Katha Pollitt Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katha Pollitt 1949–

American poet and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Pollitt's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 28.

Pollitt is considered a foremost feminist poet and essayist. She has earned praise for her collection of essays, Reasonable Creatures (1994), in which she advocates revisionist thinking about modern gender ideology. In addition, Pollitt is a well-respected poet whose first collection, Antarctic Traveller (1982) won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983.

Biographical Information

Pollitt was born in New York City on October 14, 1949. Her father, a lawyer who championed liberal causes, and her mother, a real estate agent, were prolific readers. When their daughter became interested in poetry writing during her middle years, they encouraged her. Pollitt attended Radcliffe College, earning a BA in 1972 before completing an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University in 1975. She began publishing her poetry in The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly in the mid-1970s and earned critical attention. In 1982, she published a collection of poetry, Antarctic Traveller, which solidified her reputation as a noted poet. She served as Poet-in-Residence and taught creative writing at Barnard College. After working as a copy editor and proofreader at Esquire and The New Yorker and publishing numerous book reviews, Pollitt began her career with The Nation in 1982. In 1986, she became a contributing editor and was promoted to associate editor in 1992. She writes a biweekly column on feminist topics entitled "Subject to Debate" for The Nation magazine. In 1994 Pollitt published a collection of these essays entitled Reasonable Creatures. She has earned grants from the New York Foundation of the Arts in 1987, the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984, a Fulbright in 1985, and was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1987. She is divorced with one daughter and continues to live and work in New York City.

Major Works

Known equally for her poetry and her feminist essays, Pollitt stated in an interview with Ruth Conniff that her career has followed two exclusive and separate paths. Her 1982 poetry collection Antarctic Traveller garnered wide acclaim; and her essyas in Reasonable Creatures earned Pollitt a reputation as a provocatice feminist writer. In these poems she skillfully employs visual imagery as a means of exploring human thought and emotion. Likened to Wallace Stevens, she contrasts art and life, maintaining a distance between the subject of her poem and the observer. In works such as "Five Poems on Japanese Paintings", which serves as the lynchpin of the collection, she contrasts romance and disillusionment. In the segment entitled "Moon and Flowering Plum," for example, Pollitt employs a brief description of nature as a means for subtly addressing the implications of indecisiveness and commitment. In addition to her visual works, Pollitt also writes pastoral pieces, with a strong Japanese influence, and applies her imagination to reinterpret familiar domestic scenes. For instance, in "Vegetable Poems," she captures the personality of the eggplant, onion and tomato. She is noted for her use of the "blurred you" in which the pronoun "you" may refer to either the audience or the author, thus establishing a relationship of shared experience between writer and reader. In her collection of essays Reasonable Creatures, Pollitt advocates that society should view women as no different from men. She rejects the idea that women are more nurturing than men, and are thus more suited for care giving roles, arguing that by defining themselves as different, women will limit their choices as well as alienate themselves from power and each other. In her book, she addresses controversial political and social events such as the "Baby M" surrogate mother case, the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, and former Vice-President Dan Quayle's reaction to the television program Murphy Brown. Weaving events from her own life into analysis of current gender ideology, Pollitt promotes clear and rigorous thinking about current events and the issues behind them. She attacks both political conservatives and liberals in her essays, and debates the viewpoints of other feminist writers such as Germaine Greer, Carol Gilligan and Deborah Tannen.

Critical Reception

Critics acclaim Pollitt's first collection of poetry, praising her poise, skillful use of language, mature ear for rhythm, and her intellectual and cerebral interpretations. Roberta Berke writes: "Pollitt combines awareness of contraries and her intelligence with a vivid imagination…." Reviewers credit her with unusual maturity as a poet, praising her ability to contrast romance with disillusionment and her skill at maintaining an objective distance from her subjects. Some readers have noted excesses in her poetry: an overreliance on the "blurred you" device, too tightly controlled emotions, and an overindulgence in rich vocabulary and imagery which threatens to swamp her poems. However, reviewers agree that in her best works such as "Blue Window" and "Moon and Flowering Plum" she is impressive. While Pollitt's essays have earned more controversy than her poetry, she is considered one of the most thought-provoking and insightful feminist writers. Critics praise her writing style, which they characterize as witty and engaging, as well as her practical and well reasoned interpretations of modern events. Reviewers such as Rickie Solinger argue that Pollitt is successful because she demands that her readers grapple with new and complex ideas, which she presents in understandable and accessible ways. Scholars note that she has redefined feminist thinking, pushing society to reconsider the tenets of feminist ideology, and she is unafraid of both liberal and conservative opponents. Reviewers note that she advocates clear-thinking and solid scholarship, and laud her for attacking the unsophisticated arguments of other political commentators. However, Kirsty Milne faults Pollitt for failing to provide positive male role models in her essays. Other readers claim that Pollitt promotes a personal agenda and often favors the interests of women over children. Suzanne Rhodenbaugh and Christine Stansell argue that the essays in Reasonable Creatures are built so heavily upon specific events of the 1980s and 1990s that the commentary is inaccessible to younger readers. Despite the criticisms, most scholars agree that Pollitt has played a significant and important role in defining gender ideology. Boyd Zenner remarks that Pollitt is "… one of the most incisive, principled, and articulate cultural critics writing today."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Antarctic Traveller (poetry) 1982
Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism (essays) 1994

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Joel Conarroe (review date 21 February 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Antarctic Traveller, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XII, No. 8, February 21, 1982, pp. 5, 13.

[In the excerpt below, Conarroe, editor of PMLA and executive director of the Modern Language Association, praises Pollitt's use of sound and rhythm in her poetry.]

It is notoriously difficult for a poet to get a first manuscript accepted (more Americans write verse than read it) and virtually impossible unless he or she has already been published in the better periodicals. Katha Pollitt, not quite 10 years out of Radcliffe, has been appearing regularly in such visible places as Poetry and The New Yorker, but until the...

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The Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Summer 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Antarctic Traveller, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 58, No. 3, Summer, 1982, p. 92.

[In the review below, the critic describes Antarctic Traveller as a well crafted debut.]

These poems convey the quotidian and the unfamiliar equally well with dazzling imagery and careful craftsmanship. For instance, in a series of "Vegetable Poems" the everyday potato is seen with "softened, mealy flesh / rotting into the earth … but still flinging up roots and occasional leaves / white as fish in caves," and the unfamiliar "A Turkish Story" tells of a rug weaver who kept his daughters at home, unmarried, while he worked on a rug that would...

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Robert B. Shaw (review date December 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Antarctic Traveller in Poetry, Vol. CXLI, No. 3, December, 1982, pp. 178-79.

[In the following excerpt, Shaw argues that Pollitt is most insightful when she remains detached from her subjects.]

At the center of Katha Pollitt's Antarctic Traveller, her first book, are "Five Poems from Japanese Paintings." Even without these one would have noted in her writing those qualities which for the Japanese, as she says, encompass "the virtues of the noble man: / reticence, calm, clarity of mind." Whether inspired by paintings or daily surroundings, Pollitt's poems are marked by a beautiful economy of line, a selective cherishing of detail. The...

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism, in Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1994, pp. 828-29.

[In the following review, the critic praises Pollitt for asking new questions from a feminist perspective.]

Most of the essays collected here (and previously published in The Nation, The New Yorker, and elsewhere) bring an important critical, often feminist, perspective to controversial issues: sex and sexuality, children and families, abortion and motherhood.

Debates about the literary canon, according to poet Pollitt (Antarctic Traveller, not reviewed), rest on the assumption that the only books that students...

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Maureen Corrigan (review date 25 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Defining the New Woman," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXIV, No. 39, September 25, 1994, p. 10.

[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Corrigan, a literature instructor at Georgetown University, praises Pollitt's skillful definition of feminist issues and her sharp logic.]

It seems an odd thing to say about a social critic so engaged with her historical moment, but Katha Pollitt is a woman seriously out of joint with her time. Pollitt is really a daughter of the Enlightenment, a fan of that 18th-century cant-buster, Dr. Samuel Johnson. Against our culture's predilection for feelgood thinking and lazy sentimentality masquerading as...

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Susan Shapiro (review date 9 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism, in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 99, October 9, 1994, p. 22.

[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Shapiro questions Pollitt's use of statistics, but praises the collection.]

Whether the subject is breast implants, Lorena Bobbitt or bad sex, Katha Pollitt has a strong opinion about it. Reasonable Creatures collects 19 funny and furious essays, previously published in The New York Times, The Nation and The New Yorker. In which Ms. Pollitt takes on the most compelling issues of our day concerning the sexes and turns them upside down. Along with her...

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Merle Rubin (review date 25 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Essays for Collecting and Dissecting," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 86, No. 232, October 25, 1994, p. 13.

[In the following excerpt, Rubin praises Pollitt's ability to cut to the heart of issues in her collection of essays Reasonable Creatures.]

…. Of a more consistent quality are the 19 timely pieces by poet and journalist Katha Pollitt in Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism.

They are, indeed, about women's issues, but Pollitt, a true descendent of large-visioned, feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, effectively demonstrates why these issues are relevant to everyone.

These essays from The...

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Katha Pollitt with Ruth Conniff (interview date December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview, in The Progressive, Vol. 58, No. 12, December, 1994, pp. 34-40.

[In the following interview, Pollitt discusses her political views and the differences between her poetry and prose.]

"Although feminism came out of the Left and naturally belongs on the Left, sometimes you wouldn't know it.'

Like Broadway, the novel, and God, feminism has been declared dead many times," Katha Pollitt writes in the introduction to her new book, Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism, published in September by Knopf. Pollitt herself is one of feminism's liveliest writers, tackling, in her...

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Kirsty Milne (review date 3 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Logical Liberator," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 8, No. 342, March 3, 1995, pp. 37-8.

[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Milne argues that Pollitt's essays about American political events have resonance for a British audience.]

Call me insular or even truculent. But I've had enough of photogenic young US feminists disinventing date rape and rediscovering the tyranny of body image. So it's a comfort to meet Katha Pollitt, who wasn't born yesterday, who's read her Mary Wollstonecraft and her Germaine Greer, who knows that class exists as well as gender.

These essays, written for the Nation, the New...

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Rickie Solinger (review date April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "First-Class Citizen," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XII, No. 7, April, 1995, pp. 1, 3.

[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Solinger argues that Pollitt's strengths are her wide ranging knowledge and practical arguments.]

In recent days I've had occasion to talk on the phone to a couple of women whom I've never met, an English professor in Pittsburgh and a newspaper reporter in Indianapolis. Even though the professor's work focuses on women and she's a regular reader of this review, and the journalist writes about women's issues, neither of them had heard of Katha Pollitt. I tried to take the news quietly in both cases, but I was...

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Boyd Zenner (review date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Female Opinionmeister," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 19, 26.

[In the following review, Zenner, an editor at the University Press of Virginia, provides an overview of the topics addressed in Reasonable Creatures.]

Not too long ago, Katha Pollitt devoted one of her semimonthly Nation columns to a somewhat rueful consideration of why women commentators are so seldom asked to provide analysis on nongender-specific topics. "Am I being too cynical in arguing that female opinionmeisters specialize in women's issues partly as cultural adaptation?" she wondered. I can only say, hooray for cultural adaptation if that is what it took to...

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Christine Stansell (review date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Opinionated Woman," in Dissent, Vol. 42, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 280-83.

[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Stansell discusses Pollitt's unique contributions to feminist writing.]

Holding opinions is a treacherous business for a woman. Shrill! Silly! Imprecations and accusations lurk at the edges of life and female psychology, fueling prejudices and women's own self-censorship. Feminist writer Naomi Wolf recently called attention to how little women's opinions figure in our op-ed pages, journals, public affairs shows, and columns, all "strikingly immune to the general agitation for female access." Gender socialization, suggests...

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Suzanne Rhodenbaugh (review date Spring-Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Opinion Pieces, The Third Sex, and Feminism's Tent," in Salmagundi, Nos. 106-7, Spring-Summer, 1995, pp. 288-96.

[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Rhodenbaugh considers Pollitt's feminist rhetoric, claiming that Pollitt favors the rights of women over the needs of children.]

Katha Pollitt's Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism is not a book of essays, but a collection of opinion pieces. Its nineteen inclusions, thirteen of which first appeared in The Nation, with the balance in The New York Times or The New Yorker, read like op-ed takes on issues such as abortion, surrogate motherhood, rape and...

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Charles Solomon (review date 26 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 26, 1995, p. 15.

[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Solomon argues that Pollitt's essays will interest readers even if they disagree with her views.]

In well-crafted essays, Pollitt, an editor at The Nation, discusses such topics as rape, abortion, domestic violence, sexism and surrogate motherhood. She argues that as our complex social and economic system "comes under stress-from the transition to a global economy, the back-to-the-home agenda of the Christian right, the dismantling of the safety net by the Gingrich...

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