Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”