American poet Sharon Olds has produced many popular collections of poems in recent years and none is more striking than her 1984 poem entitled “Sex Without Love.” This is a masterful poem which challenges sociological, stylistic and cultural conventions.
It has been pointed…
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eciation of sex in modern society in its deliberate rejection of warm human to human relationships in favor of the clinical focus of professional athletes obsessed with their performance and physique.
The style of the poem is deceptively naturalistic, with no rhymes or stanzas. Some key ideas are presented with alliteration, for example “wine, wet” (Olds, 1984, line 6) and “the purists, the pros” (Olds, 1984, line 14). Fourfold repetition of the phrase “come to the” in lines 9-10, into which the word “God” is placed, without any proper punctuation, breaks the flow of the otherwise unremarkable syntax, as if to suggest that the the act of making love is some kind of structural anomaly in another wise regular world. This is an example of the “proud, urgent, human voice” (Poetry Foundation, p. 1) of the poet at work.
Some rather graphic bodily similes such as “faces/red as steak, wine, wet as the children at birth whose mothers are going to/give them away” (Olds, 1984, lines 5-8) break some cultural taboos such as cannibalism and the mothers who neglect their responsibilities. This is an example of what Lewallan calls “her penchant for imaging the bodies of others as meat, red and raw, as well as her penchant for metaphors of predation.” (Lewallan, 2006, p. 42) There are undertones of violence and neglect in this depiction which contradict prevailing cultural expectations.
From all three of these critical perspectives, the sociological, the cultural and the stylistic, Olds presents a re-evaluation of one of the oldest poetic themes in the world: the relationship between love and sex and encourages the reader to view a new, and somewhat shocking paradigm.
Lewallan, Walter E. “The signature poetics of Sharon Olds and John Cage.” Dissertation, University of Florida, 2006. Available online at:
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