Ode to Dirt

Sharon Olds

‘Ode to Dirt’ is an impassioned all for everyone to reevaluate their perception of dirt and learn to appreciate it for its many qualities.

Sharon Olds

Nationality: American

Sharon Olds is a contemporary American poet born in 1942.

She has won numerous literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: We should all appreciate dirt more

Themes: Celebration, Nature

Speaker: A lover of dirt - perhaps Olds herself

Emotions Evoked: Gratitude, Guilt, Hope, Pride

Poetic Form: Ode

Time Period: 21st Century

'Ode to Dirt' is an impassioned and convincing defence of the most unloved substance most of us encounter in our daily lives.

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.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

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.

Lines 5-15

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.

Lines 16-21

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.


What is an ode?

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.

What is the structure of ‘Ode to Dirt?’

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.

Why does Olds claim dirt is “our democracy?”

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.

What is the tone of ‘Ode to Dirt?’

In keeping with the tradition of odes, the poem is celebratory and adoring in tone. Likewise, it also retains the degree of formality that is commonly associated with the form.

Similar Poetry

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:

  • Dirty Face‘ by Shel Silverstein – A humourous encounter between an adult and child which also focuses on the symbol of dirt.
  • Ode to Tomatoes‘ by Pablo Neruda – Another ode dedicated to a surprising object, Neruda’s poem is among the finest examples of the form in modern times.

Poetry+ Review Corner

Ode to Dirt

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Sharon Olds (poems)

Sharon Olds

While the poem is not as deeply personal as much of Olds' work, it is certainly in keeping with her preference for the ode form. Similarly, it demonstrates her sensitivity to small details even as it lacks her more common thematic concerns.
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21st Century

This poem was first published in Olds' 2016 collection, simply titled Odes, but its subject matter is not especially specific to a twenty-first century readership. Furthermore, the ode form is more commonly associated with pre-twentieth-century poetry.
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Olds is an American poet, having been born in San Francisco in 1942. However, the poem's scope is far broader than any single nation, and save for the mention of democracy, there is little in the poem that suggests it ought to be more pertinent to an American readership than that of any other nation.
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The poem is an unapologetic, eloquent, and impassioned celebration of dirt and its qualities. Olds subverts the readers' typically ambivalent or negative attitudes towards dirt by highlighting its value, not least that it helps support us in life and in death.
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The poem is clearly preoccupied with the theme of nature and celebrates it for its life-sustaining power. Olds is, as the title suggests, especially concerned with dirt itself, and the poem attempts to rectify the negative associations that dirt has acquired.
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The poem's central message is one of gratitude towards dirt, the surprising nature of which serves only to illustrate the fact that nobody has thanked it before. Olds highlights the cyclical functions of dirt and points out the ways in which it enriches our lives, both literally and figuratively.
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It is apparent from the poem's opening line that the narrator feels guilty for not realizing the value of dirt sooner. It is implied that this guilt is felt on behalf of the entire human race as we have never truly expressed our gratitude to this most essential part of the natural world, without which our lives would be immeasurably different.
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The second half of the poem looks to the future of mankind's relationship with dirt and offers a degree of hope that we can redefine the nature of that relationship. Rather than underappreciate dirt, as we have always done, Olds calls for us to take pride in it and value it for all that it does for humanity.
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Olds' poem emphasizes her view that we, as citizens of the world, should be proud of dirt and the things it allows us to do. After all, without it, we would not be able to grow food or bury our loved ones. It sustains our existence yet goes underappreciated.
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The poem both apologizes for humanity's general lack of appreciation for dirt in the past and calls for a greater sense of appreciation for it moving forwards. Much of the poem is taken up with arguments to support this appreciation.
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This topic is present in this poem in two principal ways. Firstly, the poet calls for a change in people's attitudes towards dirt as she feels it has been undervalued historically. Secondly, Olds celebrates the unchanging and permanent support dirt offers to humanity even as its needs evolve and change.
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The countryside is not mentioned explicitly but that is where there is the greatest concentration of dirt. Olds implies that rural beauty and agriculture both rely on dirt, and thus it should be more appreciated by humanity.
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The earth is covered in both water and dirt, yet Olds points out we do not value these elements equally. In order for the earth to provide us with the sustenance that it does, dirt must play its part. Throughout the poem, Old showcases her view that, like dirt, the earth belongs to us all.
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This poem is a fine modern example of the ode form, which is typically regarded as a ceremonious lyrical dedication to a person or place. The unusual choice of subject only strengthens the poem's deferential atmosphere. The poem is taken from Olds' 2016 collection, which was entirely made up of odes.
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Joe Santamaria Poetry Expert
Joe has a degree in English and Related Literature from the University of York and a Masters in Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin. He is an English tutor and counts W.B Yeats, Emily Brontë and Federico Garcia Lorca among his favourite poets.

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