Olds and Whitman

Sharon Olds addresses Walt Whitman directly, by name, in at least two of her poems.  But her conference with the Bard, despite the century between them, pervades a far more overwhelming portion of her work than that.  “The bodies of men and women engirth me, and I engirth them, / [t]hey will not let me off nor I them till I go with them and respond to them and love them,” wrote Whitman, in the opening lines of “I Sing the Body Electric” from Leaves of Grass.  The poem is a famous homage to the bodies of men and women, to swimmers, framers, rowers, housekeepers, laborers, mothers, babies, woodmen, wrestlers, fireman; it concludes with a curse upon anyone “who degrades or defiles the body,” living or dead.  According to Jimmie Killingsworth, “Whitman set out to elevate the status of physical existence as a theme and inspiration of modern poetry, fully exploiting the metaphorical possibilities of material life as well as advocating a complete realization of the body as a source of psychological, social, and political well-being.”  As self-proclaimed Poet of the Body, Whitman recognized the physical experience as both the only and the most supreme medium for enlightenment.  This mantra is as evident in the work of Sharon Olds as in any other modern poet.

Though her realm is often (but not always) limited to the family, both as a child and as an adult, Olds manifests her role in these relationships with bold eroticization and sharp bodily imagery.  Even when the conceit is playful – “her body hard and / indivisible as a prime number” – Olds never wavers in her pursuit of the divine made evident by the tangible details.  “[A]nd in her head she’ll be doing her / wild multiplying, as the drops / sparkle and fall to the power of a thousand from her body,” so her poem entitled “The One Girl at the Boy’s Party” concludes (20-22).  The math and magic are the sum of her or his parts, and Olds is as meticulous (if not as voluminous) in her cataloguing of the human machine as Walt himself.

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