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.
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.
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.
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."