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Alicia Suskin Ostriker

b. 1937

by Ruth Whitman

Alicia Ostriker is a feminist revolutionary. She has been in revolt since her 1986 groundbreaking book, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, in which she shows how women, from the beginning of writing poetry in America, were forced to deal with the prejudice and strictures of male-dominated criticism. Eight years later, in The Nakedness of the Fathers, subtitled Biblical Visions and Revisions, she extends her passionate inquiry to the situation of the Jewish woman, who for thousands of years has been denied her selfhood and forbidden to speculate about the meaning of biblical myth and legend. Neither book relies on vain complaint. Both show how women can overleap the traditional bonds imposed on them. With anger, blasphemy, and invention, women poets have transformed history and reality. Both books are personal and universal. As a poet, a Jew, and a woman, Ostriker starts from her own beginnings and shows how she has gathered the courage to move out into the clear new air of freedom and autonomy. She resents the Bible’s historic marginalization of women, but rather than abandon it, she “hopes to come to terms with [her] Judaism from [her] perspective as a Jewish female atheist,” and as such, she challenges the tradition, argues with it, and ultimately, transforms it. Full of passionate daring and personal hutzpa, only a poet could have written The Nakedness of the Fathers.

In order to understand Ostriker’s development, it is necessary to go back to her early work on Blake. In her 1965 book, Vision and Verse in William Blake, and culminating in 1977 in her edition of The Complete Poems, Ostriker learned about Blake’s suspicion of authoritarianism as well as his liberating, imaginative vitality. The word “visionary” became a watchword of the highest order in Ostriker’s vocabulary.

If we go back to her early books of poetry, from the 1969 Songs to the sophistication of Green Age twenty years later, we can see her transformation from a poet of the quotidian to a poet of the sacred. In the poem “A Meditation in Seven Days” she writes, “Fearful, I see my hand on the latch / I am the woman, and about to enter.”

Alicia Suskin Ostriker was born in New York City on November 11, 1937. She married Jeremiah P. Ostriker in 1958, and had three children: Rebecca (b. 1963), Eve (b. 1965), and Gabriel (b. 1970). Her father, David Suskin, was a playground director for the New York City Department of Parks. Her mother, Beatrice (Linnick) Suskin, was a folk dancer. She has one sister, Amy David, born in 1948. She received her B.A. from Brandeis University in 1955, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1961 and 1964, respectively. In 1965, she began to teach in the Rutgers University English department, where she is now a full professor.

As she was quoted in Catherine Blair’s 1993 critical work Feminist Revision and the Bible, “... having oscillated all my life between criticism and poetry, I’m trying in The Nakedness of the Fathers ... to produce a work in which both these modes go on simultaneously and interact. Layers of biblical textuality come into play with layers of my own identity and family history; I interpret the Bible while it interprets me.”

In A Woman Under the Surface (1982), she writes about women in crisis, confronting both personal and political disaster. It is important to note the double meaning in the title. But this is not the first time she has juxtaposed the personal and the political. In The Mother/Child Papers (1980), she movingly juxtaposes the birth of her third child, a son, with the Vietnam War. In The Imaginary Lover (1986), she continues to write boldly about domesticity and marriage, but in “An Army of Lovers” and “Warning” she starts to assert her Jewishness more personally: “She is like Abraham arguing with God ... / She wants everyone to escape.” In her 1983 book of critical essays, Writing Like a Woman, we see who her spiritual mothers are: H.D., Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, May Swenson, and adrienne rich. But she has gone a step beyond them, calling on her spiritual father, William Blake. Now, in her vatic vision of the world as a Jew, she wants to see women healed and changed with the restoration of the goddess in her many forms.

As she had in The Nakedness of the Fathers, Ostriker once again engages the Bible as both a source and an object of her creativity. In her overview for a new edition of the Five Scrolls of the Bible (2000), she writes that

to read Scripture with open eyes is to be amazed, again and again, by the clear light it casts on our own lives. The Bible is coolly realistic, achingly spiritual, psychologically acute, and brimming with practical wisdom for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Nowhere is this more evident than with the Five Scrolls… And where else can we find such a feast of sensational storytelling and ravishing poetry? As the ancient sages say of Torah, so may we say of these books: turn them and turn them, for everything is in them. (The Five Scrolls… 2000)

What does such a wide-ranging successful career have to tell us about Jewish studies? Alicia Ostriker is one of an increasing number of women writers who have the courage to approach biblical history and legend from an unorthodox, feminist point of view. This is not to say that Ostriker follows any path other than her own. Brought up in an assimilated household, regarding herself as an ex-atheist, she enters into every legendary life, both male and female, with a personal vision. Nothing received is sacrosanct; everything is subject to history and experience.

SELECTED WORKS BY ALICIA OSTRIKER

CRITICAL AND SCHOLARLY BOOKS

The Bible and Feminist Revision: The Bucknell Lectures on Literary Theory (1993); Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic (2000); The Five Scrolls: The Song of Songs, The Book of Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, The Book of Esther, preface by Alicia Ostriker, ed. by John F. Thornton (2000); Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America (1986); Vision and Verse in William Blake (1965); William Blake: The Complete Poems (1977); Writing Like a Woman (1983).

POETRY AND PROSE POETRY BOOKS

The Crack in Everything (1996); A Dream of Springtime: Poems 1970–78 (1979); Green Age (1989); The Imaginary Lover (1986); The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998 in Pitt Poetry Series (1998); The Mother/Child Papers (1980); The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (1994); Once More Out of Darkness and Other Poems (1974); She Took Off Her Wings and Shoes: Poems in the May Swenson Poetry Award Series, by Suzette Marie Bishop and Alicia Suskin Ostriker (2003); Songs: A Book of Poems (1969); The Volcano Sequence (2002); A Woman Under the Surface (1982).

Ostriker, Alicia - still image [media]
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Being a poet, a Jew, and a woman defines all of Alicia Ostriker's work. She approaches the history of both poetry and Judaism from an unorthodox, feminist point of view.

Institution: Private collection

How to cite this page

Whitman, Ruth. "Alicia Suskin Ostriker." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 2, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ostriker-alicia-suskin>.

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