Defining what it is to be a woman, Sharon Olds’s poem “The Language of the Brag” examines where the achievements of women fall along the accomplishments of men. Capturing both my personal interest and intrigue, Olds uses graphic imagery in a poem that connects to the values of womanhood. Showing the transitions of a woman’s place in society through metaphoric conventions, Olds exhibits her pride in being a woman, a pride all women should encompass (Gilbert 1278).
On a personal level, I found Olds’s poem to be exceedingly stimulating. Both disgusted and enthralled with the almost violent and grotesque imagery Olds provides, I found myself bouncing in between pride in my gender and the thought of never wanting to become a mother. Though descriptions of “my stool black with iron pills” and “…passed blood and feces and sweat” is enough to horrify a young woman, I felt a sense of empowerment from the narrator’s recognition of her accomplishment, one that cannot be achieved by men (Olds 1280). The author eloquently exuberates her pride as she states, “I and the other women this exceptional/ act with this exceptional heroic body” (Olds 1280). With this statement Olds takes the female body, a subject that has been overly abused by past poets who glorified a woman’s anatomy as a possession and a prize, and contorts the sometimes iconic symbol into a reality: a reality which feels pain, but also gives life. It is this element which I find my greatest personal connection to the poem, the fact that women are capable of putting their bodies through agony for the life of another. It is inspiring. In addition to my personal connections to “The Language of the Brag,” I believe there exists many elements that prove significant to the lives of all women, as Olds demonstrates the progression of women into developing their own definition, apart from what has been assigned by society. In her opening stanza, Olds’s narrator expresses a desire to, “…achieve something in the middle of a crowd” (Olds 1279). This stanza portrays the female narrator’s initial want for male attributes in physique “…exceptionally strong and accurate arms,” and in sport, “I have wanted excellence in the knife throw,” in a quest to exceed the ordinary expectations of her gender (1279). In her description of standing, “…by the sandlot/ and watched the boys play,” Olds is directly alluding to how women have been perceived as passive in the past (Olds 1280). Watching, not playing, the narrator demonstrates a fear of entering a world dominated by males. It is this world that has created the definitions of women, definitions that say women cannot play amongst men, and definitions that deem what is an accomplishment—of course all based off of standards developed by men. These standards, however, begin to lose their ground as Olds focuses strictly on the physical characteristics that make her narrator a woman, and therein make her narrator capable of creation. This poses an interesting point for all women, and all readers to consider: the nature of women and opinions of women have evolved from oppression to self definition. It is making our own definitions that women become capable of recognizing their own accomplishments, and the wonder that accompanies them (1280). This poem offers so much in the way of sociological and cultural views of women that I feel that it is increasingly important to explore in a women’s literature course. This poem begins with the separation of genders, and presents women as spectators in a man’s world. As the writer continues, the reader can sense a transition in which the narrator develops pride in her body and its imperfections, and pride in her gender. In addressing Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, Olds critiques her fellow male American poets who are known for self-pride and celebration by juxtaposing her accomplishments to theirs. The narrator exclaims, “I am putting my proud boast/ right here with the others,” as she proudly declares that she deserves praise (Olds 1280). She may not have found fame in the knife throw, but the narrator in “The Language of the Brag” has found pride in the accomplishment of giving life to a “new person” (1280).
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “Sharon Olds.” The Norton Anthology of Literature By Women: The Traditions in English. 3rd edition. Volume 2. New York: Norton, 2007. 1278. Olds, Sharon. “Language of the Brag.” The Norton Anthology of Literature By Women: The Traditions in English. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. 3rd edition. Volume 2. New York: Norton, 2007. 1279-1280.