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Ostriker, Alicia

OSTRIKER, Alicia

Born 11 November 1937, Brooklyn, New York

Daughter of David S. and Beatrice Linnick Suskin; married Jeremiah Ostriker, 1958; children: Rebecca, Eve, Gabriel

It would be impossible to hierarchize the influences on Alicia Ostriker's work, but the poetry and thought of William Blake has been a significant and consistent one throughout her career as a poet and critic. Blake, whom she calls a "rule-breaker and revolutionary," had the courage and vision that for Ostriker clearly characterize the best and most challenging poetry.

Raised in Manhattan, one of two daughters of working class Jewish parents, Ostriker did not always want to be a poet. Although her mother had read poetry to her throughout her childhood, and though she had written poetry since she was old enough to write, she first wanted to be a visual artist. By the time she graduated from Brandeis University in 1959, however, she knew that she wanted to do further work in English literature. In 1965, having received her M.A. (1961) and Ph.D. (1964) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ostriker was hired to teach literature and creative writing in the English Department at Rutgers University, where she is currently a full professor.

Ostriker's dissertation, Vision and Verse in William Blake (1965, reprinted 1982), became the first of her full-length critical studies. At that time, she also looked to a number of other poets as models, including Keats, Whitman, and W. H. Auden. As varied as they were, all of the poets whose work she then admired were men.

Like many women poets of her generation, Ostriker's work was radically influenced in the 1970s by the women's movement and the new recognition it gave to women poets like H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. In their work and the work of such contemporaries as Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, May Swenson, and June Jordan, Ostriker found complexity and challenge comparable to the work of Blake. She also found themes, motifs, and language that helped her begin to theorize a distinctly feminine sensibility in American poetry.

Ostriker's 1980 collection, The Mother/Child Papers (reissued 1986), may be the best and most explicit marker of her own move into what she identifies in her critical study Stealing the Language (1986, 1987) as " women's poetry." Dominated by a specifically maternal voice, the poems reveal such a voice to be in fact many voices. Although the "I" of Ostriker's poems is always in some sense Ostriker herself, the multiplicity of women's experiences and forms of expression is something that her poetry nevertheless emphasizes.

The courage to take risks and to break the silence of women partly defines Ostriker's project as a Blakean, feminist, and Jewish poet. Her work involves playing with new poetic forms as well as rewriting already established ones. When she works in traditional forms, she implicitly confronts a masculine poetic tradition with the assertion of a feminine (and often, feminist) one. More explicitly, she often combines or interweaves the "public" discourses of politics with the "private" ones of the home and the body, as in her prose poem "Cambodia."

Throughout Ostriker's poetry are signs of struggle—with day-to-day life, with history, with language. Poems like "The War of Men and Women" and "Surviving," from The Imaginary Lover (1986; recipient in 1987 of the William Carlos Williams Prize from the Poetry Society of America) expose the subtle and not-so-subtle complexities of such struggles without providing any easy resolutions. In poems like "A Meditation in Seven Days," from Green Age (1989), she looks to alternative constructions of history and religion to locate women in both. In The Crack in Everything (1996), which one the Paterson Poetry Prize, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, and was a National Book Award finalist, Ostriker struggles with her own mortality as she describes undergoing a mastectomy: "Like one of those trees with a major limb lopped / I'm a shade more sublime today than yesterday."

In addition to nine volumes of poetry and six critical works, Ostriker has published many essays, articles, and reviews in a number of journals. Her poems have been published in the New Yorker, Ms., Poetry, the Nation, Feminist Studies, and many other publications. She has also received numerous honors and awards, including fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts (1976-77) and the Guggenheim Foundation (1984-85), and three MacDowell Colony fellowships.

Other Works:

Songs: A Book of Poems (1969). Once More out of Darkness, and Other Poems (1971, 1976). William Blake: The Complete Poems (editor, 1977). A Dream of Springtime: Poems, 1970-1978 (1979). A Woman Under the Surface (1982). Writing Like a Woman (1983). Feminist Revision and the Bible (1993). The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (1994, 1997). The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998 (1998). Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic (1999).

Bibliography:

Bryan, S., ed., Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition (1993). Lammon, M., ed., Written in Water, Written in Stone: Twenty Years of Poets on Poetry (1996).Middlebrook, D. W. and Yalom, M., eds., Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the 20th Century (1985). Mullaney, J. P., ed., Truthtellers of the Times: Interviews With Contemporary Women Poets (1998). Showalter, E., ed., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (1985).

Reference works:

CANR (1983, 1990). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Alicia Ostriker and Dave Smith Reading Their Poems (tape, 1983). American Poetry Review (1997). Literature & Theology (1996). Poets and Writers (Nov./Dec. 1989). Religion & Literature (Summer 1994, Summer 1995). WRB (Mar. 1997).

—MONICA DORENKAMP,

UPDATED BY DENISE BAUER

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