Sharon Olds was born in San Francisco and educated at Stanford and Columbia, earning a Ph.D. at the latter. She grew up in a conservative religious family for which the thought was the moral equivalent of the deed; thoughts themselves, therefore, were to be self-policed. The project of becoming a writer has for her been partly one of unlearning that family lesson; she has trained herself to take risks and take up subjects other poets have ignored. A short, outrageously witty poem "The Pope's Penis" is perhaps the most notorious instance of that, but in the more ambitious poems reprinted here she has also enlarged our sense of what it is possible to do in poetry.
For some years Olds has taught poetry workshops in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University, while helping to run N.Y.U.'s workshop program at Goldwater Hospital, a nine-hundred-bed public hospital for the severely physically disabled, on New York's Roosevelt Island. She has published numerous volumes of poetry, whose focus is alternately historical. Yet in both cases her central subjects are death and sexuality or regeneration, or the relations between the two, as in "Photograph of the Girl." While she is regularly admired for her candor, the praise pales before the singularly uncompromising, even harrowing, quality of her vision. In the intricacy of her attention to subjects we would rather repress, and in the unsparing negotiation of her own feelings, she surpasses even Plath.