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Alicia Ostriker (1937- ) Biography by Maeera Y. Shreiber
Editorial Note by Jeannette Schollaert, April 30, 2019:
Maeera Y. Shreiber’s “bio-bibliographic” essay on Alicia Ostriker was originally published in Anne R. Shapiro’s 1994 collection, Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook. As such, Shreiber’s essay reflects a specific point in Ostriker’s career, and is reprinted here for its historical significance. In 1994, Ostriker was still teaching at Rutgers University, at which she is now professor emerita. She has also since taught at Drew University and New England College. Shreiber’s essay predates the eight collections of poetry that Ostriker published after 1994, from 1996’s The Crack in Everything to 2017’s Waiting for the Light. Additionally, in updating a bio-bibliographic essay on Ostriker, we would be remiss not to include her 2015 election as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and her 2018-2020 appointment as New York State Poet. Below is a complete list of the poetry collections and critical and scholarly works Ostriker has published since the original publication of Shreiber’s essay. The complete list can be found also in “Writings by Alicia Ostriker: A Chronological Bibliography of Her Books” in the print edition of Everywoman Her Own Theology (191-192).
The Crack in Everything. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.
The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998
the volcano sequence. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.
No Heaven. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.
The Book of Seventy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.
At the Revelation Restaurant and Other Poems. Washington, DC: Marick Press, 2010
The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.
The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.
Waiting for the Light. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017.
Critical and Mixed Genre Writing
The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.
Blake, William. William Blake: The Complete Poems. Edited by Alicia Ostriker. New York: Penguin, 1977. Rpt., Penguin Classic, 2004.
Alicia Suskind Ostriker was born in New York City on November 11, 1937. Now the mother of three grown children, she resides with her husband, Joseph Ostriker, in Princeton, New Jersey. Ostriker’s father was an employee of the New York City Commission of Park Services; her mother was a folk-dance instructor. Ostriker received little in the way of formal Jewish education. In a recent autobiographical essay, Ostriker describes herself as a “third generation Jewish atheist socialist raised to believe that religion was the opiate of the people” (“Back to the Garden” 24). Although she received her bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University and served briefly as an editor for a newsletter issued by the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, Ostriker did not, until recently, claim affiliation with any Jewish institution.
After receiving her Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Wisconsin in 1964, she joined the faculty of Rutgers University, where she is now a full professor in the Department of English. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including grants from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Association of University Women. Ostriker is currently a board member of The Poetry Society of America and creative editor of the journal Feminist Studies. Long recognized for her literary scholarship, first in Blake studies and then in women’s poetry, Ostriker has recently begun to make Judaism a focus of critical and pedagogical as well as creative concerns. She has just completed a collection of feminist essays on biblical hermeneutics, Unwritten Volume: Rethinking the Bible, and has written review essays of such works as Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai and Harold Bloom’s interpretation of the Book of J. Ostriker has taught graduate seminars on “The Bible and the Feminist Imagination” and workshops at the Havurah Institute on women’s midrash. Ostriker is currently composing a “revisionist midrash” – poetic reinterpretations of biblical material from a feminist perspective. Many poems from this collection, entitled Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, have appeared in such diverse journals as Tikkun, The Kenyon Review, and the New Yorker. In an effort to remedy the self-proclaimed ignorance of Hebrew texts, Ostriker has begun to study Hebrew formally at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her commitment to study should not, however, indicate her desire to align herself with normative Judaism. On the contrary, Ostriker is intent on shoring up her own transgressive practice. As she puts it, “It is easy to be an atheist, but it is not a light thing to be a heretic” (“Back to the Garden” 12).
Alicia Ostriker has long been recognized for her poetry and for her scholarship as an important voice in American letters. Her poetry in particular constitutes a profound exploration of what it means to write as a woman. Beginning with The Mother Child Papers (1980), her concern with questions of sexual identity has led to an increasing awareness of the need to challenge long-standing assumptions about women’s writing as occupied exclusively with private matters – affairs of the heart rather than the world. In The Mother Child Papers, Ostriker tracks the complex psychic interplay between the joy and ambivalence she experience with the birth of her first son and the abhorrence she feels as witness to the violence of the Vietnam War. The resistance to simple divisions between private and public matters leads to such powerful expressions as the poem “The War of Men and Women” (The Imaginary Lover 1982). Bombarded by the daily news reports of the violence men have wracked upon the world, the poet finds it nearly impossible to comfort a friend mourning the end of his marriage: “Forgive me / You are crying / I like to see men cry” (83).
This sustained inquiry into the links between personal identity and political obligation informs Ostriker’s relatively recent turn to explicitly Jewish concerns. Before 1987, only a few poems suggest that questions of Jewish identity will become central to her aesthetic vision. In the opening scenes of A Dream of Springtime (1979), Judaism is treated largely within the framework of family relations. Like a taste for pickled herring, Judaism is an old-fashioned habit belonging to that generation of immigrant relatives who speak in “anxious syllables.” The poet remembers, “Shayne Maydel was me,” invoking the Yiddish phrase in such a way as to mark the distance that separates her from those “Armies of aging Jews, soaking up sun / As if it were Talmud…” (“Benny and Becky in Farockaway,” Dream 9). Ostriker sustains this distance in a later work, “Poem Beginning With a Line from Fitzgerald/Hemingway,” where she addresses the lessons of the Holocaust by focusing on the heroism of righteous Gentiles. Her identification with the profound courage of Raoul Wallenberg, a “righteous Gentile,” is at once characteristic of her ability to represent the familiar to an unfamiliar light and reflects her professed disassociation from Judaism that is a consequence of a secular upbringing and a feminist sensibility.
Because Judaism plays a relatively minor role in Ostriker’s early poetry, her current interest in the Hebrew Bible may strike readers as unanticipated. But Ostriker is an extremely thoroughgoing artist who works both by intuition and by induction. Early models for her visionary poetics include Allen Ginsburg, Walt Whitman, and William Blake, whose work has occupied a good deal of Ostriker’s critical attention. (She has published a book-length study of Blake and an annotated edition of his collected poems.) Like Blake, Ostriker is a religious poet in the sense that she is compelled by questions of ultimate being. And, like Blake, whom Ostriker celebrates as a “true poet….a partisan of energy, rebellion, and desire” (“Dancing at the Devil’s Party” 580), she is driven to challenge the dominant view of theology that takes divine authority to the unassailable and absolute. Like her poetic mentor, Ostriker is not known for piety.
As much as Ostriker’s current interest in Jewish texts can be linked to her early passion for the radical energy of Blake, it must also be understood within the context of her extensive work on women poets, particularly those who are engaged in what Ostriker describes as “revisionist myth-making.” In the last chapter of her landmark study, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America (1986), Ostriker discusses how contemporary women poets take on mythic personae in the interest of interrogating the past, as well as in imagining social change. Such is Ostriker’s own strategy in Green Age (1989), her most recent collection. In a poem ironically entitled “The Bride,” Ostriker depicts Jerusalem in her familiar guise as a once-beautiful woman now abandoned and bereft. Instead of a dream of redemption, the poem is dominated by a chorus of street cats who cruelly transform the classic vow “If I forget thee O Jerusalem” into a bitter chant: “Forget even the fleshy mothers / Sarah and Hagar / Praying, shopping, cooking…” (Green Age 44). In a subsequent poem, “Meditation in Seven Days,” we learn that the poet’s commitment to classical biblical and Hebraic texts entails more than twisting familiar images to lodge a political critique. She begins by confronting the paradox posed by a religion where identity is a maternal legacy but where authority belongs to a violent paternal deity. Rather than dwell exclusively on those aspects of the tradition that view woman as “a defilement and a temptation” or a more affirmative image of the feminine as fecund and redemptive, Ostriker lays out the range of conflicting images asking, “What can I possess / But the history that possesses me…” (Green Age 55). The question is central to her understanding of the relation between Judaism and feminism as a matter of mutual implication. She considers both the difference Judaism makes to her understanding of feminine, as well as the difference feminism makes to her experience of Judaism.
The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions constitutes Ostriker’s most sustained effort to interrogate the Hebrew Bible from a feminist perspective. In its structure, the “revisionist midrash,” as Ostriker calls it, reflects the influence of both Judaic and non-Judaic texts. In her analysis of twentieth-century women poets and revisionist mythology, Ostriker pays particular attention to several long poems that inspire her own aesthetics. Like H.D. in her epic, “Helen in Egypt,” Ostriker gives voice to quasi-historical female figures who have been largely inaudible. In the spirit of Susan Griffin’s encyclopedic poem Woman and Nature, Ostriker takes on a variety of personae, male as well as female, from Isaac to the Queen of Sheba. And in the spirit of Anne Sexton’s Transformations, Ostriker adopts a heretical approach to culturally revered stories, using colloquial, often comic, language to counter any charges of sentimentality to which she might be liable.
As much as Ostriker’s book owes to these secular texts, its inclusion of prose and verse reflects a special debt to the generic diversity of biblical narrative. One must note, however, that The Fathers cannot be described as “revisionary” in the sense of seeking to replace or correct the precursor text. Rather, it constitutes an act of reading or, to use Ostirker’s own central metaphor, an act of wrestling with the Hebrew Bible. In this respect her work is aligned with the. Current trend in biblical scholarship that stresses the inherently fractured, discontinuous nature of scripture. But to view The Fathers solely as an imaginative synthesis of feminist, biblical, and literary criticism would mean eliding its explicitly spiritual objectives. Unlike readers such as Harold Bloom who dismiss normative Judaism on the grounds that it is all part of a “rabbinic fantasy” (“The Book of J” 43), Ostriker finds that the literary as opposed to the strictly historical account of the Bible indeed animates the possibility of a passionate engagement with tradition.
Divided into five parts, The Nakedness of the Fathers suggestively invokes the five books of Moses. But Ostriker departs from biblical chronology, gathering stories according to her own sense of their interrelated meanings. In the opening section, “Entering the Tents,” Ostriker explores the attachment and ambivalence characteristic of her relationship to scripture. Shuttling between personal memories and expository meditations, Ostriker asserts an indelible connection to Jewish tradition, even as she is enraged by the marginal position to which she, as a woman, has been assigned. From the outset, Ostriker foregrounds her interest in the Bible as the text central to her sense of self. For this reason, the section devoted to the stories of origins, “As in Myth…,” begins not with the creation of the world, but with the creation of humanity. “The Garden” playfully counters the typical focus on exile and loss, proposing that the story of Eden be read as an account of the pleasures as well as the pains attendant upon the acquisition of identity—a process imaginatively staged as a consequence of the interplay between Divine Presence and Absence.
Although many poems are spoken by the lyric “I,” The Nakedness of the Fathers is filled with numerous other voices, including those of Abraham and Isaac. The latter is figured as a stand-up comic in a bitter-sweet portrait entitled “Laughter.” To those feminist readers who would question the attention paid to those patriarchs Ostriker replies, “I am my fathers as much as I am my mothers” (“Back to the Garden” 24). In the sequence devoted to “The Wrestling of Jacob: Man of Touch,” a retelling of the biblical narrative is intertwined with a contemporary story of the poet’s own invention. The latter does not so much update the ancient text as interpret it. In the contemporary version of the tale, a mother is conspicuously excluded from the final agon between a young man and his father, who must wrestle to dissipate the cold silence engulfing them. The exclusion comments powerfully on the biblical account of Jacob at Peniel, where the maternal figure is altogether absent.
Ostriker’s book concludes on a prophetic note with a section entitled “The Return of the Mothers.” The sequence owes something to the recent scholarship of such feminist theologians and biblical theorists as Judith Plaskow and Ilana Pardes, who seek to recover a long-repressed history of feminine representations of the godhead. After a wrenching explication on the anger of Job’s wife, which Ostriker claims has yet to be fully voiced, the work takes a sharp-witted turn with “Intensive Care.” The scene is initially somber as we are presented with what. Seems to be a deathwatch at the bedside of God. But the mood quickly changes as two women reporters (named Olivia and Chloe in tribute to the would-be lovers in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own) speculate laughingly that the paternal deity isn’t in danger of dying; he is only pregnant. The imagined transformation concludes with a suite of three prayers “To the She-kinah,” sung in the future tense:
Thus in the spirit of the redemptive Jeremiah, Alicia Ostriker tempts her auditors with songs of possibility.
We believe that you live
Though you delay We believe that you will certainly come
SURVEY OF CRITICISM
Most of the critical attention paid to Alicia Ostriker’s work focuses on her literary scholarship. Her 1983 volume, Writing Like a Woman, which appeared as part of the series Poets on Poetry, was lauded by Robert. McDowell for its historical acuity and careful rhetorical analysis of Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Her subsequent book, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, has been the subject of some controversy. Reviewed widely in academic journals such as Signs, Contemporary Literature, and Georgia Review, Stealing the Language has provoked both high praise and strident critiques. Some reviewers such as Cheryl Walker and Wendy Martin proclaimed Stealing the Language to be a landmark study in the then-burgeoning field of feminist aesthetics. The study was praised particularly for its encyclopedic overview of contemporary women poets, many of whom had previously gone unnoticed. Other readers, most notably Bonnie Costello and Mary Karr, questioned the conspicuous absence of experimental writers in Ostriker’s account of contemporary poetry. They also took issue with the emphasis placed on the idea of female identity as the driving concern of women poets in America. Costello’s review led to a thoughtful and lively exchange between Ostriker and her critics which was published in the pages of Contemporary Literature (Spring and Fall 1989). These remarks on the field of women’s poetry provide Ostriker’s readers with further opportunity to understand her interest in gender as a category of analysis which addresses poetry in light of its social and political concerns.
In contrast to her scholarly work, Alicia Ostriker’s poetry has not received extensive analysis. Her two most recent collections, Imaginary Lover and Green Age, have received favorable notices in such journals as Virginia Quarterly and Canadian Literature. Both volumes of verse have been recognized for their candor and deeply ethical concerns. Although Ostriker’s poetry has yet to be discussed specifically in light of its Jewish themes and concerns, it is worth noting that works such as “Poem Beginning….,” a Holocaust poem, and “Meditation in Seven Days” have been singled out by critic Judith McCombs as particularly moving examples of Ostriker’s own brand of visionary poetics (202-04).
Works by Alicia Ostriker
Once More Out of Darkness and Other Poems. Berkley, CA: Berkeley Poet’s Cooperative, 1974.
A Dream of Springtime: Poems 1970-78. New York: Smith Horizon Press, 1979.
A Woman Under the Surface: Poems and Prose Poems. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
The Imaginary Lover. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1989.
Green Age. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1989.
The Nakedness of the Fathers (forthcoming). Poems to be included in The Nakedness of the Fathers have appeared as follows:
“The Story of Noah.” “The Story of Joshua.” Lilith (Fall 1989): 10-14.
“Cain and Abel: A Question in Ethics.” “The Cave.” Ontario Review 30 (Spring 1990): 11-13.
“The Poem of Sarah.” “The Opinion of Hagar.” Tikkun (September 1990): 52-53.
Critical and Scholarly Works
Writing Like a Woman. University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
“Job: or, the Imagination of Justice.” Iowa Review 10 (Fall 1986): 87-92.
“Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Some Notes on Politics and Poetry.” Critical Inquiry 13. (1987): 579-96.
“The Garden.” Michigan Quarterly Review 27 (1988): 38-94.
“Intensive Care.” Santa Monica Review 1 (1988): 30-36.
“The Bible and Feminist Imagination.” American Writing Programs Newsletter 6 (1988): 10-15.
“Entering the Tents.” Feminist Studies (1989): 24-32.
“The Wisdom of Solomon.” Kenyon Review 12.2 (1990): 149-55.
“Back to the Garden: Reading the Bible as a Feminist.” Reconfiguring Jewish Identity, ed. Shelley Fisher Fishkin. University of Wisconsin Press: Forthcoming.
Unwritten Volume: Re-thinking the Bible. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell. 1993.
Works about Alicia Ostriker
Broomley, Anne. Rev. of Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. The Georgia Review. (Fall 1987): 630-33.
Costello, Bonnie. Rev. of Writing Like a Woman. Contemporary Literature 29.2 (1988): 304-10.
Rev. of Green Age. Virginia Quarterly 66 (1990): 65.
Karr, Mary. “Sexual Politics.” Poetry (1987): 294-303.
Martin, Wendy. Rev. of Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. American Literature (October 1987): 474-67.
McCombs, Judith. “Territory.” Canadian Literature (Spring 1989): 202-04.
Walker, Cheryl. Rev. of Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Signs. (Fall 1988): 110-14.
Maerra Y. Shreiber is Associate Professor of English at the University of Utah. Her areas of expertise include Jewish-American Studies, Modern Contemporary Poetry, and the 20th and 21st century Literature and Art. Her most recent articles include “Embracing the Void: A Short Essay in Memory of Chana Bloch” (2018) and “Passover in the Jewish Christian Border Zone” (2018).