A Writer From Rutgers

Table of Contents

Fall/ Winter 03


A Writer From Rutgers, by Yana Zeltser

The Rutgers College Student Center's Multipurpose Room was brimming with excitement as more than one hundred people gathered for a poetry reading by Alicia Suskin Ostriker. Professor Ostriker is already a familiar face at Rutgers. As a member of the English Department, she is known as a scholar of religion, feminism, and poetry, the author of four books of literary criticism, a teacher of literature and theory as well as of midrash, the traditional technique for analyzing the Hebrew Scriptures. She had been invited to read, however, in another capacity: as an award-winning poet who has published ten books of verse. As the reading demonstrated, these different parts of her life often combine, with poetic results.

Professor Ostriker was introduced by Dean of Humanities Barry V. Qualls, a colleague from the English Department. "Her work takes nothing for granted," he said, "particularly not the work of women reading and writing poetry through history." Dean Qualls went on to extol the inquisitive nature of Ostriker's writing, both her poetry and her literary criticism. "She is always asking questions about orthodoxy," he said, "always working to 'illuminate our darkness.' And she is always working at exploding boundaries, for she sees no safety in boundaries." He also read some of his favorite passages from Professor Ostriker's earlier work.

Professor Ostriker then read to a captivated audience from her most recent collection, The Volcano Sequence, a book which draws on her knowledge of Jewish history and tradition, feminist literary theory, politics, and the writings of Blake and Ginsberg. "This is a book that records my own spiritual quest as a Jewish woman," she said. Ostriker described the strange experience, a first for her, of having the poems come to her unbidden, often surprising her with their revelations. She responded by making a special deal with the poems: "If you agree to keep on arriving, I agree not to tell you what to say." There is a great depth of passionate feeling to these poems, which are frequently addressed to God or to her mother, or "some combination of the two." The central image of the volcano becomes a metaphor for these emotions, beneath the surface but always threatening to erupt: "to imagine how / the earth roared showed teeth / bucked and heaved / to look for an hour // at where the tidal wave began / that destroyed Atlantis / and created a myth / a green good world." She paused in the reading, then added, "You remember."

Professor Ostriker also read from her new manuscript No Heaven, which she describes as a venture into new territory, away from the spiritual concerns of The Volcano Sequence and into the world of current events. She read "An Elegy for Allen," a moving poem that pays tribute to Allen Ginsberg while addressing the seeming contradictions between his Jewish identity and his Buddhist aspirations. Another poem she read, "The Window, At the Moment of Flame," was written in response to September 11: "and all this while I have been playing with toys / a toy superhighway a toy automobile a house of blocks."

Professor Ostriker's poetry is groundbreaking, honest, and personal - very much in the tradition other New Jersey poets like Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman. World Literature Today says her work "shows her to be among the finest American poets," and Amy Williams, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, writes: "For discovery to take place there must be movement, and Ostriker refuses to stand still; each volume [of her work] tries to uncover anew what must be learned in order to gain wisdom, experience, and identity. She is a poet who breaks down walls." Professor Ostriker acknowledges this demolition work as a valuable aspect of poetry, saying, "I try to write things that will make people laugh and cry. I try to write poems that will give people access to their own souls, their hidden and secret selves."

Poetry, according to Professor Ostriker, fills an important need. "People all have interior lives they are forbidden to talk about, and there is a thirst for poetry that can express that depth we share," she said to her audience at the reading. "Muriel Rukeyser has a poem called 'Islands' that says 'For God's sake / they are connected, / underneath.' She is talking about all of us. We are all connected, underneath, and poetry exists to express that connection."

Related Links
Writers at Rutgers Series

Professor Ostriker’s Personal Website

Rutgers University home page