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The Independent Discusses Sharon Olds and Confessional Poetry

By Harriet Staff


The Independent looks at Sharon Olds in light of her recent T. S. Eliot Prize win and the entire concept of Confessionalism. “‘No one wants to be called a confessional poet,’ [Professor of Poetry at the University of East Anglia Lavinia Greenlaw] told me. “It suggests all you do is blurt your feelings. To work explicitly with the self requires extraordinary judgement, detachment and control. Sharon Olds, like Plath, has these qualities.”

She does. She certainly does. Very few poets match Sharon Olds in the discipline she brings to her best work. “My job,” she says in one poem in Stag’s Leap, “is to eat the whole car/ of my anger, part by part, some parts/ ground down to steel-dust”. The anger is there – everywhere – with the pain and the shame, but you feel it much, much more powerfully because, in the poems, it’s under such tight control.

“My poetry,” she said, when I interviewed her a few years ago, is “apparently personal. I’ve never said that the poems don’t draw on personal experience, but I’ve never said that they do.” With her latest collection, she has made it very clear that they do. She has said, in fact, that she wrote the poems when her husband left her, but promised her children she wouldn’t publish them for at least 10 years. For the reader, there may be an extra thrill in knowing that the things she writes about actually happened, but the thing is, it doesn’t matter. Whether or not they’re literally true, they’re true. “Beauty is truth,” said Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, and he didn’t mean things that were literally true. Truth is what you find not in spilled feelings on a page, or in tearful confessions on Oprah Winfrey’s sofa.

Earlier, journalist Christina Patterson writes, “Even here at The Independent, where we used to publish a daily poem, there was a stream: of poems, written by people who didn’t know how to write poems, but who thought that what Wordsworth called ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ was enough. It isn’t.” Read the full piece here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, January 25th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.