Divorcee wins major prize for poems about her break-up

Divorce|January 15th 2013

People divorce, of course, for different reasons. For many, the end comes via nothing more dramatic than a rueful realisation that that things just aren’t working out. Still a sad and disappointing event, of course, but something most can move on from.

Being betrayed by a partner you still love – or at least one you loved until the moment of discovery – is far worse. Discovering that the person you married and perhaps had children with has been unfaithful or wants to leave you for someone else is always a shock, and one that can leave your emotions jangling for years. If it was a long marriage the upheaval will be all the greater.

Sharon Olds had just that experience. Now 70, he split from her husband of 30 years 15 years ago after he announced that he was leaving her for another woman. She began to record her experiences and emotions in a series of poems.

Those poems was published last year in a collection called Stag’s Leap and to considerable critical acclaim, with plaudits appearing in the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Sunday Telegraph and the Observer. And now the collection has won the TS Eliot Prize, one of the most prestigious awards open to UK and Irish poets.

Like TS Eliot himself, Olds is an American, from San Francisco. In Stag’s Leap she takes the reader through the entire breakup the marriage, from the moment her husband made his announcement, via feelings of grief and loss, right through to acceptance and the discovery of a new strength. This is a journey many a divorcee has taken, of course, but few have managed to capture this painful evolution in fiery poetry.

In an oblique tribute to the poems’ power perhaps, her two children made her promise that she would not publish anything about the breakup for ten whole ten years.

Now 15 years on, publication has apparently brought her a well-deserved feeling of closure. According to the Mail, Olds told a recent interviewer:

“Something did shift. Definitely, yes – there was a sense of completion.”

Reading extracts from her work, I have the impression of a brave women, steadily carving the raw emotions of separation and divorce into something intricate and moving.

The Mail report features an extract from a poem called Unspeakable. Anyone who has been through the upheavals of an unhappy divorce will be able to recognise themselves in such lines as:

“I want to ask my
almost-no-longer husband what it’s like to not
love, but he does not want to talk about it,
he wants a stillness at the end of it…..

I want to say to him, now, What
was it like, to love me – when you looked at me,
what did you see? When he loved me, I looked
out at the world as if from inside
a profound dwelling, like a burrow, or a well…”

And in the title poem of the collection, she reaches a whole other level of acceptance and profundity:

“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.”

(Stag’s Leap is published by Jonathan Cape)

Of course, writing poetry is not for everyone but the perspectives provided by poets can help the rest of us look at things in a different way and perhaps reach our own sense of acceptance and resolution.

Photo by Harri Haataja via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

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Comments(4)

  1. JamesB says:

    I just wanted to say that you made a very good and empathetic point on the being left for another person point. We should have enormous sympathy and respect for people who have been treated like that. A point which many (including the law) forget.

  2. JamesB says:

    One day I hope to read a post of you empathising with a man paying child support for a woman to move in with her lover while not seeing his children though. Then you would be seen as even handed and not just empathising with women.

  3. JamesB says:

    I did not mean the last comment to sound as it did and wasn’t really meant as a public criticism, just friendly advice really.

  4. JamesB says:

    The empathy on this subject seems to go from the professionals to the women, and not the men was my point.

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