Alicia Ostriker Essay - Critical Essays

Ostriker, Alicia


Alicia Ostriker 1937-

(Full name Alicia Suskin Ostriker) American poet, critic, and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Ostriker's career through 1998.

An accomplished poet and literary critic, Ostriker has combined her passion for both poetry and criticism to create a body of work that primarily focuses on women's issues in American society, yet also embraces a universal feminism. Influenced by the visionary poetics of early nineteenth-century British poet and artist William Blake, much of Ostriker's poetry concerns the personal, domestic, and professional roles of women in the contemporary world and the ways these roles influence women's notions of self-identity. With frankness, clarity, and ethical insight equal to that evinced in her poetry, Ostriker has examined the relationship between gender and literature in her criticism, especially in the controversial study Stealing the Language (1986). Critics of Ostriker's writings generally have focused on her literary scholarship rather than her poetry.

Biographical Information

Born in 1937 in Brooklyn, New York, Ostriker was raised in a Manhattan housing project by her college-educated parents, David and Beatrice Suskin. Her mother often read Shakespeare and Browning to Ostriker as a girl, which prompted her to begin writing her own poetry. Ostriker's first ambition, however, was to become an artist, and as an adolescent she showed an affinity for producing sketches and for studying art. In 1958 she married Jeremiah Ostriker, and one year later earned a bachelor's degree in English from Brandeis University. Ostriker pursued graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, which granted her a Ph.D. in 1964, a year after the birth of her first child. Her dissertation on William Blake eventually became her first published work, Vision and Verse in William Blake (1965); she also edited a volume of his complete poetry in 1977. In 1965 Ostriker joined the English faculty at Rutgers University, where she has held a professorship since 1972. In 1969 she published her first book of poems, Songs, most of which she had written as a student. Ostriker worked to refine her poetic voice in subsequent volumes entitled Once More Out of Darkness (1971) and A Dream of Springtime (1979). By the early 1980s she had mastered her art form, producing The Mother/Child Papers (1980) and A Woman Under the Surface (1982). In 1983 she published her first book-length piece of feminist literary criticism, Writing Like a Woman. In 1986 Stealing the Language appeared, along with another poetry collection, The Imaginary Lover, which won the William Carlos Williams Prize from the Poetry Society of America. After the publication of Green Age (1989), Ostriker turned her attention toward her Jewish heritage and biblical scholarship by exploring the traditions of Judaism in the context of feminism in Feminist Revision and the Bible (1992) and The Nakedness of the Fathers (1994). Following her experiences with breast cancer in the mid-1990s, Ostriker published two more volumes of poetry: The Crack in Everything (1996), which includes a poetry sequence titled “The Mastectomy Poems”; and a collection of selected poems from throughout her career, titled The Little Space (1998).

Major Works

Ostriker's first book of poems, Songs, assumes a rather conventional voice but exhibits formal versatility and socially conscientious themes. In the free-verse poetry of Once More Out of Darkness and A Dream of Springtime Ostriker's own voice becomes more evident. Such autobiographical themes as pregnancy, childbirth, and the poet's childhood, family relationships, and professional experiences dominate both collections, although the latter also addresses politics and history. In the experimental poems of The Mother/Child Papers the circumstances of Ostriker's life are set against events of the Vietnam War era. Divided into four sections, the verses draw parallels between her roles as wife, mother, and teacher, the inherent death and corruption of war, and the eternal life and beauty of art. A Woman Under the Surface increasingly focuses on explicitly feminist themes, refining the then-emergent identity of the female poet by referencing other women's poetry as well as revising conventional representations of women in art and myth. The poetry of The Imaginary Lover continues to voice feminist themes in the tradition of Adrienne Rich and H. D., delving into the sometimes painful relations between men and women, and between mothers and daughters. Regarded as one of Ostriker's most visionary collections, Green Age addresses the effects of the aging process and spiritual growth on the search for identity as woman and poet, frequently expressing anger at the limitations placed on women in patriarchal Jewish traditions and rituals. The themes of The Crack in Everything encompass the details of female life in the contemporary world, featuring diverse commentary on current events and concluding with a moving account of Ostriker's bout with breast cancer. Another significant part of Ostriker's literary career is her feminist literary criticism. Writing Like a Woman outlines the historical development of feminist writing by analyzing the rhetoric of such poets as Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. The thesis of Stealing the Language posits the existence of a feminist literary aesthetic by describing a fundamental difference between poetry written by men and that written by women, which, according to Ostriker, is based on experiences unique to each gender. Containing a thematic overview of the works of famous and lesser-known contemporary women poets, this study uses gender as the analytic criteria to assess the political and social concerns of poetry written by women.

Critical Reception

A good part of the critical response to Ostriker's writings has concentrated on her literary scholarship, particularly the thesis and methodology of Stealing the Language, which generated significant controversy. Ranging from hearty endorsement to harsh censure, criticism of Ostriker's views ignited a lively debate among feminist and traditional literary critics alike. Some commentators praised the insights of Ostriker's scholarship, applauding it as groundbreaking and calling the book a landmark study. Other reviewers objected to Ostriker's failure to include experimental poets in her analysis of contemporary poetry as well as to her identification of women poets' primary motivations for writing, citing especially her emphasis on power and female self-definition. In comparison, Ostriker's poetry has received relatively little analysis, although reviewers often comment on the socially conscientious themes and lucid style of her verse as well as its intimate tone. Furthermore, many critics appreciate the psychological resonance of Ostriker's best poems. As Janet Ruth Heller explains, “Ostriker is urging us readers to take the risk of journeying through our own lives and to explore the meaning of our experiences. Only after psychological probing can we learn to sing our own songs and tell our own stories.”

Principal Works

Vision and Verse in William Blake (criticism) 1965

Songs (poetry) 1969

Once More Out of Darkness, and Other Poems (poetry) 1971

William Blake: Complete Poems [editor] (poetry) 1977

A Dream of Springtime (poetry) 1979

The Mother/Child Papers (poetry) 1980

A Woman Under the Surface: Poems and Prose Poems (poetry) 1982

Writing Like a Woman (criticism) 1983

The Imaginary Lover (poetry) 1986

Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (criticism) 1986

Green Age (poetry) 1989

Feminist Revision and the Bible (criticism) 1992

The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (criticism) 1994

The Crack in Everything (poetry) 1996

The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998 (poetry) 1998


Martin K. Nurmi (review date July 1967)

SOURCE: A review of Vision and Verse in William Blake, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXVI, July, 1967, pp. 461-63.

[In the following review, Nurmi assesses the success of Ostriker's metrical analysis in Vision and Verse in William Blake, revealing the limitations of her technique.]

The analyst of Blake's prosody, in dealing with almost any of his lyrics after Poetical Sketches, operates under more than the usual handicaps, because the sound of the poems can only with great difficulty be directly connected with the meaning. In a symbolic poem like “The Tyger” especially, the sound is hard to associate with anything but the...

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Robert Joe Stout (review date Winter 1981)

SOURCE: “One of Each—with Echoes,” in Southwest Review, Vol. 65, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 110-14.

[In the following excerpt, Stout praises the syntactical clarity and emotional restraint of Ostriker's poetic vision in A Dream of Springtime.]

Words clash, streak the mind with sunbursts, ricochet and swoop into irony—ah! but Hopkins, Hopkins did it better! And Sexton, really tough, didn't lapse into cute words, or kitten's play. And Roethke, the academician, kept control, both of reader and himself: his meanings were graspable—and profound.

But that's the rub. To be different is not to be bad, or wrong, nor does it make the poems less...

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Mary Lynn Broe (review date Spring 1984)

SOURCE: “An Aesthetic of Pain,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 58, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 82-84.

[In the following review, Broe highlights various thematic and formal concerns in A Woman Under the Surfacewhich, according to Broe, revise the relation between contemporary feminist artistic principles and female life.]

Like Orpheus, Alicia Ostriker makes “that journey / Down from song, down to the impulse of singing” in her fifth volume of poems, A Woman Under the Surface. But unlike Orpheus, who “could not carry, haul, rob / His bride back,” Ostriker makes us feel the unsentimental solid-iron aesthetic of pain, fear, and bitter beauty that...

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Daisy Aldan (review date Spring 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Stealing the Language, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 291-92.

[In the following review, Aldan disputes Ostriker's definitions of gynocentric poetics in Stealing the Language.]

I was among those who believed that if a woman poet's work was outstanding, it would achieve its deserved recognition in spite of man's traditional attitude toward it. In [Stealing the Language,] her survey of American women's poetry from the time of Anne Bradstreet to the present, Alicia Ostriker presents ample convincing evidence to show that I was laboring under a delusion. Despite the fact that not too many of the women...

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Rita Dove (review date Summer 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Stealing the Language, in Phi Kappa Phi Journal, Vol. 67, No. 3, pp. 45-6.

[In the following review, Dove admires the contents and insights of Stealing the Language.]

An impeccable piece of scholarship that's as exciting as a detective novel—impossible? Not as far as Alicia Ostriker is concerned. Her book Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America is much more than a portrait of this besieged literary landscape—hers is the clear-eyed commentary of an insider who nonetheless knows her trade. In the true mission of the literary mind, Ostriker offers not only analysis, but vision.


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Ellen Bryant Voigt (essay date Summer 1987)

SOURCE: “Poetry and Gender,” in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 9, Summer, 1987, pp. 127-40.

[In the following essay, Voigt addresses various implications of the female poetic aesthetic outlined in Stealing the Language, suggesting that differences in women's poetry, rather than similarities, would better illuminate female experience.]

The belief that true poetry is genderless—which is a disguised form of believing that true poetry is masculine—means that we have not learned to see women poets generically, to recognize the tradition they belong to, or discuss either the limitations or the strengths of that tradition. … 1


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Wendy Martin (review date October 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Stealing the Language, in American Literature, Vol. 59, No. 3, October, 1987, pp. 464-67.

[In the following review, Martin discusses the main themes of Stealing the Language, commending its personal style and the inclusiveness of poets represented.]

Beginning with Claudine Hermann's imperative that women writers must be “voleuses de langue”—thieves of language—Alicia Ostriker studies the American women poets who have claimed a poetic voice in spite of a tradition that too often ignores women's writing. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, then, is an extended discussion of the tradition of...

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Bonnie Costello (review date Summer 1988)

SOURCE: “Writing Like a Woman,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 305-10.

[In the following review, Costello exposes a number of pitfalls attending the theoretical orientation of Stealing the Language.]

Alicia Ostriker's Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America is the latest in a rash of studies that have attempted to define poetry by women as generically distinct from the dominant male tradition. Suzanne Juhasz's Naked and Fiery Forms, Emily Stipes Watt's The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945, and Margaret Homans's Women Writers and Poetic Identity are the book's major...

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Bonnie Costello (essay date Fall 1989)

SOURCE: “Response to Alicia Ostriker,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 30, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 465-69.

[In the following essay, Costello defends her opinion of Stealing the Language, reiterating that Ostriker's reasoning is flawed.]

Alicia Ostriker and I disagree about the meaning and value of the category “women's poetry.” I welcome this opportunity to further articulate my view on a widely debated topic. Ostriker protests that I have broadened her use of the phrase, but her own introduction [to Stealing the Language] makes far-reaching claims. “My subject is the extraordinary tide of poetry by American women in our own time” (7). “The...

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Anne Finch (review date Summer 1990)

SOURCE: “Poets of Our Time,” in Belle Lettres, Summer, 1990, pp. 30-1.

[In the following excerpt, Finch examines the “attitude” expressed in Green Age.]

These three books of poetry [Baptism of Desire by Louise Erdrich, Green Age by Alicia Ostriker, and Toluca Street by Maxine Scates], written by three women coming from very different places as poets at the beginning of the end of our century, make a revealing cross-section. Louise Erdrich, a successful novelist who has written only one other book of poems, presumably uses poetry to write in ways not possible with the novel form. Alicia Suskin Ostriker, well-established as a poet,...

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Judith Pierce Rosenberg (essay date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: “Profile: Alicia Suskin Ostriker,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 26-9.

[In the following essay, Rosenberg sketches Ostriker's life and career, incorporating the writer's own comments on her work as both poet and mother.]

Alicia Suskin Ostriker, 55, was one of the first women in America to publish poems about her experience as a mother. She began composing the title poem of the chapbook, Once More Out of Darkness, during her second pregnancy in 1964-5. “I started writing about motherhood almost as soon as I was a mother. My first long poem about pregnancy and birth was put together from jottings I'd made during my first two...

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Doris Earnshaw (review date Winter 1997)

SOURCE: A review of The Crack in Everything, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 156.

[In the following review, Earnshaw applauds Ostriker's achievement in The Crack in Everything.]

In her eighth volume of poems [The Crack in Everything], Alicia Suskin Ostriker puts no barriers of arcane language between herself and her reader. Her style combines acute observation in plain speech with halting rhythms of run-on lines as though she is thinking it out as she goes. Most poems begin with a setting: the beach, a bar, dance floor, classroom, hospital. The characters and story unwind, holding us charmed until the poem ends with a...

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Allison Townsend (review date March 1997)

SOURCE: “No Pain, No Gain,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XIV, No. 6, March, 1997, pp. 12-13.

[In the following excerpt, Townsend highlights thematic concerns of The Crack in Everything.]

In “The Class,” in Alicia Suskin Ostriker's eighth collection, The Crack in Everything, the speaker/teacher says her job is to give her students “permission / to gather pain into language,” to make an art that is not “divisible from dirt, / from rotten life,” because, she believes, “Against evidence … / Poetry heals or redeems suffering,” even if it is “not the poet who is healed, / But someone else, years later.” Ostriker examines subjects...

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Marilyn Hacker (review date 12 May 1997)

SOURCE: “Tectonic Shifts,” in The Nation, Vol. 264, No. 18, May 12, 1997, pp. 54-7.

[In the following review, Hacker concentrates on the themes of The Crack in Everything, ranging from female artists, classroom experiences, and the physical and emotional scars of breast cancer.]

Alicia Ostriker's work joins the humanitarian's unalienated will to ameliorate suffering and share what's of value (which energizes progressive political engagement) to the humanist's hunger to re-engage with and continually redefine intellectual (specifically literary, also spiritual) traditions: the pedagogical passion. She is a Blake scholar and a Bible scholar, a feminist critic...

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John Taylor (review date June 1997)

SOURCE: A review of The Crack in Everything, in Poetry, Vol. CLXX, No. 3, June, 1997, pp. 174-77.

[In the following review, Taylor considers the significance of and justification for widely mixed themes in The Crack in Everything.]

Alicia Suskin Ostriker's new collection [The Crack in Everything] may at first surprise the reader with its multifarious subject matter (the “everything” referred to in the title), but this impression of heterogeneity takes on a compelling significance and justification by “The Mastectomy Poems,” the fourth and last section. Here the disparate “cracks” that have been observed in others and in various societal...

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Sharon Dolin (review date September-October 1997)

SOURCE: “How the Light Gets In,” in American Book Review, Vol. 18, No. 6, September-October, 1997, pp. 23-4.

[In the following excerpt, Dolin delineates the themes and style of The Crack in Everything.]

The Crack in Everything, Alicia Ostriker's eighth volume of poetry, is a mature work, filled with wisdom about personal grief and the world. According to the Kabbala, upon the creation of the world, the vessels into which light was poured cracked, and now it is up to human beings to repair the world's brokenness. And though Ostriker knows that she can't fix most things, including herself, she uses her poems to teach us—and herself—that “a crack...

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Diana Hume George (review date December 1998)

SOURCE: “Repairing the World,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XVI, No. 3, December, 1998, pp. 10-11.

[In the following review, George provides an overview of the principal themes of Ostriker's career within the context of the poetry in Stealing the Language and Writing Like a Woman and her two groundbreaking revisionist volumes on the Bible.]

In a conversation many years ago about her own poetry and that of Anne Sexton and Alicia Ostriker, Maxine Kumin told me that she thought of all love poetry as elegiac. For three decades Alicia Suskin Ostriker has been writing an extended elegiac love poem, in the way of Emily Dickinson's letter to the world...

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Further Reading


Hampl, Patricia. “Surviving a Life in the Present.” New York Times Book Review (20 July 1986): 15.

Brief review of Ostriker's The Imaginary Lover.

Phillips, Robert. “Poems, Mostly Personal, Some Historical, Many Unnecessary.” Hudson Review 49, No. 4 (Winter 1997): 659–68.

Includes Ostriker in a discussion of contemporary poetry and its voluminous output.

Rosenberg, Liz. “The Power of Victims.” New York Times Book Review (20 July 1986): 21.

Reviews Ostriker's Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America.


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