There was a rare opportunity to hear American poet Sharon Olds read for the Poetry Association of Scotland on Wednseday night at the Scottish Poetry Library, so I took it. In the first half of the evening, she read mostly from her Selected Poems. After the interval, the usual PAS order was reversed, with questions and discussion preceeding Olds reading entirely from unpublished work.
In person, Sharon Olds has a quietly forceful presence, not at odds with but in counterpoint to the rawness and viscerality that characterises her work. The strengths of that work lie in her usually straightforward, almost prosaic language, offset by some striking images and the structural subtleties and repetitions within the open form she uses. The weakness of her style is that it can end up sounding or reading flat and prosaic but, in her best work, she cuts a thrilling figure skating on the line between poetry and prose. And it was a bold move to write in such a plain style with poets such as John Ashberry in the ascendency.
The themes of Sharon Olds's poetry are sex, the body, childbirth and the family, leading her to be classified by some as a confessional poet. She rejects the term, preferring instead to describe herself as "an apparently personal poet", and was eloquent on the tension between loyalty (or silence) and betrayal (or song) that anyone who writes "apparently personal poetry" must necessarily work in. For all the difficult experiences and emotions explored in many of her poems, she came across as having a profound respect for the subjects of such poems.
I must confess I hadn't really read her before Wednesday, although I'd come across some of her work. I bought the Selected and am making my way through it on the train to and from the day job. She's a powerful writer, and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to hear her read.