📚 Poems Read:

Vuong’s success as a writer is all the more impressive for the way in which he has sought to challenge the often-closed circuit of the lyric: ‘I think the strongest poems allow themselves to collapse completely before even suggesting resurrection or closure’

“get up. The most beautiful part of the body

is where it’s headed. & remember,

loneliness is still time spent

with the world.”

One of Olds’s strengths as a poet is to write passages which read frictionlessly, but which on close inspection reveal complex and subtle formal patterning.

In addition to her descriptive and technical virtuosity, Olds is known for her ability to write poems of striking emotional candour and openness, in which the affective life of the poet is connected obliquely to questions of class, race, gender, national history and religious identity. In the remarkable ’Grey Girl’, included in her recording for the Archive, she describes herself walking down Park Avenue with the poets Yusuf Konumyakaa and Toi Derricotte. Olds proceeds to analyse her desire to tell these two poets about her knowledge of ‘white people’,about the particulars of her own upbringing, and her underlying desire in this moment to ‘win something in the war of the family, to rant in the faces / of the war-struck about her home-front pain’. What makes Olds’s more explicitly political poetry compelling, as in this instance, is her disinterest in exemplary conduct; rather, she examines closely a moment of complex self-absorption, and it is exactly this difficult work of self-scrutiny which gives rise to the poem’s most illuminating moments. ‘It is hard to see oneself as dangerous / and stupid, but what I had said was true’, she writes, and there is something in these two lines which illuminates a central principle of Olds’s project. Her work privileges the idea of saying the ‘true’ at the expense of other considerations, perhaps above all the question of how she, personally, might be perceived. If, at times, this has meant that her work has encountered resistance from a patriarchal poetic culture uncomfortable with her subject matter—notoriously, early in her career she received her rejection letter recommending she send her poems to Ladies’ Home Journal—the pursuit of truth in her writing has expanded the terrain of contemporary poetry, creating a space for a generation of subsequent poets to write poetry about their lives in a new way.

“on the sidewalk-as we kept going, I sensed

two living beings, and one

half idiot, a grey girl walking. Who did she

think she was, to relish herself

for hating herself, to savor, proudly,

the luxury of hating her own people.”