Sharon Olds’ ‘Ode to Dirt‘ is a poetic celebration of the most basic and underappreciated part of the natural world: dirt. Olds’ poem explores the numerous ways in which dirt helps shape our lives and define our experience of living on earth.
‘Ode to Dirt‘ challenges the reader to follow in Olds’ footsteps and celebrate the dirt beneath our feet.
The poem begins by addressing dirt directly, as though it were a person or some other living thing. Olds’ narrator apologizes for neglecting dirt all their life and never taking the time to appreciate it or be grateful for what it has done. The poem then goes on to outline these qualities in more detail; dirt helps protect the earth and belongs to everyone equally. As the poem reaches its conclusion, the narrator expresses their hope that humanity will find ways to appreciate dirt and avoid taking it for granted.
Sharon Olds was born in California in 1942 and has gone on to become one of America’s most celebrated modern poets. Though she has personally resisted the comparison, Olds’ poetry is clearly informed by the work of the confessional poets, notably Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Olds won the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for her 2012 collection Stag’s Leap. ‘Ode to Dirt‘ was first published four years later in Olds’ subsequent collection, Odes.
Dear dirt, I am sorry I slighted you,
I thought that you were only the background
for the leading characters—the plants
and animals and human animals.
The poet’s use of the direct address in the first line establishes a sense of urgency as if to suggest this apology is long overdue. It also helps establish a degree of intimacy between the speaker and their addressee, dirt, to emphasize the fact this poem is attempting to celebrate the latter. The use of dental alliteration imbues the line with a forceful, perhaps even aggressive, quality.
This could be intended to reflect the negative associations of dirt which the poem is attempting to dispel. The speaker juxtaposes their belief that dirt is innocuous with animals, plants, and humans in what appears to be an act of confession; they seek forgiveness for having overlooked dirt for so long.
It’s as if I had loved only the stars
same basic materials—
Olds’ use of a simile evokes the beauty of the stars, which serves to imply we should view the earth with the same degree of reverence. It also challenges the reader to question whether or not they appreciate the contrasts to beauty, such as dirt or the night sky, without which beauty would not exist at all. The use of the rule of three in lines seven and eight demonstrates the speaker’s newfound respect for dirt, as the adjectives are all intended to be complimentary.
Olds uses a metaphor when claiming that dirt is the “skin of our terrain.” This connection to skin reinforces Olds’ view that dirt is worthy of admiration and praise because it protects the fragile workings of the earth just as skin protects the workings of the human body.
Furthermore, the collective pronoun “our” reminds the reader that dirt transcends divisions of gender, class, or race and belongs to everyone equally. The hyperbolic claim that the speaker and the dirt are made up of the same materials evokes Shakespeare’s message in Hamlet because life is cyclical, and we are all made up of biological matter, which passes into the earth when our bodies decay.
cousins of that first exploding from nothing—
and rotate with us, and wobble, and orbit.
The claim that dirt and people are cousins imbues dirt with agency and elevates it to the status of a living, conscious being. Olds emphasizes the fact that dirt, humans, and all matter on earth derives from the same epic act of creation, so establishing any kind of hierarchy between them is ridiculous.
The poet reminds the reader that dirt plays a part in every facet of our lives and our deaths; it supports the food we eat and will ultimately consume our bodies after we die. The claim that the dirt will “take us in” implies it is supportive and comforting rather than a thing to be feared. Finally, the poem’s last line evokes the similarities that exist between all things on earth in the hope that we might appreciate them more.
An ode is a lyrical poem that celebrates a particular person, object, place or idea and is often formal in tone. Aside from typically being written in the first person, there are no strict structural requirements a poem must fulfill in order to be an ode.
The poem is written in free verse and contains only a single stanza. The simplicity of the poem’s structure may be intended to reflect the plainness of dirt itself. However, Olds stresses that, although seemingly unremarkable, dirt is worthy of celebration.
The use of this metaphor implies that dirt is something we all possess equal stakes in and is, therefore, different from other things which are enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful exclusively. It also captures the fact we all rely on dirt, both to grow our food and also, one day, to bury our loved ones.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Ode to Dirt‘ might want to explore other Sharon Olds poems. For example:
- ‘Her First Week‘ – A moving poem that portrays the conflicting emotions that accompany motherhood.
- ‘Sex Without Love‘ – An exploration of relationships and how their foundations affect their longevity and success.
Some other poems that may be of interest include: