Corrections or additions?
A Poet’s Dazzling Mind
This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
November 18, 1998. All rights reserved.
One does not make a living as a poet," says Alicia
Suskin Ostriker, from the comfort of her large, but unpretentious
home in the Riverside neighborhood of Princeton. At 60, the poet and
college professor is relaxed, confident, and funny.
"I see myself as a Whitman-ic kind of poet — stress on the
`manic,’" she continues, making reference to the variegated sweep
of her career. "It isn’t as if I’m the kind of writer who found
`a’ voice and stuck to it for 30 years. I like experimenting. I like
trying to discover both new material and new poetic strategies."
Ostriker, a finalist for the 1998 National Book Award for Poetry for
her latest collection, "The Little Space: Poems Selected and New,
1968 to 1998," shares a reading with poet Chase Twichell at
Books, 114 Nassau Street, on Thursday, November 19, at 7 p.m. Ostriker
is the author of eight previous volumes of poetry including "The
Crack in Everything" (1996), also a National Book Award finalist.
This year’s award announcement takes place on Wednesday, November
18, at a gala dinner at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Manhattan.
Ostriker’s new collection, her first volume of "selected
published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, spans 30 years of
a distinguished writing career. Known as one of the most intellectual
and accessible poets writing today, her poems tackle dense
and difficult subjects in language that the lay reader can digest.
Her probing works examine the meaning of marriage, motherhood, sex,
art, cancer, politics, and religion.
A member of the generation of American women of the 1960s who elevated
women’s voices to an audible level throughout our culture, Ostriker
seems always to have written from the assumption that "the
is the political." Paging through her new anthology is a dazzling
journey through the consciousness and experience of a brilliant mind.
Yet how many "confessional" women, who wove golden art out
of the straw of their quotidian lives, established lifelong marriages
to men who, as decades passed, became equally eminent? Ostriker’s
marriage to Jeremiah P. Ostriker in 1958, when both were college
endures. The prominent astrophysicist is now provost of Princeton
University, second only to Harold Shapiro, the president, in managing
the vast resources of that institution.
"He was the only boy I knew who could defeat me in an
writes Ostriker in her lively autobiographical essay for the
Authors" series. "He was wild, funny, athletic, fiercely
irreverent, arrogant. He taught me to drink wine and love Mozart.
He teased me out of my normal solemnity. He loved my writing, my mind,
my independence, my breasts. I was not too brainy or too artistic
Thus — despite our best intentions — we arrive at the
interview wondering whether the provost lives up to his portrayal
in the poems. For example, does he wear pajamas? But we phrase the
question more politely. Is your family resigned to being grist for
"Oh, yes," Ostriker replies. "It goes with the territory
of having a poet for a wife and/or mother that you get written about.
The people in my family all responded differently." She says there
have been times when her eldest daughter resented having her life
reflected in print, and times when her young son basked in the glory
of reading about himself and bringing his poet mom to school. But
her husband has been consistently patient with the most intimate
of their life together.
"My husband has been very generous," she says. "I did
ask him once how he felt about it, about my using my life and our
life together as material for poems, and he said, `That’s your job.’
The perfect answer! He said, `This is universal material and you speak
for those who cannot speak for themselves.’ It was the answer that
I hoped to hear and didn’t think I would hear."
Among the few early poems included in the new volume, written before
1980, is "Portraite de l’Artiste," a poem from the time of
her first pregnancy. It includes this passage:
Most of my nights I spend with your hot body,
First making love, then curled together,
Then rolling around back to back, pajamaless,
Which, we have decided, or
discovered, is best for sleeping
The whole night through —
male partner is wearing blue flannel pajamas. Some questions, we
are better left unasked.
Born in Brooklyn on Armistice Day, November 11, 1937,
Ostriker was a Depression baby, adored by parents and grandparents
alike. Both sets of grandparents came from eastern Europe during the
pogroms of the 1880s, and her parents, David and Beatrice Suskin,
met at Brooklyn College. Both were English majors, but neither wrote
professionally. Ostriker calls her parents "the gentle
who never outgrew being poor and proud.
"My mother wrote poetry and still does. That was important to
my life," says Ostriker, whose mother taught her to read and who
read the poetry of Shakespeare, Tennyson, Browning to her. Her father
worked for 25 years as a playground director for the New York City
Department of Parks. Alicia has one sister, Amy, 10 years her junior.
Their mother now lives in Princeton.
"I always wrote poetry from childhood on," says Ostriker.
"I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing poetry. But I
think of myself as `a poet’ until much later."
When she was six her parents moved from a Brooklyn housing project
to the East River Drive Houses in Manhattan so that she could attend
Hunter College Elementary School. Somebody told her parents she had
a high IQ, which was evidently true enough. For from Hunter, she went
on to become a scholarship student at the elite Fieldston School.
Her future Harvard-bound husband, Jeremiah P. Ostriker, was also a
At Brandeis on a full scholarship, between 1955 and 1959, Ostriker
studied "with an array of extraordinary professors," including
Irving Howe, Philip Rahv, J.V. Cunningham, Herbert Marcuse, Philip
Rieff, and Paul Vigee.
When married in 1958, she was a Brandeis senior, the groom a Harvard
senior. After their graduations, they spent a year in Washington D.C.
and then both went to graduate school, he at University of Chicago
and she at University of Wisconsin, Madison.
"I thought I would hate going to graduate school, but I wanted
the piece of paper that would enable me to be a college teacher,"
says Ostriker, whose vocation to teach outweighed any illusions she
may have had about "making a living" as a poet. "I did
my course work in two years, which I was able to do because I was
on a full fellowship, and wrote the dissertation in one year —
it was a record. I was pregnant while writing my dissertation, so
that was a spur. The baby was born a week after the dissertation was
handed in — and she was a week late."
In 1964, both Ostrikers, Ph.Ds in hand, applied for positions at
Jeremiah received an offer. His wife received a letter which read:
"As a glance at our catalogue might have informed you, our faculty
here at Princeton is entirely male. My reply to your query must
be in the negative." She accepted, instead, an assistant
at Rutgers where she continues to teach English and creative writing.
In 1988, she was a lecturer at Princeton University’s program in
Today the Ostrikers are parents of three adult children whom their
mother pronounces "lovely human beings." Their oldest
Rebecca, an English major at Harvard, now is managing editor of New
Age Magazine and plays bass in a rock band called the Burrs. Their
second daughter, Eve, has gone into the family business as an
professor of astrophysics at the University of Maryland. Their son,
Gabriel, works as a data analyst in the Boston area and sings in an
early music group.
What does it mean to arrive at a `selected poems’ and
how does one go about winnowing through 30 years’ work? "It’s
a landmark," says Ostriker, with a sigh that opens a little window
on the effort expended. "It means you must have been doing
right. But then it also means that you have to try to stand back from
yourself and get some sort of objective judgment on what you’ve been
subjectively producing all these years. And I found it quite
"Now I have spoken to people who have done selected poems who
have said, `Oh, I just made those choices in two weeks and it was
all over.’ I, on the other hand, tore my hair, and beat my breast,
and asked all my friends." Seven such helpers are listed in the
"There are many different modes I write in," explains
"Trying to select and find a balance that would be representative
of the various styles as well as the changes I’ve gone through in
my life was a task. I did reject most of what I wrote before 1980,
there’s very little of in this book, and some of it is quite early
work that now makes me wince because it’s so juvenile. Some of it
is work that’s still rather dear to me, and yet that I feel might
make other people wince because it would seem to them so
"It was 30 years of blood, sweat, and tears, and having to ask
myself, What here do I think is valuable? What is representative?
What do I think people would still want to read sometime in the
Who am I? — Again, that question that never seems to be decided!
And it does seem strange at the age of 60 still to be asking it, but
I know I’m not alone."
Judaism has been an important adult theme for Ostriker. In addition
to addressing biblical stories and themes in her art, she has
two critical works on Judaism and the Bible: "Feminist Revision
and the Bible" and "The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical
Visions and Revisions." Yet she did not grow up in an observant
"Everyone in my family was secular. I was raised third-generation
atheist, socialist Jew. It was that line of Jewishness that comes
out of the prophets in which being a Jew was about reading and
it was also about kindness and social progress," she says.
"Growing up free of Sunday school can be something that makes
one more attached to Judaism as an adult. There is so much that is
powerful and compelling and fascinating in Jewish history, culture,
and literature. If it wasn’t hammered into you as a child, then you
could come to it freely with your own temperament and your own
"This is a moment in which women are making a move to interpret
and reclaim our traditions in our way," says Ostriker, who
her enterprise as not simply to save the Jewish tradition from
but to "save it from the orthodox." "Feminist spirituality
has become important. And this is happening among Christians as
Ostriker’s interest in the visual arts continues into adulthood.
she did not become a painter or a printmaker, her new anthology
a spectrum of visually exciting and insightful poems about paintings
— from the Monet oil painting that hangs in Princeton University’s
Art Museum, to works by Van Gogh, Goya, O’Keeffe, Alice Neel, and
Ostriker says she has long found her mentors between the pages of
books. Blake was the subject of her doctoral dissertation, and she
took the title for her selected poems from lines by William Blake:
For we are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.
because I’ve always been an anti-authoritarian person. I was never
happier at school than when I could raise my hand and disagree with
something that my teacher had just said. So I didn’t have the
to be a protege. I don’t have adoration genes in me."
"My models have been many," she continues. "When I was
a student they were all men. I wanted to be some combination of
and Keats and W.H. Auden and Blake. And then once I was out of school
and teaching contemporary poetry I wanted to be some combination of
Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams —
that nice New Jersey set of generations. And then in the ’70s I began
devouring women’s poetry and acquired 100 or so more mentors."
Despite this eventual torrent of admired artists, Ostriker places
the late Allen Ginsberg in a category of his own. "The only person
whose sandals I ever wished to kiss was Allen. He was pretty ill that
last Dodge festival and he was frail — until he got on-stage.
That was an amazing performance. He levitated the big tent for 45
minutes. He always did channel — there is no other way of putting
it. He channels the holy spirit, he channels divine energy and is
a fountain of it. And I speak of him in the present, as if he were
still here, because there is a sense in which he is still here."
The fabulous biennial Dodge Poetry Festival brings Ostriker to reflect
on the place of poetry in our fin-de-siecle technological whirlwind
"Where is poetry today? I think it’s very healthy in every
she says. "It is a characteristic of American culture that it
is spread out and democratic. So the poetry scene in America is
diffuse. Everywhere in America there are local poetry scenes, there
are regional poetry scenes, all of which are providing something that
is needed." Among the many community-based poetry groups to which
she has belonged is the US 1 Poets’ Cooperative, that she helped
While some may question the logic of literary competition, Ostriker
takes her second National Book Award nomination seriously, and hopes
for a happy outcome. "I’ve always felt that I write for people
of my generation, for living people, but also I write for the noble
dead. I write so that I can feel worthy of the poets I adore. And
I write with my fingers crossed for posterity.
"I think Milton in `Lycidas’ says, `Fame is the spur, that last
infirmity of noble minds.’ And I think anyone who is an artist wants
to be known, wants to live on. And there’s no shortcut to that.
— Nicole Plett
609-921-8454. Poetry reading and book signing with Chase Twichell.
Thursday, November 19, 7 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.