Ostriker, Alicia 1937- (Alicia Suskin Ostriker)
Ostriker, Alicia 1937- (Alicia Suskin Ostriker)
Born November 11, 1937, in New York, NY; daughter of David (a civil service employee) and Beatrice Suskin; married Jeremiah P. Ostriker (a professor of astrophysics), December, 1958; children: Rebecca, Eve, Gabriel. Education: Brandeis University, B.A., 1959: University of Wisconsin, M.A., 1961, Ph. D., 1964. Religion: Jewish.
Writer, poet, and educator. Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, assistant professor, 1965-68, associate professor, 1968-72, professor of English and creative writing, 1972-2004, professor emerita, 2004—; New England College, Henniker, NH, faculty member in MFA program, 2004—. February residency at Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio Study and Conference Center, Italy, 1999.
National Council on the Humanities summer grant, 1968; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1976-77; Pushcart Prize, 1979, 2000; New Jersey Arts Council fellowship, 1980-81; Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, 1982; Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1984-85; William Carlos Williams Prize, Poetry Society of America, 1986, for The Imaginary Lover; Strousse Poetry Prize, Prairie Schooner, 1986; Edward Stanley Award, Prairie Schooner, 1994; Anna David Rosenberg Poetry Award, 1994; faculty fellow, Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, 1995-96; National Book Award finalist, Paterson poetry Award, and San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, all 1996, all for The Crack in Everything; National Book Award finalist, and Bookman News Book of the Year, both 1998, and Lenore Marshall Poetry Award finalist, 1999, all for The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998; Readers' Choice Award for poems published in Prairie Schooner, 1998; Pushcart prize, 1999; Larry Levis prize, 2001.
Songs, Holt (New York, NY), 1969.
Once More Out of Darkness, and Other Poems, Smith/Horizon Press (New York, NY), 1971, enlarged edition, Berkeley Poets Cooperative (Berkeley, CA), 1974.
A Dream of Springtime, Smith/Horizon Press (New York, NY), 1979.
The Mother/Child Papers, Momentum (Santa Monica, CA), 1980.
A Woman under the Surface: Poems and Prose Poems, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1982.
The Imaginary Lover, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1986.
Green Age, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1989.
The Crack in Everything, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1996.
The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1998.
The Volcano Sequence, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 2002.
No Heaven, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 2005.
(Editor) William Blake: Complete Poems, Penguin (New York, NY), 1977.
Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women Poets in America, Beacon (Boston, MA), 1986.
Feminist Revision and the Bible, Blackwell (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1994.
For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 2007.
Contributor of poems and essays to literary reviews and magazines, including American Poetry Review, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, Nation, Poetry, Signs, Tikkun, and the New York Times Book Review. Contributor of poems and essays to anthologies, including Unsettling America: Race and Ethnicity in Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Viking (New York, NY), 1994; Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible, edited by Christina Büchman and Celina Spiegel, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1994; Our Mothers, Our Selves, Writers and Poets Celebrating Motherhood, edited by Karen Donnelly and J.B. Bernstein, Bergen and Garvey (Westport, CT), 1996; and Worlds in Our Words: Contemporary American Women Writers, edited by Marilyn Kallett and Patricia Clark, Prentice Hall, 1997. Some of Ostriker's poems were included in Best American Poetry and Yearbook of American Poetry, 1996, and one poem was included in Pushcart Prize Anthology, 1999. Author's poems have been translated into French, Italian, German, Japanese, Hebrew, and Arabic. Poetry and essays have been translated into French, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, and Arabic.
Alicia Ostriker has published books of poetry and several works of feminist literary criticism, as well as essays on American poetry and commentaries on the Bible. In a comment that applies to both Ostriker's poetry and criticism, a Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor 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 a Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor, 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, Karr stated that "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 offers "an imaginative and spiritual dialogue with characters and narratives of the Old Testament," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. 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 tries 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 Web site contributor 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 wrote: "Ostriker's criticism is grounded in her impressive knowledge of American literary traditions and their adherents." Barenblat went on to comment: "This is a strong, compelling and beautiful collection of essays. I recommend it highly." In her review of the same title, Oktenberg stated: "As we follow [Ostriker] into her reading, we are more and more illuminated, not only intellectually but with a palpable, physical sense of expansion, and even spirituality. This is the best writing—it gets you at all levels." The critic noted: "I would … recommend this book, and unhesitatingly, as one of the finest I have ever read."
In Feminist Revision and the Bible, the author "attempts an archeological recovery of certain female and/or pagan stories which the authoritative lines of the Biblical narrative have attempted to repress," noted Jacqueline Vaught Brogan in Women's Studies. Brogan went on to write: "Feminist Revision and the Bible is far richer and more expansive in the ideas and figures it covers than a brief summary can convey. I find the combination of exquisite scholarship with imaginative intervention into our most authoritative cultural text the most important new phase in studying and interpreting the Bible."
In addition to her reputation as a feminist literary critic, Ostriker is also an accomplished poet. In 1986, the Poetry Society of America awarded her the William Carlos Williams Prize for The Imaginary Lover, and two of her works have been finalists for the National Book Award. Ostriker "is at her best when most urbane and ironic" in these poems that look back at marriage from the perspective of mid-life, wrote a Times Literary Supplement contributor. "The actions are melodramatic, but the recording consciousness is steady," Patricia Hampl related in the New York Times Book Review. Since the poems often reflect on disappointment or loss, they have an elegiac tone. More noticeable, however, "is Mrs. Ostriker's tendency to locate a sustaining force for the rest of life—a force that is both passionate and honorable," Hampl observed. "This is evident in lines from ‘Everywoman Her Own Theology,’ in which Ostriker declares: ‘Ethically, I am looking for / An absolute endorsement of loving-kindness.’" At times, wrote Hampl, the poems lack music, but they charm the reader with their "candor and thoughtfulness."
Green Age is a book of poems that blends "personal time, history and politics, and inner spirituality," wrote a Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor. As Robyn Selman noted in Village Voice, Ostriker's title denotes "the stage in a woman's life—after her children have left home, after the death of her parents—when her sense of herself is clear and muscular: a time of loss, but also of heightened awareness and passion." Ostriker offers love poems, poems which are forceful and persuasive, and poems which, according to a Publishers Weekly contributor, "sympathize and nurture, affirming life," as when the poet states: "Friend, I could say / I've been alive a half a dozen moments / but that's not true / I've been alive my entire time / on this earth / I've been alive."
The pieces in The Crack in Everything are "accomplished poems," declared a Publishers Weekly contributor. To quote Patricia Monaghan in Booklist, the poems are "grounded in the details of a woman's daily life and speak with the appeal of an intelligent, sympathetic friend," making the work feel as if it possesses "a quality of being overheard." The topics of some of Ostriker's poems range from the rape of a mentally retarded girl by her high school classmates to the bombing of MOVE in Philadelphia, so that her poems feel, according to a Publishers Weekly contributor, as though "a broad-based politics enters this work routinely, like the morning news." The long sequence, "The Mastectomy Poems," which concludes the collection, movingly addresses the poet's successful treatment for cancer, "in a frank and liberating clarity," stated Steven Ellis in Library Journal, as Ostriker refers to how "cells break down, their membranes crushed / Where the condemned / Beg for forgetfulness."
The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998 expresses itself as an autobiography in poetry form, as the volume begins with the birth of Ostriker's child and moves through the changes that age wreaks in relationships between mates, between parents and children, and within the poet's sense of herself. Nominated for a National Book Award, The Little Space was described by Judy Clarence in the Library Journal as a "lively and moving collection," containing poems that "move into deeper levels of mystery and spirituality." A Publishers Weekly contributor maintained that the poems are "simultaneously funny and tragic, intense and conversational, politically charged and personally graphic," and that the book reveals a writer "with a rare intelligence."
In her poetry collection titled The Volcano Sequence, the author addresses issues surrounding God and the author's own disappointments with the deity. "Wrestling with the Hebrew Scriptures, Ostriker challenges a capricious deity who seeks adulation from the people he treats most harshly," wrote Laura Sheahen in America. Writing in the Women's Review of Books, Adrian Oktenberg noted: "Her quarrels with God are up-to-date and immediately relevant at the same time that they are historically resonant."
In her next poetry collection, 2005's No Heaven, the author explores numerous topics, from sectarian violence and Jewish identity to family history and music and art. "If Ostriker sacrifices verbal nuance for moral clarity, she nonetheless makes her persona and views appealingly present on every page," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Heidi Arnold, writing in the Library Journal, commented that the author "presents her characteristic, effortless precision."
Ostriker once told CA: "All poets have their chosen ancestors and affinities. As an American poet I see myself in the line of Whitman, Williams, and Ginsberg, those great enablers of the inclusive democratic impulse, the corollary of which is formal openness. As a student I wrote in traditional closed forms, as did they—before they discovered the joy and meaning of open forms. To write in open forms is to improvise. Improvisatory verse is like doing a jazz solo: we know what we've just done, and the next line has to be connected to it, has to grow out of it somehow, but there is an essential unpredictability. This is an American invention because we act, in America, as if the future is partly shaped by the past, but is not determined by it. We are (a little bit) free. As a poet of the spirit, I have always been inspired by the great heterodox visionaries—Whitman since childhood, Blake since my student days, and H.D. since the 1980's when I discovered that she was not a minor imagist but the exquisite peer and rival of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Wrestling with the Bible, I am Blake's daughter; trying to imagine the divine Feminine, I am H.D.'s child. I am also in love with the poetry of Lucille Clifton, whom I believe to be the most important spiritual poet writing today. And then there are John Donne, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. As for the women poets who have influenced my poetry and my life, they are probably countless—but among them are Emily Dickinson, Louise Bogan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, May Swenson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, Marge Piercy, June Jordan, Sharon Doubiago, Sharon Olds, Ntozake Shange, Toi Derricotte, and (as said before), H.D., and Lucille Clifton.
"People who do not know my work ask me what I write about. I answer: love, sex, death, violence, family, politics, religion, friendship, painters and painting, the body in sickness and health. Joy and pain.
"I try not to write the same poem over and over. I try to stretch my own envelope, to write what I am afraid to write. Composing an essay, a review or a piece of literary criticism, I know more or less what I am doing and what I want to say. When I write a poem, I am crawling into the dark. Or else I am an aperture. Something needs to be put into language, and it chooses me. I invite such things. ‘Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,’ as D.H. Lawrence says.
"I write as an American, a woman, a Jew, a mother, a wife, a lover of beauty and art, a teacher, an idealist, a skeptic. Critics seem often to remark that I am ‘intelligent’—but I see myself also as passionate. Actually, I am a combination of mind, body, and feelings, like everyone else, and I try to get them all into play.
"When I give poetry readings, my hope is to make people in my audience laugh and cry. They often do. The gamble is that my words will reach others, touch their inner lives. When I write literary criticism, I try to see and say clearly what is actually there in the work of other poets. Teaching is extremely important to me, my students are important, I try my best to awaken them to the delight of using their minds. Although clarity is unfashionable, I encourage it. When I teach midrash writing workshops—midrash is an ancient genre which involves elaborating on Biblical stories and characters—I want people to discover how powerfully the Bible speaks to the issues of our own time: gender roles, family dynamics, social class, freedom and slavery, war and peace, fear of the stranger, and the need to overcome that fear. These are my issues, too."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 24, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, third series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Ostriker, Alicia, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women Poets in America, Beacon (Boston, MA), 1986.
America, October 30, 2006, Laura Sheahen, "Chasing the Sacred: Poetry of the Spirit" (includes review of The Volcano Sequence), p. 24.
American Literature, October, 1987, review of Stealing the Language, p. 464.
American Poetry Review, July-August, 1981, review of The Mother/Child Papers, p. 13; July, 1986, review of Stealing the Language, p. 12.
American Voice, Volume 45, 1997, Gary Pacernik, "Interview with Alicia Ostriker."
Belles Lettres, summer, 1990, review of The Green Age, p. 30; spring, 1993, Judith Pierce Rosenberg, "Profile: Alicia Suskin Ostriker"; fall, 1993, Enid Dame, review of Feminist Revision and the Bible, p. 56; spring, 1995, Enid Dame, review of The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, p. 44.
Booklist, April 15, 1986, review of Stealing the Language, p. 1176; February 15, 1987, review of The Imaginary Lover, p. 871; September 1, 1989, review of Green Age, p. 29; December 1, 1994, review of The Nakedness of the Fathers, p. 1546; May 1, 1996, Patricia Monaghan, review of The Crack in Everything, p. 1485; April 15, 2005, Donna Seaman, review of No Heaven, p. 1425.
Choice, December, 1986, review of Stealing the Language, p. 627; July, 1987, review of The Imaginary Lover, p. 871; March, 1990, review of Green Age, p. 1146.
Criticism, fall, 1989, review of Stealing the Language, pp. 505-507.
Georgia Review, fall, 1987, review of Stealing the Language, p. 631.
Hiram Poetry Review, fall-winter, 1982, review of The Mother/Child Papers.
Hudson Review, autumn, 1985, review of Writing like a Woman, p. 516; winter, 1997, Robert Phillips, review of The Crack in Everything, p. 659.
Hungry Mind Review, fall, 1996, review of The Crack in Everything, p. 28.
Library Journal, September 1, 1982, review of A Woman under the Surface, p. 1663; May 1, 1986, review of Stealing the Language, p. 121; November 15, 1986, review of The Imaginary Lover, p. 100; January 1987, review of Stealing the Language, p. 57; September 15, 1989, review of Green Age, p. 114; April 1, 1996, Steven Ellis, review of The Crack in Everything, p. 87; December, 1998, Judy Clarence, review of The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998, p. 112; March 15, 2002, Frank Allen, review of The Volcano Sequence, p. 85; March 15, 2005, Heidi Arnold, review of No Heaven, p. 88.
Literature and Psychology, March 22, 1992, Janet Ruth Heller, "Exploring the Depths of Relationships in Alicia Ostriker's Poetry," p. 71.
Michigan Quarterly Review, spring, 1991, Jonathan Holden, review of Green Age, pp. 354-366.
Ms., August, 1986, review of Stealing the Language, p. 75.
Nation, May 12, 1997, review of The Crack in Everything, p. 54.
New Directions for Women, January, 1988, review of Stealing the Language, p. 17.
New York Times Book Review, July 20, 1986, Liz Rosenberg, review of Stealing the Language, p. 21; June 7, 1987, Patricia Hampl, review of The Imaginary Lover, p. 15.
Parnassus: Poetry in Review, winter, 2000, pp. 24-30.
Poetry, March, 1983, X.J. Kennedy, review of A Woman under the Surface, p. 351; February, 1987, Mary Karr, review of Stealing the Language, p. 294; July, 1990, Gail Mazur, review of Green Age, p. 226.
Prairie Schooner, spring, 1984, review of A Woman under the Surface, pp. 82-84.
Progressive, March, 1999, Joel Brouwer, review of The Little Space, p. 43; January, 2003, review of The Volcano Sequence, p. 42.
Publishers Weekly, January 14, 1983, review of Writing like a Woman, p. 74; March 21, 1986, review of Stealing the Language, p. 79; October 24, 1986, John Mutter, review of The Imaginary Lover, p. 69; October 6, 1989, Penny Kaganoff, review of The Green Age, p. 94; November 14, 1994, review of The Nakedness of the Fathers, p. 34; April 29, 1996, review of The Crack in Everything, p. 63; November 2, 1998, review of The Little Space, p. 74; February 25, 2002, review of The Volcano Sequence, p. 57; March 7, 2005, review of No Heaven, p. 65.
Signs, winter, 1984, review of Writing like a Woman, p. 384.
Sojourner, April, 1987, review of The Mother/Child Papers, pp. 1-3.
Tikkun, January-February, 1996, review of The Nakedness of the Fathers, pp. 94-96.
Times Higher Education Supplement, February 18, 1994, Alun David, review of Feminist Revision and the Bible, p. 28.
Times Literary Supplement, July 10, 1987, review of Stealing the Language, p. 748.
Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, fall, 2000, Estella Lauter, review of Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic, p. 337.
US, November 18, 1998, Nicole Plett, "A Poet's Dazzling Mind."
Village Voice, February 6, 1990, Robyn Selman, review of The Green Age, p. 59.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1990, review of Green Age, p. 65; winter, 1997, review of The Crack in Everything, p. 29.
Wilson Library Bulletin, September, 1986, review of Stealing the Language, p. 85.
Women's Review of Books, February, 1984, review of A Woman under the Surface, p. 10; April, 1987, Frieda Gardner, review of Stealing the Language, p. 14; December, 1998, Diana Hume Georg, review of The Little Space, p. 10; July, 2000, Adrian Oktenberg, "Poetry, Politics, and Passion," pp. 41-42; July, 2002, Adrian Oktenberg, "Incandescent Clarity" (includes review of The Volcano Sequence), p. 35.
Women's Studies, September, 1994, Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, review of Feminist Revision and the Bible, p. 385.
World Literature Today, spring, 1987, review of Stealing the Language, p. 291.
Alicia Ostriker Home Page,http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~ostriker/home.htm (August 6, 2007).
Pif Magazine,http://www.pifmagazine.com/ (September 5, 2000), Rachel Barenblat, review of Dancing at the Devil's Party.
Rutgers University Web site,http://www.rutgers.edu/ (August 6, 2007), faculty profile of author.
Women's Global Perspectives (video), interview with Ostriker by Hazel Staats-Westover, International Center, Princeton University, 1996.