. Isn’t it even better though, if we endeavor to make our own confessions to the world? I think that Olds’s poetry encourages us to do just that. Write what you know. By sharing what we feel and what we dream with others, we can expand our knowledge of ourselves.
Plumly, Stanley. “Narrative Values, Lyrical Imperatives” The American Poetry Review September/October 2003. 33. Proquest Direct. Spokane Falls Community College Library, Spokane WA. 17. Nov. 2004.
Olds, Sharon. “I Go Back To May 1937.” Van Cleave 217.
“The Knowing.” Van Cleave 220-221.
“The Promise.” Van Cleave 221-222.
Van Cleave, Ryan G., ed. Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes. New York: Longman, 2003.