‘The Language of the Brag‘ was first published in Olds’ well-regarded collection Satan Says in 1980. It is famed as a powerful feminist assertion of bravery, strength, and exceptionalism. Readers should walk away from this free verse poem reassessing their understanding of what true courage and heroism are.
Explore The Language of the Brag
‘The Language of the Brag’ by Sharon Olds is a contemporary poem that compares women’s strength in pregnancy and labor to the traditionally masculine definitions of exceptionalism.
In the first part of the poem, the poet emphasizes traditionally male ideas of what strength and power are. She notes that this kind of exceptionalism and heroism is something she’s always wanted. But, she soon transitions away from these assertions to focus on what she did and how she has surpassed many who considered themselves heroic or brave.
She examines her pregnancy as an act of courage and does not shy away from the brutal details associated with the birth of her child. As the poem ends, she mentions how her struggle has been undertaken and experienced by women throughout time.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout ‘The Language of the Brag,’ the poet engages with themes of strength and feminism. Particularly, she’s seeking to challenge the patriarchal definition of what strength is by asserting that women like herself can stand among the most powerful and courageous men. She fills the poem with unforgettable images of her “exceptional” body as she deals with pregnancy and labor. The poet does not shy away from mentioning the gory details of her child’s birth, ensuring that readers walk away from the poem with a new respect for women’s strength.
‘The Language of the Brag‘ asserts that women have an exceptional, physical, and courageous strength that sets them as high as, if not higher, than the strongest men in history. The poet describes her pregnancy and labor in impressive detail and in a way that focuses on her achievement as heroic and unforgettable.
Structure and Form
‘The Language of the Brag’ by Sharon Olds is a seven-stanza poem that is written in free verse. The poem is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza is six lines long, the second: five, the third: two, the fourth: eight, the fifth: seven, the sixth: two, and the seventh: five.
As a free verse poem, Olds did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines do use several literary devices (described below), including anaphora. This is particularly effective in creating a feeling of rhythm and repetition within the piece.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: the use of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, in stanza four, the poet begins nearly every line with “my.”
- Allusion: a reference to something outside the scope of the poem. In this case, the poet alludes to the literary accomplishments of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg.
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “haft” and “heavily” in line six of the first stanza.
- Repetition: the use of the same image, structure, word, phrase, or another literary element within a poem. For example, the poet continually returns to the idea of excellence and exceptionalism.
I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw,
I have wanted to use my exceptionally strong and accurate arms
and my straight posture and quick electric muscles
to achieve something at the centre of a crowd,
the blade piercing the bark deep,
the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock.
In the first lines of the poem, Olds begins by describing stereotypical images of strength, courage, and respectability. Her speaker, who is commonly considered to be the poet herself, describes her desire for “excellence” in physical tasks. For example, having “strong and accurate arms” and a “straight posture.” She wants to convey an impressive image wherever she goes.
These lines build up to Olds’ powerfully feminist perspective on what strength and achievement genuinely are. By focusing on traditional ideas of achievement, those focused on men and their physical acts, she’s setting up an interesting juxtaposition.
Within this first stanza, she also uses phallic images, such as the “blade piercing the bark deep” and “vibrating like the cock.” She doesn’t shy away from comparing masculinity to weapons, phallic images, and violence.
The speaker asserts that she always wanted fame, prestige, and a well-known physical ability. But, these desires transition slightly as the poem progresses.
I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body,
and watched the boys play.
In the following few lines, the speaker makes a very clear statement saying that she “wanted some epic use for [her] excellent body.” She wanted to use her body for a great purpose, to achieve something “American” and “heroic.” The use of these images helps readers imagine exactly the kind of stereotypical heroism that Olds is envisioning.
The speaker continues and includes within her words clear brags (which should take the reader back to the title). She calls herself “extraordinary” and “excellent” as well as “magnetic and tensile.” This is something she proves throughout the following stanzas.
These first stanzas work as a prelude to what comes next. She is building up to something that’s only revealed in the final lines.
I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire
The third stanza is only two lines long, far shorter than the two sections which proceeded it. She makes several other statements, using examples of anaphora and repetition. The speaker again uses the phrase “I have wanted” and this time applies it to “courage,” something that at this point shouldn’t be unexpected.
Some of the ways she imagines courage are as “fire / and the crossing of waterfalls.” She is thinking about big and dangerous stunts or tasks that might prove her courage and strength to other people. But, the transition between stanzas three and four might take the reader by surprise.
my belly big with cowardice and safely,
my stool black with iron pills,
I have lain down.
Up until this point, the speaker has described herself in complimentary language that likely painted a picture of a strong, self-confident, and physically fit woman in the reader’s mind. But, this stanza opens with a description of the woman’s big belly and her “cowardice and safety.”
She moves away from the traditionally male images of strength and power and into a series of new images that depict a pregnant woman’s struggles and perseverance. She is going to spend the rest of the poem demonstrates her strength as a woman in terms that make her pregnancy and labor feel like the extraordinary achievement that she was looking for in the first lines.
These lines also include a very notable use of anaphora. She repeats the word “my” at the beginning of nearly every line. The word precedes a characteristic the speaker is dealing with while heavily pregnant. These aren’t glamorous or traditionally impressive characteristics. They include her face and legs swelling as well as her “huge breasts oozing puss.”
In stanza six, the poet includes a reference to Walt Whitman. He is a poet readers might already have been reminded of through the format of this fourth stanza. Whitman, generally considered the father of free verse poetry, is well-known for creating lists beginning with a repeated word. For example, “I,” “And,” “The,” and “A.” ‘Song of Myself’ is one of the best examples of this technique.
The juxtaposition between these images and those readers encountered in the first two stanzas is striking. It is meant to surprise and challenge readers’ perceptions of what strength and accomplishment truly are.
I have lain down and sweated and shaken
language of blood like praise all over the body.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker moves into describing the birth of her child. While she never states that she is pregnant or giving birth in these lines, it becomes clear by the end of the poem. This is a fact that may require readers to analyze the poet’s words more than once with a new understanding of what the speaker is going through.
Now, as she lays down, she passes “blood and feces and water” and “the new person out.” This powerful and direct depiction of giving birth should remind readers of the traditionally violent acts that have historically been praised as “brave” or “courageous.” The speaker is asking that readers see her incredible strength and struggle and see her, and all pregnant women, as warriors in their own right.
I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
The sixth stanza contains allusions to the work of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsburg. These two male poets attempted something that the speaker had completed. She’s bragging about her accomplishments and comparing herself to two of the best-known poets in American history. It’s likely that the poet was considering Whitman’s verse (‘I Sing the Body Electric’ is another good example) and desire to understand and connect to his body (see stanza four) and Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ within these lines.
I and the other women this exceptional
right here with the others.
The final stanza of the poem is five lines long. It brings in “other women,” ensuring that readers interpret this poem not only as an assertion of the poet’s strength but of women’s strength more broadly. She’s taken part, as have many women before her, in the “exceptional act” with an “exceptional[ly] heroic body” of giving birth.
She knows that she has achieved something noteworthy and heroic. Something that conforms, in the most rebellious way, to the stereotypical, primarily male definition of what strength and courage are. She wants her verse read alongside that of Whitman, Ginsberg, and other American authors as proof that she’s solidified her strength and courage in a way that they never did.
This poem is about a woman’s pregnancy and labor and how, through this courageous act, she was able to achieve a level of exceptionalism traditionally reserved for physically strong men.
The tone is confident and strong. The speaker is well-aware of her own strength and does nothing to hide that from the reader. Throughout, she mentions her exceptionalism as a woman and how her incredible body managed something heroic.
Sharon Olds has often been described as a feminist poet who is known for her strong, determined, and personal writing. Within her work, readers should expect to find emotional poems that do not shy away from intense struggles.
The heroic accomplishment is giving birth. Throughout this poem, the poet describes her speaker going through a pregnancy and then delivering her child.
Sharon Olds won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2013 for her collection, Stag’s Leap. This is one of several prestigious literary awards Olds has earned throughout her career.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Sharon Olds poems. For example:
- ‘The Flurry’ – explores a couple discussing how they will tell their children about their divorce.
- ‘The One Girl at the Boys Party’ – is about a young girl who attends a boy’s pool party. She stands apart from them in a powerful and beautiful way.
- ‘Rite of Passage’ – is a memorable poem that describes a group of boys at a birthday party asserting their masculine dominance.