Why Reading Sharon Olds Makes You a Better Person

By | 1 August 2018

Dialectical meta-emotion in ‘Stag’s Leap

The title poem in the collection, ‘Stag’s Leap’ details how the label of a stag making a small leap from a precipice, pictured on Olds’s favourite red wine (which supplies the title and cover art for the collection), reminds the speaker of her husband escaping their marriage. A third of the way into the poem we read:

(…) 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. It’s so quiet,
and empty, when he’s left. I feel like a landscape,
a ground without a figure. Sauve (…)1

As in ‘While He Told Me’, in ‘Stag’s Leap’ we experience a gradual metrical shift that underpins a change in emotional tone. There is a movement from excitement (‘when anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up’) to resignation (‘I am half on the side of the leaver’) to melancholy (‘it’s so quiet, / and empty, when he’s left’). Metrically this shift entails a progression from iambic hexameter (‘when anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up’) to three anapaests (‘I am half on the side of the leav(er)’) to sustained use of spondees (leaver, quiet, empty, landscape, figure). This progression (or regression), this slowing down in metrical pacing, entails a shift in valence on the part of the reader. This is so because irregular meter and rhyme is likely to lead to relatively negative emotional response when following moments of metrical regularity. As Christian Obermeier (et al.) has concluded from reader-response testing into regular versus irregular meter, ‘regular meter and rhyme lead to a heightened aesthetic appreciation and intensity of processing as well as more positive emotional responses.’2 Accordingly, at the level of reader affect, lapses in Olds’s metrical regularity should entail lapses at the level of valence. Combine this with polysemous references to being ‘left’ – in the phrases ‘I am half’ and also ‘on the side’, and at the level of emotionality we have a slowing of metrical pace, while at the level of emotion a decrease in valence (negative affect). And yet this coincides with positive appraisal. In spite of her being ‘left’, the narrator displays joy in the ‘escape’ of her partner, her heart ‘leaping up.’

If it is true that we see this as a positive attribute, it runs counter to the reader experience of emotionality (and resulting emotion) in the poem. As readers, we judge the speaker positively while experiencing a certain negativity of affect in the movement from metrical regularity to irregularity. Our meta-emotion – our response to our own emotional response –is thus dialectical; negative valence in spite of positive appraisal.

There remains one brief example of how this occurs before we can progress to considering what this all means for emotional responses in the real world, this time from a poem toward the end of the collection, ‘Left-Wife Bop.’

* * *

Dialectical meta-emotion in ‘Left Wife Bop’

In ‘Left-Wife Bop’, the narrator recalls her ex-husband asking to visit their house ‘one last time’, and later realising that he had gone to dig up a bar of gold he had buried nearby during the early days of their marriage:

time. Please, not with her,
please, and he said, All right, and I don’t know
why, when I figured it out, later, 
that he’d gone to dig up our bar of gold,
I didn’t mind. (…)3

The final line here provides resolution on several fronts: in narrative, rhyme and rhythm. The slant rhymes that run from time to right to why create reader expectation of rhyme closure, which is provided in the final line: I didn’t mind. As the lyric ‘I’ acts (in narrative terms) as our focaliser throughout – we ‘learn’ as she learns, see as she sees – our valence is necessarily intertwined with hers. Yet, as stated, there are narrative levels: the extradiegetic (present narrator) and the intradiegetic (the (past) speaker of the narrative). In J J Winkler’s terms this is an instance of many-mindedness: ‘several personal perspectives, whose multiple relations to each other set up a field of voices and evaluations.’4 This is important because we often focalise with the narrator at one level (the intradiegetic level) while experiencing affect at another (the extradiegetic level). This is precisely what happens when we learn, in lines 10-12 of ‘Left-Wife Bop,’ that the speaker’s husband went to their home to dig up their bar of gold. We learn what the speaker in the narrative learnt, and are accordingly judging the ex-husband in negative light. The lyric self at the extradiegetic level, however, ‘doesn’t mind’ – and so while our appraisal runs parallel with the intradiegetic level, valence runs parallel with the extradiegetic level. We feel pleasure in the consistency of rhyme and the closure of narrative rhythm and rhyme, even as we appraise the situation negatively.

Of course, insofar as the poems are all immaculately crafted, we experience aesthetic pleasure throughout the collection. Yet, as has been shown in the first two examples, Olds withdraws the pleasures of meter and rhyme just at those points we might expect them to be the most prevalent, while providing them at the points they often seem most out of place. While a cursory reading might construe this as a ‘silver lining’ poetics over the top of what is (as Levertov has it) ‘find the dirt and dig it up poetry,’ it is not enough to simply say that Olds’s poetry is bittersweet. The complex poetics that underpins the narrative in Stag’s Leap deliberately manufactures dialectical meta-emotion, which creates a short-circuiting of the hard-wired relationship between cognitive appraisal and emotional valence. It does this in a number of ways: through imagery, syntax, meter, rhyme, and a split between narrative levels (and no doubt in other ways not considered here). Such techniques encourage the reader to experience affect and emotion in novel ways, acting as the means of expressing (possible) meaning. This takes us back to my second premise (emotion serves as the means, rather than the result of expression), which can now be concluded in light of the evidence garnered thus far.

  1. Ibid., 29.
  2. Christian et al., ‘Aesthetic and Emotional Effects of Meter and Rhyme in Poetry’, 8.
  3. Olds, Stag’s Leap., 102.
  4. Winkler, ‘Double Consciousness in Sappho’s Lyrics,’ in Sexuality and Gender in the Classical World / edited by Laura McClure, 43.
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