Thomson Gale

Thomson Gale

In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Ostriker’s work.

Alicia Ostriker has published nine books of poetry and several works of feminist literary criticism that examine the relationship between gender and literature. In a comment that applies to both Ostriker’s poetry and criticism, Amy Williams in Dictionary of Literary Biography noted how Ostriker ‘‘consistently challenges limitations. For discovery to take place there must be movement, and Ostriker refuses to stand still; each volume tries to uncover anew what must be learned in order to gain wisdom, experience, and identity. She is a poet who breaks down walls.’’ In the Women’s Review of Books, Adrian Oktenberg wrote: ‘‘One of the great pleasures in reading Ostriker is hearing her think out loud; putting her humanity fully on the page is one of her strengths as a writer.’’ Calling Ostriker ‘‘America’s most fiercely honest poet,’’ Progressive contributor Joel Brouwer observed that she ‘‘puts the reader to work, and she blenches at nothing that experience offers up.’’ According to Williams, Ostriker’s voice is ‘‘personal, honest, and strong; her poetry incorporates family experiences, social and political views, and a driving spirit that speaks for growth and, at times, with rage.’’

In Ostriker’s criticism, she argues that literature written by women can be tracked as a tradition. In Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women Poets in America, she asserts that women writers have produced poetry that is ‘‘explicitly female in the sense that the writers have chosen to explore experiences central to their sex.’’ Furthermore, in their search to find an aesthetic that accommodates this expression, Ostriker claims that women poets are ‘‘challenging and transforming the history of poetry. They constitute a literary movement comparable to romanticism or modernism in our literary past.’’

These claims have evoked a wide range of response from reviewers. Frieda Gardner, writing in the Women’s Review of Books, agreed that women have brought new subject matter to American poetry; the ‘‘thematic landscape’’ of literature now includes poems on ‘‘women’s quests for self-definition, on the uses and treachery of anger, . . . female eroticism and, most impressively, on women poets’ sweeping revision of Western mythology,’’ according to Gardner. However, ‘‘lots of male poets grew fat on the ‘butter and sugar’ Ostriker calls peculiarly feminine,’’ Mary Karr pointed out in a Poetry review. Reviewers also questioned the notion that poetry by women is unified by the concentrated ‘‘drive for power’’ that Ostriker sees in it. Nonetheless, stated Karr, ‘‘those predisposed to feminist criticism will eagerly take up these pages. At the other extreme, certain critics and philosophers will shudder at the very thought of women generating language, a practice they interpret as exclusively masculine.’’

The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (1994) offers ‘‘an imaginative and spiritual dialogue with characters and narratives of the Old Testament,’’ wrote Lynn Garrett in Publishers Weekly. By exploring both men’s and women’s stories from the Bible—from Adam and Eve to Job and Job’s wife—and speaking through their voices, Ostriker attempts to offer a more humanized and modernized reading of the Bible, and in doing so, she attempts to reconcile the revisionism of feminism with the traditions of Judaism. She presents Esther through the lens of a post-Holocaust family party, and shows Job’s wife as a bystander who must accept the ‘‘casual brutality of this world,’’ according to Enid Dame in Belles Lettres. Ostriker’s book is as grand and comprehensive as her subject, offering, noted Dame, ‘‘a retelling-with-commentary of Jewish scripture intertwined with a brilliant web of poems, stories, personal memoirs, scholarly observations, and speculative meditations.’’ Ultimately, it is ‘‘in the reclamation of the Shekhina, or female aspect of God,’’ stated Dame, that Ostriker finds a reconciliation between Judaism and feminism.

Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic drew a great deal of praise for its observations on a multitude of poets, from John Milton and William Blake to Maxine Kumin and Lucille Clifton. Pif Magazine reviewer Rachel Barenblat maintained that, ‘‘for Ostriker, poems are both crucial and relevant. She respects poems, the way one respects magic or religion or anything that smacks of the ineffable.’’ Noting that Ostriker approaches her subject matter with ‘‘passion and precision,’’ Barenblat concluded: ‘‘Ostriker’s criticism is grounded in her impressive knowledge of American literary traditions and their adherents. . . . This is a strong, compelling and beautiful collection of essays. I recommend it...

(The entire section is 2072 words.)

Wendy Perkins

Wendy Perkins

Perkins is a professor of twentieth-century American and English literature and film. In this...

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Marilyn Hacker

Marilyn Hacker

In the following review, Hacker focuses on the sometimes conflicting identities in the poems...

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John Taylor

John Taylor

In the following review, Taylor finds a wide range of subjects and themes in the collection. In...

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Alison Townsend

Alison Townsend

In the following review, Townsend finds the poems in the collection both ‘‘heartbreaking...

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