Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
If the word “ode” summons up strains of Beethoven or lines from the English Romantics, listen to Sharon Olds’ “Ode to a Composting Toilet” and “Ode to a Tampon” for a brief introduction to how radically poets have re-visioned the form in the last century.
Pablo Neruda’s Odas Elementales popularized the idea that an ode could be addressed to anything: socks, artichokes, salt, a typewriter. Many contemporary poets, including Erica Jong, Robert Pinsky and Kevin Young to name a few, have followed Neruda’s example and written odes to such mundane subjects as television, shoes and catfish.
Through nine collections of poems, Sharon Olds has turned an unflinching eye toward the ecstasies and sorrows of living in the human body. While many of us allow fear and shame to limit what we are willing to discover or reveal, Olds refuses to be so limited. It is as if for her fear and shame were absolutely reliable signals that we are being warned away from approaching something we must explore. The deeper the fear or shame, the more tenaciously she will insist on exploring further.
So it is no surprise that Olds should be inspired by Neruda to write odes on such elemental subjects. Her odes, like all her poems, are unrelentingly inquisitive and tender. Olds has never allowed the fierceness of her looking to dull her compassion. What may surprise some of her readers is her great sense of humor and obvious delight in sharing it.
Sharon Olds’ most recent collection is One Secret Thing. For a generous selection of poems from her earlier books, see Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002 . Visit the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival Poet Pages for a biography of Sharon Olds.
Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Linda Pastan, C. D. Wright and others.