Skip to main content

Sharon Olds' "The Victims"

Poetasters, dirty politicians, and other liars soil the cosmos. Exposing them remains in my toolkit. I read charlatans so you don't have to!

Introduction and Text of "The Victims"

According to noted poetry critic, Helen Vendler, Sharon Olds' poetry comes across as "self- indulgent, sensationalist, and even pornographic." And as former poet laureate Billy Collins averred, Olds is "a poet of sex and the psyche" "infamous for her subject matter alone."

And even though he attempted to add some faint praise, "but her closer readers know her as a poet of constant linguistic surprise," those linguistic surprises consisting of stark images only function to undermine her attempt to produce any genuine poetry.

Although "The Victims" is one of Olds’ least "pornographic" efforts, the piece clearly demonstrates egotistical self-indulgence and egregious sensationalism. Such writing smacks more of loose-mused regurgitation than real cogitation on genuine emotion.

This unhappy piece consists of 26 uneven lines of free verse that sit in a lump chunk on the page and suffer from the customary Oldsian haphazard line breaks.

The Victims

When Mother divorced you, we were glad. She took it and
took it in silence, all those years and then
kicked you out, suddenly, and her
kids loved it. Then you were fired, and we
grinned inside, the way people grinned when
Nixon's helicopter lifted off the South
Lawn for the last time. We were tickled
to think of your office taken away,
your secretaries taken away,
your lunches with three double bourbons,
your pencils, your reams of paper. Would they take your
suits back, too, those dark
carcasses hung in your closet, and the black
noses of your shoes with their large pores?
She had taught us to take it, to hate you and take it
until we pricked with her for your
annihilation, Father. Now I
pass the bums in doorways, the white
slugs of their bodies gleaming through slits in their
suits of compressed silt, the stained
flippers of their hands, the underwater
fire of their eyes, ships gone down with the
lanterns lit, and I wonder who took it and
took it from them in silence until they had
given it all away and had nothing
left but this.

Reading of "The Victims"


The piece breaks into two parts: the first is a description of how the speaker and her family felt way back a few decades when she was a child, and the second part jumps to what the speaker observes and thinks as an adult.

First Movement: Hindsight Sometimes Less Than 20/20

The speaker of the poem is an adult looking back at the break up of her family roughly around the time that her mother divorced her father. The speaker is addressing the father, telling him how glad she and the family were after the mother divorced the father.

The speaker and her siblings were glad because she "took it // in silence, all those years." What she, and perhaps they, silently endured is left up to the reader to imagine, and that omission is a major flaw that leads the poem astray.

No two divorces are alike. By leaving such an important motive to the imagination of the reader, the speaker weakens the thrust of her accusations against the father. The only hint of the father's misdeeds is that he enjoyed three alcoholic beverages with his lunch.

Admittedly, that could present a problem, but by no means does it always do so. Some individuals can handle a few drinks better than others, and the fact that the father seemed to have functioned in his job for a considerable period of time hints that he might have been competent in his job.

On the other hand, the mother influenced her children in a grossly negative way, causing them to hate their father and wish him dead.

Apparently, the mother teaches her children to hate their father simply because he had three double bourbons for lunch or so we must assume because no other accusation is leveled against the poor man.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Maybe the father was a cruel alcoholic, who beat the mother and children, but there is no evidence to support that idea. And if that were the case, stark images of bruises and broken bones would surely have made an appearance in the little drama.

The father was fired from his job, but only after the mother kicked him out. Would he have been able to keep his job to that point in his life, if he had been an out of control, cruel drunk? Perhaps he became depressed and without purpose after being forced to leave his family and sank further into alcohol.

The gratuitous allusion to "Nixon’s helicopter," carrying the newly resigned president from office, further inserts the nastiness of a political hit-piece, adding nothing to the drama except the suggestion that the family consistently voted for Democrats.

So the reader has no evidence that the father was guilty of anything, but the mother taught the kids to hate the father and wish for his death. The mother comes across as a less sympathetic character than the father.

Second Movement: Appalling Prejudice Revealed

The speaker now begins her report on what she sees and how she thinks in her current life situation that has been tainted by her past. She begins to observe homeless men sleeping in doorways.

It becomes clear that it is those homeless men in the doorway who are reminding the speaker of her father getting kicked out of their home and getting fired from his job.

The speaker then speculates about those men about whom readers can be sure she knows absolutely nothing. She wonders about the lives of those homeless men, whom she calls "bums." She wonders if their families "took it" from those men the way her family supposedly took it from her father. But again, the reader remains clueless about what it is the family "took."

What an arrogant reaction! Without one whit of evidence that these "bums" did anything to anyone, the speaker simply presumes that they are like her father, who lost it all because of what he (and now they) supposedly did.

But the reader still does not even know what the father did. They do know what the mother did; she taught her children to hate the father and wish him dead.

Stark, Colorful Images

This poem, like many of Sharon Olds' poems, offers some colorful descriptions. The father's business suits are rendered "dark / caresses" hanging the closet. His shoes sport "black / noses //with their large pores."

Those homeless men are name called "bums" because they are lying "in doorways." Their bodies are dehumanized and portrayed as "white / slugs." Those slugs shine "through slits" in compacted dirt, revealing their compromised hygiene after being homeless for a protracted length of time. Their hands resemble "stained / flippers," again dehumanized.

Their eyes remind this flippant speaker, who lacks compassion for her fellow human beings, of ships that have sunken with their "lanterns lit."

Would that all of those colorful images resided in a better place and without the lack of humanity this speaker reveals about herself. Those "linguistic surprises," however, function only to render the speaker and the so-called victims as the actual perpetrators of despicable acts.

Although the speaker wishes to foist bad behavior onto first her father and then onto homeless men, she cannot escape the rebuttal that she has failed indict her father and that she knows nothing about those homeless "bums."

This ugly piece remains questionable and appears to have been created solely for the purpose of showcasing a handful of stark, colorful images.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 07, 2020:

Thanks for your response, Lorna. It is certainly disturbing to reveal in a poem that one’s mother taught the poet and her siblings to hate their father and wish for his death. Some fame chasing poets (poetasters) know no shame.

Lorna Lamon on March 07, 2020:

I read your comments with interest Linda, and I certainly would not be a fan of her work. However, as much as I enjoy writing and reading poetry, I am also a Doctor of Psychology, and so I try to see it from both perspectives. Certainly a very disturbing piece.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 06, 2020:

Thank you, Umesh Chandra Bhatt, for your feedback! It is always heartening to hear that one's efforts have positively affected one's readers.

“Poets” like Sharon Olds are a dime a dozen. They are more like flare ups than poets. They litter the poetry world with their garbage and fortunately for them, make a good living and career out of their efforts—just look at the master poetaster of them all, Robert Bly. While even on a certain level admiring them, we have to remain true to art and ourselves and call them out when their words defy logic, common sense, and truth.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 06, 2020:

Thank you for your comment, Lorna. Yes, many confessional poets come across a quite insane, but for literary purposes we must simply judge their poems and not their personalities. Obviously, gals like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were so disturbed that they committed suicide, and it is doubtful that professional help would have helped. Sexton actually had that help.

As I said, for literary purposes, we must simply focus on the works, and the works of Sharon Olds leads one to understand the truth of Helen Vendler's estimation that the women as poet stinks. Poetry that is so angst-filled and “self-indulgent, sensationalist, and even pornographic” sounds like vomit across the page. I don't like to bother with such works, except to provide a balance and to show readers why they should avoid certain so-called "poets."

Lorna Lamon on March 06, 2020:

Some very stark images in the few lines of this poem Linda. There also appears to be an awful lot of pent-up anger for her father and then homeless men. This could be as a result of her parent's divorce and her mother's influence, as she appears to be eaten up with hate which is so destructive. As we have not been given insight into what went on behind closed doors, I find it difficult to judge her actions.Unfortunately it has warped the way she perceives other people and events. I feel she needs professional help.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on March 06, 2020:

Interesting analysis.

Related Articles