“You must revise your life.”
The audience at the T.S. Eliot Shortlist Reading were the real winners. They were treated to Gillian Clarke’s quiet tenderness, like a swan navigating a near-frozen lake. They relished the sweet sibilance of beekeeper Sean Borodale. Julia Copus gave visions of ova during IVF as ghost-like “luminous pearls.” Michael Schmidt wove Jorie Graham’s linguistic basketwork into their ears. Simon Armitage read out passages of “the British Illiad”. Kathleen Jamie let us witness how she, like her “Roses”, “haggle for my little portion of happiness.” They gasped overhearing Jacob Polley’s conversation between a mum and her stoic stabbed son. They were dogged by Deryn Rees-Jones into regarding “man’s best friend” a little differently. And wisecracking Paul Farley made them all laugh out loud.
Then a girlish woman with long grey hair, pinned back by three small sparkling barrettes, took to the stage. She seemed to read for the shortest span of time — just two poems. Yet what was remarkable is that just as these poems, in their simple, plain-spoken way, were getting good enough for most poets to consider them complete, hers go further. An impressive meditation on breasts transcends the obvious observations, as the poet tells us that, just as this one part of them was once adored by boys when they were teenagers, what all women really want is to be as adored in their entirety this much.
This is the mature Sharon Olds. This is the winner of the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. She joins Mark Doty, another poet of intense observation, as one of just two Americans to take home this prize.
Yet this American poet, who pushed the envelope of confessional poetry and inspired a generation toward the genre in its heyday seems at first a somewhat unlikely choice for a British award. Olds was not always writing redemptive poems about personal loss. As a student, I still recall certain poems in Satan Says, like those of Larry Levis and a handful of others, that in the course of deeply probing the human condition found their way to the topic of brutal and sadistic physical and psychological violence. They still disturb me so much that I can not re-read them to this day. Yet this ability to abide great emotional difficulty is what makes Sharon’s most recent work able to extoll “homemade kindness” in a way that feels genuinely earned.
The truth is, we all want to be redeemed, even in a culture that prides itself on restraint. We want to choose integration and meaning over cynicism and despair. Olds happens to have achieved it, not despite but through the application of a deep sensitivity to her life and art. You could see it last night on her face, as she stood humbly facing the spotlight. She is a different woman than when she began her poetry career. The extent to which this is evident in her work must be what convinced the judges unanimously to make of her most recent collection of poetry, as she has made of herself, an example to us all.
This piece has also been re-syndicated on The Huffington Post.