Following her PhD on Emerson's prosody, Olds let go of an attachment to what she thought she 'knew about' poetic convention. Freed up, she began to write about her family, abuse, sex, focusing on the work not the audience. Olds has commented that she is more informed by the work of poets such as Galway Kinnell, Muriel Rukeyser and Gwendolyn Brooks than by confessional poets like Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath. Plath, she comments "was a great genius, with an IQ of at least double mine" and while these women charted well the way of women in the world she says "their steps were not steps I wanted to put my feet in."
When Olds first sent her poetry to a literary magazine she received a reply saying,”This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies' Home Journal. The true subjects of poetry are ... male subjects, not your children.” Olds eventually published her first collection(Satan Says) in 1980, at the age of 37. Satan Says sets up the sexual and bodily candour that would run through much of her work. In "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure" she writes,
As soon as my sister and I got out of our mother's house, all we wanted to do was fuck, obliterate her tiny sparrow body and narrow grasshopper legs.
The collection is divided into four sections: "Daughter", "Woman", "Mother", "Journeys". These titles echo the familial influence that is prevalent in much of Olds’ work.
The Dead and the Living was published in February 1984. This collection is divided into two sections, “Poems for the Dead” and “Poems for the Living”. The first section begins with poems about global injustices. These injustices include the Turkish Massacre of the Armenians during WWI, the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and even the death of Marilyn Monroe. After this Olds returns the familiar subjects of childhood, love, marriage, and motherhood.
Olds' book The Wellspring (1996), shares with her previous work the use of raw language and startling images to convey truths about domestic and political violence and family relationships. A reviewer for The New York Times hailed her poetry for its vision: "Like Whitman, Ms. Olds sings the body in celebration of a power stronger than political oppression." Alicia Ostriker noted Olds traces the "erotics of family love and pain." Ostriker continues: "In later collections, [Olds] writes of an abusive childhood, in which miserably married parents bully and punish and silence her. She writes, too, of her mother's apology 'after 37 years', a moment when 'The sky seemed to be splintering, like a window/ someone is bursting into or out of'" Olds’ work is anthologized in over 100 collections, ranging from literary/poetry textbooks to special collections. Her poetry has been translated into seven languages for international publications. She was the New York State Poet Laureate for 1998-2000.
Stag’s Leap, her most recent collection, was published in 2013. The poems were written in 1997, following the divorce from her husband of 32 years. The poems focus on her husband, and even sometimes his mistress. The collection won the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. She is the first American woman to win this award. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.