(1942 - Present)
Poet Sharon Olds was born in 1942 in San Francisco and raised in Berkeley, California. The middle child of three, she grew up in a repressive religious atmosphere with an abusive alcoholic father. Television and films were forbidden, but she had access to literature, and church attendance brought the poetry of psalms into her life. She attended Dana Hall School in Massachusetts with her older sister, where she studied liberal arts and enjoyed poetry by Shakespeare, Whitman, Auden, and others. When Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was published, she carried the poem around with her in her pocket. Later, she would find inspiration in the work of activist poets like Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Ruth Stone.
Olds graduated from Stanford University in 1964 and earned her PhD at Columbia in 1972, where she wrote her thesis on the prosody of Ralph Waldo Emerson. As she told John Freeman at LitHub, “The day I finished my PhD is the day I started to write and haven’t stopped. I mean, I started writing when I was maybe 7, 8, 9, 10 but then as a grown-up since I was just 30.” She married Dr. David Douglas Olds in 1968, with whom she had two children. They divorced in 1997.
Olds’ groundbreaking subject matter, exploring women’s internal lives and themes of sex, family, and motherhood, faced misogyny and closed-mindedness from editors as she began to submit her work. She published her first book of poems, Satan Says (1980), at thirty-seven, winning the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award. Her subsequent collections garnered her increasing praise. Most notably, The Dead and the Living (1984) was a Lamont Poetry Selection and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, while Stag’s Leap (2012) received the Pulitzer Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize. Others of her 13 published books have been shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Forward Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, with multiple collections being named as finalists for the T. S. Eliot Prize and the National Book Award. Olds is widely regarded as one of the major poets of her generation, and she has been described by Mark Doty as “an American master, and a national treasure.”
Anthologized in over 100 collections, Olds’ poetry has appeared many publications, including the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Poetry, Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times. Honors for her work include the inaugural Joan Margarit International Poetry Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for outstanding lifetime achievement, the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Frost Medal for lifetime achievement, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Olds served as New York State Poet from 1998 to 2000. She was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2006 to 2012, and in 2015, she was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
A former director of the Creative Writing Program at New York University, Olds is currently the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing at NYU Arts & Science. There, she helped to found workshop programs for residents of Roosevelt Island’s Coler Hospital and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She lives in New York City.
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Photo by Hillery Stone.