book cover imageStag’s Leap: Poems,
by Sharon Olds.
Knopf, 2012.
112 pages, Hardcover, $27; Paperback, $17.

On January 15, 2013, the Poetry Book Society in London announced that the winner of the annual T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry (awarded to the best new collection of poetry published in the U.K. and Ireland each year) was Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds, a “female American poet” who lives in New York City. It was judged the best book of 131 entries and of an impressive shortlist that demonstrated “freshness, skill and authority.” According to Carol Ann Duffy, the U.K.’s poet laureate who chaired the judges’ panel, Stag’s Leap is “a tremendous book of grace and gallantry which crowns the career of a world-class poet.” Putting aside Duffy’s delight and superlative praise, one might ask whether eighty-nine pages of private anguish tracing the disintegration of a marriage after thirty years is culturally significant poetry. Or is this just another instance of self-promotion by the poetry establishment—seeking to demonstrate its continuing social importance by again endorsing one of its own? How much more poetry about personal “[d]read and sorrow” (to quote Olds) does the world need annually?

This prize is supported by both the T. S. Eliot Estate and Aurum, a private investment management firm. Given these organizations’ support, one might wonder if the judges factored Eliot’s literary standards into their deliberations or are aware what investment management entails. In a very real sense, Eliot was the twentieth century poet most concerned with history and tradition and the real world. There seems to be little connection between his poetic standards and subject matter with Olds’s prism of personal bodily experience. To restate Dana Gioia’s enduring question, does her poetry matter?

Olds knows how to write in the distinctive contemporary style. She is deft at wordplay and at imagery stacked for effect. References, such as those to “warbler” and “eggshell skull,” recur and bind different poems together. A “Chagall bridegroom” cleverly appears. And like all well-read poets, there are echoes from the past, including this from The Aeneid (“Of arms and the man I sing” [“Arma virumque cano”]) in her poem “Material Ode”:

O tulle, O taffeta, O grosgrain—
I call upon you now, girls,
of fabrics and the woman I sing. My husband
had said he was probably going to leave me—not
for sure, but likely, maybe—and no, it did not
have to do with her. O satin, O
sateen, O velvet, O fucking velveeta—
the day of the doctors’ dress-updance,
the annual folderol, the lace,
the net, he said it would be hard for her
to see me there, dancing with him,
would I mind not going. And since I’d been
for thirty years enarming him,
I enarmed him further—Arma, Virumque,
sackcloth, ashen embroidery! . . .

Invoking Virgil may prove entertaining at a poetry reception. But carried further, such as when Olds evokes the lives lost on September 11, one may wonder if this once-accomplished poet is now over-reaching for significance, and whether she may actually offend the mourning public. Rejoicing in the fact that she looked directly into her husband’s eyes in the “last minute of our marriage,” she writes:

. . . And two and
three Septembers later, and even
the September after that, that September in New York,
I was glad I had looked at him. And when I
told a friend how glad I’d been,
she said, Maybe it’s like with the families
of the dead, even the families of those
who died in the Towers—that need to see
the body, no longer inhabited
by what made them the one we loved—somehow
it helps to say good-bye to the actual,

and I saw, again, how blessed my life has been,
first, to have been able to love,
then, to have the parting now behind me . . .

Like all performers, Olds is perhaps entitled to the occasional poor performance (although whether that poor performance merits such a prestigious award is another story). However, is there any evidence from Olds’s past volumes that this too-long and too-fraught volume is nothing more than a bout of self-therapy?

Unfortunately, there is. Her 1987 poem “On the Subway” describes the thoughts and fears of a white woman sitting opposite a black youth on a New York subway car as it hurtles through a dark tunnel. That poem is part of the undergraduate English curriculum at one university because it is accessible: it assists young college students to learn how language and description contribute to perception and understanding:

. . . There is
no way to know how easy this
white skin makes my life, this
life he could break so easily, the way I
think his back is being broken, the
rod of his soul that at birth was dark and
fluid, rich as the heart of a seedling
ready to thrust up into any available light.

Another poem in that same 1987 volume describes New York City police officers and a jumper sharing cigarettes on the roof after they have talked him down from the ledge: the “tall cop lit a cigarette/in his own mouth, and gave it to him, and/then they all lit cigarettes, and the/red glowing embers burned like the/tiny campfires we lit at night/back at the beginning of the world.” The level of self-absorption in Stag’s Leap is now routinely mistaken for better poetry.

There may be something in Stag’s Leap that is helpful to those whose marriages are disintegrating or to those who study divorce. And this book may not appear too open (and its many intimate details too raw) to those who broadcast and bare their private lives on Facebook. The sad point, however, is that the Poetry Book Society appears to have awarded the 2012 T. S. Eliot Prize to a book based upon its ability to generate emotional interest in poetry based, in turn, upon autobiographical experience and candid confession.

All writing may ultimately be autobiographical. For example, a recent discussion on the T. S. Eliot discussion website in the U.S. focused upon whether the poet’s poor relationship with his first wife contributed to the sense of loss in The Waste Land. But great poetry is not about breasts, ovaries, hips, haircuts, and thighs; instead, it is about describing events of public importance in stirring and memorable language. This can be mixed with the personal. But without that public, objective dimension, poetry’s critical connection to the community is lost. In an odd twist, the Society seems to have objectified Olds when it described her as the first “female American poet” to have won this prize. Like Stag’s Leap, this too may be due to the overuse of gender and sexual propensity as determinative of artistic interest and merit.

David Orr, the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, in his 2011 guide to modern poetry resorted to a curious measurement of the public’s interest in poetry: he used Google to search on “I like poetry” and “I love poetry” and then determined its consequence based upon the number of hits. Perhaps literary critics must now assess such raw data because new media are measured in new ways. But does that mean that the value of poetry is now reduced to an algorithm of its digital incidence? Or the unrefined imagination that pervades Stag’s Leap?

Heightened linguistic expressions still have the power to move others, whether it is a slogan or a cry at a rally, a phrase in a speech at a celebration or a memorial service, or some apt expression uttered anonymously after some event that then “tags” the event for posterity. “What Left?” Sharon Olds asks in the last poem in this volume. Good question. She knows and can do better.

As to the Poetry Book Society in the U.K., its efforts to reach more readers, especially the young—by demonstrating how meaningful poetry can be—are to be commended. There is a similar effort underway in the U.S. by the well-endowed Poetry Foundation. Too bad that most contemporary poetry is so listless and uninteresting.  

Eugene Schlanger, the Wall Street Poet, is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets (Paris: Éditions Underbahn, 2006). He also practices law on Wall Street.

Sharon Olds’s “marital distress poetry” was awarded the 2012 T. S. Eliot Prize. The Wall Street Poet looks for some cultural or poetic significance in Olds’s verse.