Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Dead and the Living” as Want to Read:
The Dead and the Living
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Dead and the Living

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  3,488 ratings  ·  119 reviews
The 1983 Lamont poetry selection of the Academy of American Poets.
Paperback, 96 pages
Published February 12th 1984 by Knopf
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Dead and the Living, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Dead and the Living

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.17  · 
Rating details
 ·  3,488 ratings  ·  119 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The Dead and the Living
Nov 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: pomes
if vaginas could write poems, these are the poems they would write: embracing maternal vaginas, devouring vagina dentatas, horny vaginas, nature's flowering vaginas...they're all here in their layered, moist humidity.

come to my blog!
David Schaafsma
I saw that others were reading this review, so I pulled out this book at dawn and reread it and edited/ added some things in my review. Like this poem:

Possessed (for my parents)

I have never left.
Your bodies are before me
at all times, in the dark I see
the stars of your teeth in their fixed patterns
wheeling over my bed, and the darkness
is your hair, the fragrance of your two heads
over my crib, your body-hairs
which I count as God counts the feathers of the sparrows,
one by one. And I never leave yo
Apr 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
I love this collection but I bought this book long ago because of this poem:

The Elder Sister
by Sharon Olds

When I look at my elder sister now
I think how she had to go first, down through the
birth canal, to force her way
head-first through the tiny channel,
the pressure of Mother’s muscles on her brain,
the tight walls scraping her skin.
Her face is still narrow from it, the long
hollow cheeks of a crusader on a tomb,
and her inky eyes have the look of someone who has
been in prison a long time and
Mar 17, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry, formative
I don't know how I feel about Sharon Olds anymore, but I do know that when eleven-year-old-Me found this book in my aunt's spare bedroom, it blew my world apart. I remember reading all night, looking up when I finished to see that the sun was rising. No one had bothered to inform me that poems could be not only unrhymed but also irreverent, visceral, carnal, funny, personal, radical, subversive –– in short, a laundry list of the tenets of my present-day poetics.

When asked why I write, my answer
Jul 07, 2008 added it
Here is the poem that made me take notice of Sharon Olds:

"I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are du
Roger DeBlanck
May 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
In the care of a lesser talented poet, Sharon Olds’s candor and daring could come off all wrong. Whether she tackles her father’s drunkenness or her mother’s parental inadequacies, or whether she discusses her own sexual awakening or the startling observations of own her children, Olds’s ability to examine the dysfunction of family and the ecstasy of love succeeds precisely because she can locate both the dismaying and tender humanness associated with the most private of subjects. The Dead and t ...more
Austin Butler
Feb 28, 2012 rated it did not like it
This is the only collection of poetry that I can remember returning.

Most of these poems are just BAD. They read like any number of generic, half-assed poetry you would find in a bad MFA program. There are poetic devices in here that made me shelf the book upon reading them. I would cite some if I had the book. They are so immediately obvious and unoriginal, maybe even cliché, that I would shake my head and mutter, in disbelief. It was like watching a musician you respect play horribly or your f
Feb 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Sharon Olds' poems are often so intimate, so jarring that it hurts to read them. Many feel like an absolute invasion of her most private life, revelations that I could not bring myself to say even to those closest to me. A stunning collection.
Katie Marquette
Nov 14, 2011 rated it liked it
Seems to fall into sensationalism very easily... Her best work is probably her photo poems. When she becomes too personal the poems suffer. Some of the pieces were, though, incredibly moving.
Jan 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Deeply brilliant and brave poetry, filled with aching, unsparing details evoked in glimmering images. We should all have the courage and honesty to examine our lives in this way.
Cathy Douglas
Dec 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Cathy by: Kathleen
Shelves: poetry, 2011
Sharon Olds is like your sweet next-door neighbor, the one who brings you plum jelly every year and collects your mail while you're away, and then one day reveals over coffee that her sister used to squat over her in bed and pee in her face.

What a collection! All of it is memorable, from the first harrowing poems about world politics through the last sweet (though probably embarrassing) ones about her children's blooming sexuality. I especially enjoyed the times when she'd run a series of poems
Mar 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
If you find yourself left cold by poetry, you haven't read Olds.
Austin Araujo
Mar 19, 2020 added it
Shelves: mfa, poetry, 2020
It's really incredible, wonderful, precise work.
"Today I see it is there to be learned from you: / to love what I do not own."
Mar 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry-poetics
I particularly like the way Sharon Olds writes about men. In fact, there's a section in this book called "The Men." Yup, it's full of poems about dudes. The first one, "Connoisseuse of Slugs," is maybe my favorite in the whole book. Basically, she compares the first erection she ever saw to the way a slug's antennae slowly pop out of its head. It's simple and funny and endearing, and it shows the innocence and gentleness of men and sex.

There's another really powerful poem in this section, "Poem
Jul 01, 2014 rated it it was ok
part one: confessional quality. part two: voyeuristic (and it's about her own children...reminds me in a way of sally mann's photos of her kids). i am not a parent but i think if i were, the last thing i would be compelled to describe would be my child's penis, vagina, or ass cheeks. maybe she writes it from a place of love but the way she writes about her parents in part one it seems as though there is a very dark history of cruelty or abuse and that may have manifested in how she relates to he ...more
Evangeline Wilder
Mar 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
2020 reread: still special and amazing. Duh. A little embarrassed of Past Me, only a year old but already I am humiliated by the old self who excitedly wrote out all her fav poems from the book below, lol. Oh well. The Dead poems don’t move me as much as The Living ones. Was caught off guard by the one abt the missing child poster this time. Her son hopes he’s getting the food he likes!!!!! fuck. me. up.

[2019 first read below]

Ok wow. I’d read Olds in isolated poems here & there but never any of
Mar 06, 2008 rated it it was ok
Until reading this collection, I had only been exposed to a few of Sharon Olds’ poems, mostly in anthologies and therefore not in the context of a collection or volume of her work. However, her poems did resonate with me and she was always a poet on my ever-growing list of "people I need to read." I remembered the visceral description in her writing and the unrelenting honesty and examination of herself and her family. With those expectations, this book disappointed me a little bit, in that the ...more
Aug 10, 2007 rated it really liked it
evocative. dissects a range of personal and public experiences with scalpel-sharp precision to reveal some ineffable truth quietly simmering in each memory. her poem "new mother" with its reference to a "nest of stitches" and her husband made me rethink what i thought i knew about partnerships and intimacy. this collection may be of particular interest to anyone fascinated with childhood and what it might mean to become a man or a woman.
May 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
My favorite poems in this early collection are the ones about her kids. It may be weird to read Olds describe her six-year-old son's penis so poetically but that's one of her talents--sneaking you into her world sometimes uncomfortably. A few pages later, in "Rite of Passage," she describes the natural machismo of grade school boys and it's both funny and chilling. Another highlight in this one is the haunting "The Death of Marilyn Monroe."
Apr 10, 2019 rated it it was ok
The book starts with vibrant, often brutally realistic imagery of horrific scenes, yet somehow manages to connect with the reader. But as the book transitions into its further sections, it progressively lost its connection with me. My particularly least favorite section is the last, "For the Children". There were so many things I found frustrating. One of my peeves is when writers use the word "sex" instead of "penis" or "vagina". I just don't get purpose of using that device. But ultimately, it ...more
Aug 27, 2017 rated it liked it


Brushing out our daughter's brown
silken hair before the mirror
I see the grey gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a moist
precise flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her full purse of eggs, round and
firm as hard-boiled y
Jul 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poems

Brushing out my daughter’s dark
silken hair before the mirror
I see the gray gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a small
pale flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her full purse of eggs, gold and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
Joanne Rixon
Apr 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Olds has a deft touch, chooses words with precision and thoughtfulness, and yet her poems are clear and straightforward, so artful that they seem to contain no artifice at all. Many of the poems in this book are claustrophobic, too intimate, nearly on the border of incestuous (although, to be clear, not over that border—just close enough to be uncomfortable). I can't say that I enjoy her poetry, exactly. She peels the skin back from history and family life so you can see the squirming, breathing ...more
Mar 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
Amazing collection. Includes a poem about the Tulsa Race Riot, a topic I do not remember learning about in Oklahoma history when I was in high school. I think our state recently passed a law requiring it to be taught.

So many of these poems just knock you over. I'm not even going to list my favorites like I usually do because there are so many. Quite a few of Olds' most commonly anthologized poems are here: "Sex Without Love" and "Rite of Passage."
Richard Smith
Nov 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
I find Sharon Olds's poetry easy to read, powerful, and highly evocative. Almost all of her poems, and her best poems, are autobiographical. She won the Pullitzer prize for her poems about her divorce, and this earlier collection is about her grandparents and parents (the dead) and her children (the living). I preferred this collection to her selected poems as it has a coherence that adds to its power.
Jul 31, 2020 rated it liked it
Look. The first half of this was a bit too much. No one needs to read that many poems where the author brings up her dad’s penis. Or just her general obsession with genitalia.

The second half with the sections about men and her children were much better and I love the way she describes her children and envisions their inner worlds.

Overall did not enjoy this one like I’ve enjoyed some of her other work, like “Odes”.
Apr 05, 2018 rated it liked it
Sharon Olds has never been afraid or ashamed of showing her vulnerability. Her poems are an ode to that, and that’s what I love about her. “The Dead and the Living” is moving, but I still felt like something was missing when I finished it, and I didn’t really like the structure of the book.
Sep 30, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: gender, poetry
This collection felt uncomfortably personal and yet oddly relatable to a general female identity we all share.
I think it demands a reread, but I doubt I'll be able to put myself through most of it again in the next 5 years. At least.
Mar 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I picked up this book as a challenge to read out of my comfort zone, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

Olds is an incredible writer. Her words are simple but evoke profound meaning. These poem are exquisite as gold and I’m sure I will read them again.
Aug 05, 2020 rated it it was ok
i can admit my rating of this book is a bit unfair. the two stars don’t necessarily mean i thought the writing/structure/themes were bad or uninteresting but .... i’m not very comfortable with how she describes her children at all
« previous 1 3 4 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Wild Iris
  • What the Living Do: Poems
  • The Country Between Us
  • Birthday Letters
  • American Primitive
  • Transformations
  • Ordinary Beast
  • Bestiary: Poems
  • Ariel
  • The Carrying: Poems
  • The Book of Nightmares
  • 1919
  • View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems
  • Deaf Republic
  • The Moon Is Always Female: Poems
  • The Tradition
  • Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems
  • What Work Is
See similar books…
Born in San Francisco on November 19, 1942, Sharon Olds earned a B.A. at Stanford University and a Ph.D. at Columbia University.

Her first collection of poems, Satan Says (1980), received the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award. Olds's following collection, The Dead & the Living (1983), received the Lamont Poetry Selection in 1983 and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Her other collect

News & Interviews

Hispanic Heritage Month is the perfect time to relish the latest works from beloved Hispanic and Latinx authors like Isabel Allende, Natalia...
87 likes · 77 comments
“...the liquor like fire in his hand” 6 likes
More quotes…