(Post by Zach Conner)

Last Thursday, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sharon Olds visited Los Angeles. She shared some of her recent poetry with a packed audience as part of the Hammer Museum’s autumn reading series.

After an eloquent and venerating introduction from distinguished Prof. Stephen Yenser, curator of Hammer poetry readings, Olds took the stage with immediate grace.

She read excerpts from her latest published collection Stag’s Leap (awarded the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize), from manuscripts recently accepted by her publisher, and from a series of odes inspired by Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things.

Unfamiliar with Old’s work before the reading, I was at once convinced of Prof. Yenser’s praise: she writes with anatomical acuity, with authority on passions and carnalities, and with unfettered attention to the soul. Her first selection punctuated the night’s repertoire as a prime embodiment of this style, an “Ode to the Clitoris” sanctifying female sexuality as individually holy.

From following poems I learned that Olds reflects on body parts and thoughts equally with intimate carefulness– she is unabashedly erotic and candid. As the nude humiliates the prude, Olds strips the façade from propriety by freely speaking on taboos. One poem celebrated the death of her mother, because with her mother died a lifetime of maternal selfishness and filial disappointment. She scattered the ashes with triumph. Looking up from the page as the poem ended, Olds apologized for its apparent callousness– and then redacted the apology, because the poem is truth. Her poems on death became tender as the reading progressed. In one she depicted death as a return to our elemental bits in abstract, dignified entropy, warmer than any scientific account. The poems from Stag’s Leap, a collection entirely concerned with divorce, confronted the harrowing subjects of love’s impermanence and the vain human desire to mold partners to our own needs.
While doing some casual research on Sharon Olds, I noticed in a few articles that several critics had found fault in her “self-indulgence.” I thought that this rather reflected the critics’ discomfort in reading immensely personal accounts, which in their clear elucidation of feelings open pathways to empathy, and thereby unravel from the ego. Olds’ poetry may indulge the self, but it does so only to plumb its depths for balance and awareness. Her words do not pompously demand gravity and impact, as alleged– they earn it.

To wind things up with a twist, Olds closed with “Ode to the Penis.” In this poem she now spoke of the other gender, addressing with collected words the pertinent issue of patriarchal oppression. As with her earlier reading of “Ode to my Whiteness,” a poem digesting the difficult facts of white privilege, “Ode to the Penis” felt to me artful and nuanced. As she professed, the poem is “feminist to the core,” but avoids the fervent antagonism rampant in today’s social justice movements. It is a discourse from a single speaker that at once condemns, pities, and loves its subject (the penis, synecdoche for men). My favorite part: it celebrates the extraordinary pairing of phalli in homosexual relationships as the bulldozer razing patriarchal masculinity, and in this celebration gives them as much symbolic weight in the 21st century as the Twin Towers.

You can catch the next Hammer poetry reading with guest Joseph Harrison on November 5th at 7:30 PM.