A simile is a way of binding the elements of the world together by way of what their difference doesn’t include—by what they share, however unlikely. Sharon Olds is a poet of the simile, and she sees them, if her poetry is a record of her experience, everywhere she looks. It would be easy, by the way, to misread her oeuvre as a spontaneous account of her experience, but the work is also invested in the artifice of utterance, and she describes her poetry as “apparently personal.” Artifice: the irregular line lengths flowing down the page—many of her poems are one long stanza—like one half of a conifer branch, if the branch is split down the middle. Olds has published twelve books of poetry. Her twelfth, Balladz, follows a collection called Arias and another called Odes. Olds, who grew up in Berkeley but has lived most of her life in New York City, has always echoed, in her work, what W. B. Yeats said, when asked, what his writing was about—sex and the dead—only in Balladz, that might be more accurately sex and the dying.
What haunts the book is the slow, painful disappearance of her beloved, “the only Jewish cattle-breeder in New Hampshire.” The work begins, that is to say, in quarantine, in the early days of the pandemic, and it ends with the death of her lover, and the beginning of the aftermath. In between there are portraits of lovemaking—“I rode, rowing in Eden”—and masturbation—“When I’m in New York and he’s in New Hampshire … ” begins the poem “His Birthday.” They are ballads because they tell stories, or parts of stories, but also because they are stories of lovers, of the barriers and breakthroughs of the loving. As a sequence, each poem stands alone, but as a whole they also tell a story—the poems dance together—not only as they recall the terror of the pandemic, but also the mice that invade, the life that slips away, the holidays that pass, as they imitate Emily Dickinson or Yeats quite openly and sometimes quite directly, as they link in their simile-hunger the world of seemingly disparate things, part by part, to itself, revealing it—our world—to be what it always was: an immense fabric. Nothing separate. Here is Olds, in a devastating poem called “The Communicant,” her gaze—her glimpse from a train—of a young man, “a furze around his head / which was very still, as if he were the statue of a / sacred creature” who is playing violently with himself:
And he had a look of such
grievous longing, like the cry of the train,
that I did not think of the fear I’d have felt
to happen on him on my own. But he was
alone, and he seemed to have stripped himself
for a ritual, to pit himself
against the cars passing from the city
to city through the dense woods, as if he
wanted to be
known to us, to be
seen, in his extreme state—
needing someone, loving and hating someone.
A passing glimpse, like a fragment of a vast story—or a broken-off piece of a ballad—and that irregular line spooling out and drawing back, drawing back before spooling out again—makes a devastating music. And a song against shame.
JESSE NATHAN: How do you think about the line, in your poems?
SHARON OLDS: I don’t know when it was that I paused and tried to notice my sense of the line. I experienced the line as a representation of the soul, of one’s identity (each line-maker different from every other in age, race, gender, class, economic condition, physical and mental and musical condition and challenges)—the line, like the sentence, an integer of democracy and difference and equality. Maybe twenty years ago, or thirty.
I didn’t plan my line, I noticed it. One day I saw it.
In poems of mine, the line and the sentences cadeuse, they dance with each other, and sexually intertwine, cut-and-thrust like good dirty rock ’n’ roll.
And eventually, I saw that the left-hand vertical margin of each poem of mine was for me like the trunk of a tree (maybe a conifer), each line like a branch—the trunk strong with nouns, the tip of the branch dangling with little cones and sometimes leaves or needles—“about the,” “on the,” “in a.”
This had the effect for me of expressing my devaluation of the end of the line—the end-stop, on-rhyme, right-hand margin of the Isaac Watts hymns I grew up singing—what I saw as the dulling, inorganic conformity (and political orthodoxy—sexist, racist, etc.) of the hymns’ prosody. (As opposed to the Psalms; not in quats [meter and exercise reps], which I loved, and which is where my parents had found my name.)
Yet the iambic quatrain, I noticed, was the grid hidden behind, under, my pissed-off left-wing counterthrust meter, and a poem of mine looked like the right-hand side of a conifer which had gone through some weather—some branches short, some long.
And then I saw that each poem of mine could be seen, as well, as having an unseen, unexpressed L side—like a hidden mirror of the R. Each poem was a whole tree (evergreen), one half of it invisible—a tree with its bole and twigs and fruits in air, roots in ground.
The quatrains had been, and been like, stanzas, human-made rooms. (Hi, Eddie! I miss you!) The free-ish form I had been evolved into was born from seed, nourished by sun and water—a Sierra Community of Trees tree, stychic (one clump), ragged, often trochaic—in some ways a fool’s-cap tree, the cones like bells: hemlock, redwood, Sequoia, pine—Jeffrey (pineapple), Ponderosa, sugar.
I don’t speak the poems as I compose, though sometimes I find myself saying the words aloud just before I write them down, as if I am taking dictation. When I write a first draft (always longhand, with a ball-point pen, in a wide-ruled grocery-store notebook—not fancy; sold with onions), I feel the poem coming out of my body (heart-beat, breath) through my arm and hand. I do honor and respect the sentence—but, and, it’s the interplay of sentence, phrase, line, caesura, rock, jazz, gospel, sacred, erotic, and classical, which I love the most!
Then in Spring 2018, I received an invitation from the BBC to be one of the poets to visit Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the autumn, and spend an hour in her room writing a poem, then reading it for the BBC program. (The other writers who would be there the same day, though not the same hour, were Ocean Vuong and Cheryl Strayed.)
Immediately I started writing in off-rhymed quatrains again; I had written in that form at age fifteen, when I was first reading Dickinson, and had written in them again in 1965 when I had just met my first husband and begun to live with him.
This kept going on during 2018—quatrains no longer just the hidden, underlying structure of my “free verse,” but the explicit, honorary form of Dickinson-like poems, or imitation Dickinson—she was a genius, I was not; she has amazing abstract intelligence, I do not. She is a true poet, I am a story-teller in verse.
But there was no question in my mind that I was on a true path; it made deep sense to me that I was returning, and making explicit, this debt—and the joy and truthfulness of off-rhyme.
Almost the hour I got the radio invitation, I wondered if I could find a way to write part of the poem under her bed. As a child, I had (often?) woken up in the morning under my bed rather than in it. I understood this as coming from my bad dreams, some nightmares, many about being late for my execution (which sometimes was going to be carried out in a Nero or Heliogabalus way, I would be put in a hollow bull statue made of bronze, and a fire built under it—roasted to death)—how would I be punished for being late for THAT?! (Around when I began to ovulate, I ran away when my mother wanted to punish me, rather than submitting, and I think we both noticed that I was a good head taller than she. End of physical punishment, end [mostly] of nightmares.)
The presence of the quatrains in Balladz is a little like the plural made of a Z. It’s a little from the grammar example of the album Mingus Ah Um—playful, disrespectful of the sentence- diagramming world I had grown up in.
But long before Balladz came out, I had left this phase of the quatrains behind. My love for the outline of the jagged conifer returned in force. Yes, every other ring (horizontally) in the trunk was summer golden, or winter darker. But maybe the songster in me felt that I had made my bows to the genius of one of the mothers of American poetry (with Phillis Wheatley, Miss Brooks, Gertrude Stein?), and now it was time to sing in my own awkward way, with some very short lines and some very long ones.