They Would Write About It!!! – A Tribute to Sharon Olds and Muriel Rukeyser

American poet Sharon Olds. Photo Credit: Poetry Society of America

Physician

You sit at the head of the table. You say
you have wanted to write about— not depression,
it is worse than that, it is rock bottom:
the frightfulness.
             People don’t like
to hear about it, you say to a friend.
People don’t like to read about it,
he answered—
and then you knew that you would
write about it.
            Tonight you are wearing
a knot over your breastbone, tied in
tiger-colored silk. Your eyes are not
shining. They are deep in your face white as a rock.
you believe in the healing power of the words,
you turn to each as she speaks, he speaks,
until we are holding speech together like hands
around the hard table in the difficult night.

Sharon Olds from A Student’s Memoir of Muriel Rukeyser, from They Say This, Poetry East, Numbers 47 & 48, 1999, p. 195-214. Also from By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, ed. Molly McQuade, Graywolf Press, 2000

I will have more to say about the much celebrated American poet Sharon Olds and this poem celebrating the remarkable human being and poet Muriel Rukeyser, but to say here: how she captures the power of sharing poetry in a group, poetry from an earlier assignment or written in the group on the spot. How poetry can build a warm and intimate community through sharing words, especially those new and less guarded ones. These lines:

you believe in the healing power of the words,
you turn to each as she speaks, he speaks,
until we are holding speech together like hands
around the hard table in the difficult night.

In my poetry therapy circles so often how the new words from on-the-spot poems created group cohesion and understanding and dare I say healing as raw and intimate words were shared out loud. So often a healing for the reader and those being read to. How our circles were like this circle described by Olds as we would hold speech together like hands/ around the table in the difficult night. And how often I would share this poem! I know some poet teachers do not like inviting on-the-spot poems to be written. With great respect to them and their experience, I am not one of those. I first leanrned on-the-spot writing from my mentor and friend, the great Canadian poet Patrick Lane.

I was shocked to discover this morning I had never featured Sharon Olds in a blog post. She was an early guiding light in my first years of beginning my own poet’s journey. Her startling intimacies in her poetry including her sexual and bodily candor gave permission to so many other poets to bring more of themselves into their poems. Her 2016 volume, Odes, covers many subjects perhaps thought improper for poetry in past times but not now! Poems such as Ode to the Hymen, Ode to the Tampon, Ode to the Clitoris and one so appropriate to our time: Ode to My Whiteness.

I heard her speak once at a writers’ festival in Vancouver. She was riveting. Began by reciting this small poem by the celebrated black American poet Langston Hughes:

Luck

Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
Is flung.

To some people
Love is given,
To others
Only heaven.

Langston Hughes from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes,edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1947

With this recitation she got our attention quickly. What a way to put the uncertainties of life right there, front and center. She also talked about how she first writes her poems by hand in a big exercise book and that only one out of ten usually make it out of that book and on to a typed page! I would love to see that book!

I celebrated Hughes poem and Olds’ mention of it in a 2018 blog post here. Sharon turns eighty years old on November 17th this year and she has already been given some fabulous early birthday presents! She was awarded the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America earlier this year and a few days ago was awarded a $100,000 Ruth Lilly Prize from the Poetry Foundation. This was one of eleven special Ruth Lily awards issued this year to honour Eleven Living Legends as way of celebrating the 110th anniversary of Poetry magazine. Other honorees include; Rita Dove, CA Conrad, Sandra Cisneros, Rota Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Juan Felipe Herrera, Angela Jackson, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, Patti Smith and Arthur Sze.

Here is the Frost Medal citation:

While achieving the highest literary honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, Sharon Olds has also earned an enormous following as one of the most beloved poets of her generation. She writes about everyday things with an extraordinary bravery. “I’m interested in ordinary life,” Olds says, “and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion.” What Olds uncovers can be unsettling—the aftermath of divorce, a father’s slow decline and death—but her poems embolden us to experience the fullness of our own lives with an unflinching intimacy, “without distortion.” Olds has had an extraordinary influence on younger poets, as her candor about sex, motherhood, and family trauma, the pleasures and failings of the body, has demolished taboos and opened up new fields of poetic discovery. A poet of constant linguistic surprise, Sharon Olds is a master of the American vernacular. The Poetry Society of America takes enormous pride in awarding the Frost Medal, our highest award, to a poet of such courage and brilliance, who has impacted this generation and future generations of poets in so many diverse and as yet to be discovered ways.

What a great and well-deserved citation! It is clear that Sharon is one of the giants in contemporary American poetry (winner of the Pulitizer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award among many other prizes and awards) and her fifteenth book of poetry Baladz comes out next month. She is also notable in my books for the therepetic poetry work she does (did) and workshops she founded for hospital residents and veterans of Irag and Afganistan in New York. But she has been most on my mind these past few days because of her poem, Physician, above, that I first found in an essay she wrote honouring  the great American poet Muriel Rukeyser. That essay, A Student’s Memoir of Muriel Rukeyserwas first published in the 48/49 issue of Poetry East literary journal in 1999 and later in the anthology, By Herself published by Graywolf in 2000.

The poem Physician: what a fearless poem about a fearless writer by a fearless writer. Olds is not afraid to write about intensely personal things as the Frost citation says and her celebrated poem I Go Back to May 1937 echoes her poem on Rukeyser where she writes:you would write about it. The tough stuff. And Olds does this in spades. And in the poem below, about her own difficult relationship with her parents she says: and I will tell about it.

I Go Back to May 1937

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar make of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips back in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it – she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to die. I want to go
up to them there in the at May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like male and female
paper dolls and bang then together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

Sharon Olds from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002, Al;fred A Knopf, 2004

This poem sears me everytime I read it. Such a surprise when after effectively saying don’t get marrried, don’t have kids, she says yes to them and their marriage and to her birth! And then with painful sparks flying says : Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it. Ouch. Ouch. How her words can slay!

American Poet Muriel Rukeyser

However, the tone in Physcian above is much gentler, more compassionate and loving. Her love for Muriel. And also, so clearly how she calls the role of a poet, a poetry teacher, that of a physician! Something that I have so experienced in my hundreds of poetry therapy sessions over the years. Physicians: not only teacher and poets featured by a teacher but the participants who write their own poems on the spot and find themselves becoming doctors in their own words to their souls! Poets, we are physicians to ourselves and others!

Now last words to Sharon and Muriel from Sharon’s essay/memoir on Muriel. A quote on the craft of writing poetry, of removing a weak line or as Muriel says a slack line:

“Then she said, No one wants to read poetry. No one wants to! (With her good-humoured energetic pessimism that felt like optimism.) You have to make it impossible for them to put the poem down, impossible for them to stop reading it—word after word you have to keep them from closing the book. They want to close the book. And if it’s slack they’ll be able to—Nothing says they have to read to the end. No one’s making them. And they don’t want to! They could be doing something else, like making a cheese sandwich! You have to make them want to go on reading with every word and every line.

I think it’s fair to say that in reading Sharon’s poems it is hard to find any slack lines. So many taut ones that pack a punch! A big salute to Sharon and early birthday greetings! ANd I get the gift of another Sharon book in a few weeks! Hurray!

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