Big Loves: Ada Limón on Sharon Olds

Today’s guest is Ada Limón, author of Sharks in the Rivers. You can visit also visit her blog.

Getting Naked-er: Sharon Olds

I fell in love with poetry the day I first read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” when I was fifteen years old. I had never seen or heard anything so beautiful, elegant, specific, and, in the end, utterly, disastrously heartbreaking. It remains, to this day, one of my favorite poems of all time. However, I first walked in to poetry, and I mean walked in, felt the table and the chairs around me, the slick bodies and their needs, and felt precariously at home, when I first read the work of Sharon Olds. The first book I bought of hers was, The Dead and the Living. And then, like a schoolgirl discovering pornography and self-love all at once, I read every one of her books that were out by that year (1998) and began to sink down into myself. It was a sinking. Yes. I sunk further in. I have the distinct memory of reading one of her poems, “Coming of Age 1966” and thinking, “this is absolutely true, it is truer than true, not just ‘this happened,’ but this truth has a naked-er nakedness,” as if someone had gone into a dressing room and emerged only in their bones. I had never known such a thing was possible. It seemed, well, it seemed wrong. It seemed selfish and dirty and too painful and angry and overwhelming and yet, it (the work) seemed not to care at all what I thought of it. It wanted to do only this, to tell you its truth, it did not need to be accepted in its isolated fury. And because of that, because of its defiance and headstrong “I, I, I” it was, to me, truly astounding. What I learned from her work, which I value deeply to this day, was what happened if you simply cut the head off of your own self-censorship demon. Just killed him. And kept, instead, working on what was truthful, and personal, and raw, and sometimes, so wrong it seemed unbearable. Like life could be, like life. No, I never wanted to live in her poems, but I needed to live in a world where their twisted logic, their lyrical pounce, their cut and flay, their turn inward without embarrassment, but exaltation, was possible. Like the first woman who rode a horse astride, said to hell with sidesaddle, she showed me what it was to ride the beast of your own past with power, with control, with beauty. I needed her poems to exist so I could begin to exist as a poet.

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