Sharon Olds turns tales of missing children, homelessness and abusive parents into poetry, in language that is sometimes shocking, as well as stirring.
"You know the scenes depicted are so intensely real they must have happened," Georgetown University professor Roland Flint said of Ms. Olds' poetry.
Mr. Flint introduced Ms. Olds at the Howard Community College yesterday, where she was a guest reader for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. The society sponsors literary readings and workshops throughout the year.
Nearly 150 people listened intently as Ms. Olds, a 50-year-old instructor at New York University, read 17 poems from four books she has had published in the past dozen years.
People in the audience occasionally chuckled, and sometimes stirred uncomfortably in their seats -- particularly during poems that provided vivid, troubling scenes of abusive parents and their children.
The poet's newest book, "The Father," details the relationship between a daughter and her ailing father. Ms. Olds dedicated the book, released last spring, to her late father.
Ms. Olds read several poems from the collection, one of which, called "Beyond Harm," tells the story of a woman dealing with the death of her abusive father:
"A week after my father died, suddenly I understood
"His fondness for me was safe -- "nothing could touch it."
The poem concludes:
"I suddenly thought with amazement he will always
"Love me now and I laughed -- He was dead, dead!"
An earlier poem, "I Go Back to May 1937," describes a woman wanting to go to her parents' wedding to stop them from marrying because of the anguish they will cause each other and their children in later years. But the woman changes her mind.
In "Aspic and Buttermilk," a woman recalls how her father forced her to eat foods that she hated while her mother passively watched.
Some of Ms. Olds' poems tell stories of young people going through rites of passage. In "Adolescence," a young woman describes her early sexual encounters in seedy San Francisco motels.
Other poems address social issues.
In "The Missing Boy," a mother tells how her 7-year-old son begins worrying about a missing boy after reading about him on a poster displayed on a bus.
Another poem, "What is the Earth?" tackles homelessness.
The poet's first collection, called "Satan Says," was published in 1980, winning the San Francisco Poetry Center Award.
Her second book, "The Dead and the Living," was published in 1984 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
She also published "The Gold Cell" in 1987.
A San Francisco native, she received her bachelor's degree at Stanford University and a doctorate at Columbia University. The poet also appeared in several segments of "The Power of the Word," Bill Moyers' public television series on contemporary poetry.
Lucille Clifton, a Columbia resident and former poet laureate of Maryland, had words of praise for Ms. Olds, whom she has known through years of readings and workshops.
"She's so honest," Ms. Clifton said after yesterday's reading.
"I like the music in her poetic voice. She's a fine, authentic poet and person."