THE GUARDIAN has described Sharon Olds as “America’s greatest living poet”. There are others who have claim to that title – Charles Simic, Gary Snyder, and John Ashbery spring to mind.
That said, Sharon Olds is certainly a contender. And we should remember, despite occasional indications to the contrary, poetry is not a boxing match. There is room for many varieties of great poet; of which Olds is certainly one.
The fact Sharon Olds is headlining this year’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature is a significant achievement for festival organiser Dani Gill. Unlike most of the leading poets in the world, Olds has never previously read at Cúirt. This year, that is put right.
Cúirt will always have its critics; they are for the most part people who, between them, could not organise a pleasurable half hour in a house of ill-repute. It remains one of the leading literary festivals internationally and this is down to people like Dani Gill and Maura Kennedy before her.
Olds’ poems are revealing and confessional in the most extreme possible sense of both words. Her life is her subject and whatever the issue may be, she never dodges it. Not for her the studied evasiveness of others. One of my favourite poems from her landmark debut collection, Satan Says (1980 ), is the exquisitely subversive ‘Five-Year-Old Boy’, in which she watches her young son as he “stands on the porch, peeing/into the grass, watching a bird/fly around the house, and ends up/pissing on the front door.”
This poem is the sort to cause those who think that poetry is less about real life than it is about writing sestinas - the only point of which is to enable the poet to say: ‘This, you know, is a sestina’ - to experience a sudden surge in blood pressure, which might in a few cases require hospitalisation.
This true to life honesty continues in her most recent collection Stag’s Leap, in which she deals in the most gut wrenching way with her divorce from the man who, in the final line of the devastating first poem, is described as “my imagined shepherd in make-believe paradise”.
As well as sorrow, there is also an incredible generosity present in some of these poems. In the title poem Olds writes:
“When anyone escapes, my heart/leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from,/I am half on the side of the leaver.”
The collection is a study in the stages of grief for a relationship that once seemed inviolable. In ‘Crazy’ she talks about how “I’ve said that he and I had been crazy/for each other, but maybe my ex and I were not/crazy for each other. Maybe we/were sane for each other, as if our desire/was almost not even personal…”
Some years later she runs into her ex-husband and her reaction is complex, as most such reactions honestly are: “Seeing you again, after so long,/seeing you with her, and actually almost/not wanting you back,/doesn’t seem to make me feel separate from you. But you seemed/covered with her, like a child working with glue…”
In Stag’s Leap Sharon Olds time and again pulls off high wire acts which would bring a lesser poet crashing to earth. Her Cúirt reading is certain to be the Galway poetry highlight of 2013.
Sharon Olds reads at the Town Hall Theatre on Friday April 26 at 8.30pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie