The Depiction of Human Misery in Sharon Olds' "The Food-Thief" and Adrienne Rich's "Shattered Head"

Seminar Paper, 2008

11 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Sharon Olds: "Food-Thief"
2.1 Setting
2.2 Formal Analysis
2.3 Stylistic Devices
2.3.1 Water Imagery
2.3.1 Repetition
2.4 Moral Complexity

3. Adrienne Rich: "Shattered Head"
3.1 Setting
3.2 Formal Analysis
3.3 Stylistic Devices
3.3.1 Nature Imagery
3.3.2 Images of Blood
3.3.3 Repetition
3.4 The Quest for Truth

4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

When it comes to women's poetry in the 20thand 21st centuries, Sharon Olds and Adrienne Rich are two of the most accomplished poets of our time. Rich became famous in the 1960s and 1970s for her engagement in (feminist) politics, as “an activist, strongly committed to the use of poetry as an instrument of social change” (Gilbert 144). Olds, who was born thirteen years after Rich, is not so much known for her political engagement but rather her obsession with “the foodlike and procreative possibilities of human bodies,” and her love for “images of animals, soil, blood and eggs” (Ostriker 242). The sometimes physical aggressiveness of her style and provocative poems like “The Pope's Penis” have even earned her a reputation for being pornographic. (cf. Firestone “Physical Imagery”).

Human misery as a topic in poetry is probably as old as the genre of poetry itself, but what can be of particular interest is how such a seemingly basic human condition can be used poetically to bring across different messages. In the following analysis of Rich's poem “Shattered Head” and Olds's “The Food-Thief”, I will exemplify how the contrasting depictions of human misery were used by the poets to convey their very different political attitudes.

2. Sharon Olds: “The Food-Thief”

2.1 Setting and Chracters

Olds immediately gives the reader a clear idea of the setting of her poem. The title refers explicitly to whom the poem is about and she also mentions the place and circumstances (that is, the drought) in the subtitle. From the title on, it only takes her a few lines to inform us about the main characters of her poem and their state of deprivation: “when they had cattle/ when they had homes and living children” (ll. 3-4). We can deduce that the poem is about a food-thief in Uganda who gets caught, driven away and eventually beaten to death by his fellow countrymen, who are constantly referred to as “they.”

2.2 Formal Analysis

Like the majority of Olds's poems, “The Food-Thief” is written in free verse. Apart from three exceptions (lines 9, 23, and the last line), the poem only consists of run-on lines. Thus, the ongoing driving and the suffering of the food-thief are reflected in the form of the poem. Just like the people driving the food-thief cannot stop, because “they drive him and beat him” (l. 10) fanatically, the lines of the poem continuously go on and on. Olds only stops the flow of her poem in lines 9 and 23 to mark the divisions one logical unit and the next. Lines 1-9 serve as an introduction and describe the food-thief's tormentors; lines 10-23 describe the food- thief's body; while the last lines delineate the moral complexity of the situation.

2.3 Stylistic Devices

2.3.1 Water Imagery

Olds uses water imagery as a contrast to the drought. The first allusion to wetness occurs when she describes the wound of the food-thief as “ripe and wet as a rich furrow” (ll. 17-18). The image does not only provide a contrast to the dryness of the drought, but Olds also manages to make the connection to food by comparing the wound to a furrow that farmers cut during plough-time, showing how essential water is to the supply of food and therefore life.

Throughout the rest of the poem, descriptions of the food-thief's body are inextricably linked to wetness. When he looks at his tormentors, the white of his pleading eye is depicted as “a dark occluded white like cloud-cover on the morning of a day of heavy rain” (ll. 21-23). Here, Olds makes use of two of the many meanings of “occlude.” The OED defines “to occlude” (though not as a primary definition) as a technical term used by opticians meaning “to cover an eye to prevent its use” (def. “occlude”), but it also points out its meteorological use. An occluded front forms when a “cold front overtakes a warm front.” The result is rain, as the “air is forced to rise upwards along the front, cooling and condensing as it does so.” The definition taken from optics could serve to emphasize that the thief's pleading is of no use, while the meteorological denotation makes the link between the thief's body and nature, i.e. water.

In the last part of the poem (lines 24-33), the food-thief looks at his fellow countrymen with his lips open. Olds continues her extended metaphor by comparing the open lips to, and therefore bringing up again the image of, the furrowed fields before the time of the drought:

His lips are open to his brothers as the body of a woman might be open, as the earth itself was split and folded back and wet (ll.24-26)

The mention of a woman's body within the comparison seems somewhat disturbing and inappropriate. But Janet McCann, in her article for the The Oxford Encyclopedia of American

Literature, already says of Olds's poetry that “pain and pleasure are very much mixed and melded.” She characterizes Olds's poems as having “a sensibility highly aware of and attuned to physical nature, the parts of the body, and the way these parts may be used and abused.” This supports the demonstration of a different consequence of the drought, apart from the obvious lack of water and food, namely that sexual pleasure is no longer part of their everyday lives. In line four, it is already mentioned that the people driving the food-thief have no living children. So it is not just the basic human desire to eat, but also the equally strong human desire to reproduce and indulge in sex that these people are missing or maybe even trying to avoid, since they know that they would not be able to feed their children.

The final use of a wetness image occurs in lines 27-29:

[...] the lines on his lips

fine as a thousand tributaries of a root-hair, a river, he is asking them for life (ll. 27-29)

It is not clear whether Olds refers to the lines on the skin of his lips, or the lines that the blood from the wounds on his lips leaves while running down his face, though the latter seems to be more plausible. The connection of the lips to nature and water is of significance. Olds shows once again how the thief's body and the theme of water are interwoven and how one is giving what the other is desiring. A river, as one of the biggest suppliers of water, can symbolically stand for life, which is exactly what the food-thief is asking for himself.

2.3.2 Repetition

Olds makes extensive use of repetition throughout her poem to emphasize the processes of driving, beating, and eating, which all play central roles in the poem. The first ten lines contain an anaphora in form of the repetitive phrase “they drive him” with variations in other parts of the poem such as “driving him along slowly” (l. 12) and “they are driving his body” (l. 30). The anaphora mirrors the ongoing process of the driving and also of the beating, while the constant mention of “they” heightens the sense of a faceless collective:

They drive him and beat him, a loose circle of thin men with sapling sticks, driving him along slowly, slowly beating him to death [...] (ll. 10-13)

Since the men are beating the food-thief while they are driving him along, the two processes are inseparable. Combined with the already mentioned use of run-on lines, the reader gets a

feeling of almost unbearable continuance. Furthermore, line 13 points to another common factor in the process of the driving and the beating: both happen slowly.

The food-thief is being slowly beaten up with “pliant peeled sticks, snapped from trees” (l. 4-5). The word “pliant” could be read in an ambiguous way. The primary denotation of pliant is flexible, which seems an odd quality for something that grows in an extremely hot and dry climate. Again, the OED helps the reader to interpret the word on a different level. Its second definition for “pliant” is something that is “easily inclined to a particular purpose.” (def. “pliant”). Concordantly, it could be argued that even nature, in form of the stick, supports the thief's punishment for his actions. It is explicitly pointed out that the pliant sticks come from trees that cannot be eaten and that they are snapped, because “no one has a knife” (l. 7). The men kill the thief in a very slow way because they do not possess the means for a quick execution. This may seem cruel, but the process of starvation is slow as well. So, either way, a slow death appears inevitable for the thief. To convey how drastic the situation of starvation is, the word “eaten” is repeated four times within four lines (ll. 6-9) in reference to trees, leaves, trunks and roots. These would usually not be considered a main source of nutrition for humans in the first place, but due to the drought, the people of Uganda are even deprived of this basic source of food.

2.4 Moral Complexity

When talking about The Gold Cell (the volume this poem is taken from), Janet McCann sums up the poems included in it by stating that “they suggest [...] that the dark and light strands [of life] are inextricably woven” (“Sharon Olds”) and that this is a theme found throughout the book. This also applies to “The Food-Thief” on more than one level. The stylistic devices continuously show an intertwining of nature and body, of water and life, the choice of slowly starving to death or being slowly beaten to death. However, the poem also shows an abstract moral complexity which is most clearly expressed in the last five lines:

[...] he is asking them for life

with his whole body, and they are driving his body all the way down the road becaus they know the life he is asking for- it is their life.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


The Depiction of Human Misery in Sharon Olds' "The Food-Thief" and Adrienne Rich's "Shattered Head"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Department of English and Linguistics)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Contemporary American Poetry, Human Misery, The Food-Thief, Shattered Head
Quote paper
Cordula Siemon (Author), 2008, The Depiction of Human Misery in Sharon Olds' "The Food-Thief" and Adrienne Rich's "Shattered Head", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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