Saturday, October 18, 2014

A poetry prize for Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds is this year’s winner of the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. She will receive the award and read her poems on Oct. 30 in Concord, N.H. (details here).

Sharon Olds
The award bears the name of married poets who lived and wrote at Hall’s family farmhouse for two decades until Kenyon’s death of leukemia in 1995. She was 47 years old. Hall, now 86, still lives in the house and has a book, Essays after Eighty, due out soon.

The Hall-Kenyon is given annually to an esteemed American poet. Olds is the fifth winner. Previous winners have been Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan, Jane Hirshfield and Billy Collins.

Hall is an old friend, and for the first four years I had the pleasure of presenting the award. This year I can’t make it. But I have read and reviewed Olds’s poetry for years and interviewed her often. In advance of her Concord reading, I have prepared a few pieces to give readers of the Concord Monitor, the newspaper I used to edit, a taste of her work.

Olds splits time between New Hampshire and New York City, where she teaches at NYU. Her last book, Stag’s Leap, won both the Eliot Prize, Britain’s top poetry award, and the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

I went back to an earlier book, One Secret Thing (2008), and chose three poems to share and comment on.

Here is the first one:


By the time I was six months old, she knew something
was wrong with me. I got looks on my face
she had not seen on any child
in the family, or the extended family,
or the neighborhood. My mother took me in
to the pediatrician with the kind hands,
a doctor with a name like a suit size for a wheel:
Hub Long. My mom did not tell him
what she thought in truth, that I was Possessed.
It was just these strange looks on my face –
he held me, and conversed with me,
chatting as one does with a baby, and my mother
said, She’s doing it now! Look!
She’s doing it now! and the doctor said,
What your daughter has
is called a sense
of humor. Ohhh, she said, and took me
back to the house where that sense would be tested
and found to be incurable.

Olds sometimes opens her readings with this poem. It is a humorous ice-breaker that sets an audience atwitter. But the poem also says a lot about Olds’s body of work.

There’s that wonderful simile – the doctor with a name “like the suit size for a wheel” – and then the line break, a kind of ta-da pause before his name, which is to be spoken slowly so that the joke can be savored: Hub Long. Olds’s mind is a font of metaphors, and her poems reflect this. Although her line breaks can puzzle, they can also sparkle, announcing a turn in a poem’s direction.

This poem comes from a rich strain of Olds’s work. The mother-daughter relationship was a test for both of them for as long as her mother lived. Fanciful though it may be, “Diagnosis” returns to the roots. What kind of mother cannot recognize a sense of humor in her baby?

One Secret Thing closes with a moving series of poems about Olds’s mother’s dying.


  1. I would like to have a copy of the piece you wrote in the Monitor 4/15/13 on Sharon, but I can't find it anywhere in the "stacks". Would you happen to have a copy or could you direct me to one I could download? I am teaching Stags Leap next month and thought your article was one of the best things written about her. thanks.

    1. If you give me an email address, I will send you both that story and the interview on which it was based.