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Alum Takes Pulitzer for Poetry

Photo: AP Photo/Jim Cole

By Sam Scott

Sharon Olds won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry April 15 for Stag’s Leap. The book has been called an unflinching response to the collapse of her marriage of 32 years, a mix of grief and confusion that shows in the collection’s namesake poem:

“When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up.  Even when it’s I who am escaped from, / I am half on the side of the leaver”

Olds, ’64, teaches at New York University and is former poet laureate of New York. She penned most of Stag’s Leap in the late 1990s, in the years after her divorce. “I wrote these poems the way I always write, which is immediately,” she told the Concord Monitor. “Only then do I have the feeling that is so full in me that it feels the need to spill over into an expression of itself.”

But she held off publishing these poems for more than a decade, promising her grown children she’d allow time for the changes to absorb. She said she never imagined the kind of reception that lay in store for them.

“It was beyond unexpected,” she told the Huffington Post. “There are things we think won’t happen to us—that are outside our picture of ourselves.”

Stag’s Leap is her 12th collection. Her first, Satan Says, was published in 1980, when she was 37, a delayed start she attributes to earlier resistance from male editors. Her first submitted poem to a magazine got a reception hardly imaginable today. “They told me: ‘This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies’ Home Journal. The true subjects of poetry are . . . male subjects, not your children’,” Olds told the Guardian.

Olds has won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Prior to the Pulitzer, Stag’s Leap won the T.S. Eliot Prize for the best collection of verse published in Britain and Ireland in 2012.

In awarding that prize, Carol Ann Duffy, chair of the judging panel, said: “This was the book of her career. There is a grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet.”

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