Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America
by Alicia Suskin Ostriker
The Women’s Press: London, 1987 (First published by Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1986)
When Alicia Suskin Ostriker names Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as examples of watershed books in Feminist literature, she could have easily included her very own Stealing the Language in that list. With hindsight, Ostriker’s seminal text is to American women’s poetry what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic is to Victorian women writers. However, Ostriker’s text moves beyond a distinctly Anglo-centric perspective and includes Black women poets (Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange) and Chicana poets (Gloria Anzalduá), amongst others. In this respect, the sheer breadth of poets featured in Stealing the Language is hugely impressive, making this text the essential first port of call for any aspiring Feminist literary critic.
The introduction to Stealing the Language is packed with depressingly prejudiced remarks about women poets through the ages. Ostriker seamlessly deconstructs the inherent sexism of adjectives such as “elegant” and “modest,” used by male critics and editors throughout history, and the way in which women poets have been repeatedly misconstrued by their male counterparts, who have judged that genius does not come easily to women poets, but is rather the fruit of their hard labour. Although Ostriker’s text is primarily divided into thematic sections, Stealing the Language also functions as a diachronic account of the evolution of women’s poetry through the ages, starting with Anne Bradstreet and ending in the mid-1980s. Ostriker’s focus is on the twentieth century, but Chapter 1 offers an overview of women’s poetry before 1900, an enlightening section which allows the reader to trace back poetic influences and significant motifs.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are, I believe, the most thought-provoking and daring of all. Their focus on the portrayal of women’s anatomy, sexuality, and psychological anger in poetry offers readers a wealth of radical, often unfairly controversial, poems about women who have decided to unashamedly explore their own bodies in writing. Ostriker makes a bold distinction between a “poetess” and “one who dares to make what is muted visible,” in order to explain the way in which women poets’ routes to self-discovery have evolved.
Ostriker once again points to the historical precedents that have conditioned women’s writing through the ages: in focusing on their physical bodies, women ran the risk of reinforcing the perennial stereotype which confined them to irrational, earthly pleasures, in opposition to men, who were, and have always been, associated with logic and rationality. Where men were only threatened by the “mind–forg’d manacles” (William Blake, “London”) of the mind, women had to overcome both ideological and physical constraints. Thus, Ostriker lucidly explores the ways in which American women poets have continued to undermine stereotypes and appropriate thematic choices, focusing on topics such as menstruation, lesbian sex, rape.
Ostriker’s discussion of de Beauvoir is elucidating and very appropriate for her discussion of women’s history of subordination at the hands of men. However, her analysis would have benefitted from a stronger presence of Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection, as it can be specifically applied to the historical aversion to depict women-specific bodily fluids (such as menstrual blood or milk) in literature. Similarly, she tentatively mentions other influential French feminists such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, but never fully exploits their valuable ideas on the power of portraying women’s bodies in poetry as a way of allowing women to find their voice.
My only substantial criticism of Stealing the Language is Ostriker’s fixation on exploring “the common rather than […] the real and sometimes bitter divisions between [women poets].” This stance seems rather contradictory, as she inadvertently discusses a wide array of poets. In trying to create a homogenous voice for all women, she runs the risk of erasing the different experiences of poets who are not middle class white women. Whilst Ostriker’s intention fits the premise of the book and definitely serves to strengthen her message, she should be more willing to embrace the differences between women authors, as that too enhances their power.
Nevertheless, Stealing the Language remains a key cornerstone of Feminist literary criticism and I would recommend it to any students of literature with an interest in women’s poetry. It is engaging, extremely readable, and I can guarantee every reader will find at least one snippet of inspiring poetry in it. From Clifton to Dickinson, from Plath to Wakoski, Stealing the Language will continue giving a voice to women poets for years to come.
Alicia Suskin Ostriker is an American poet, critic, and scholar who has published extensively on Feminist literary criticism. She has published numerous collections of poetry and several critical and scholarly works, out of which Stealing the Language is arguably the most influential. She is currently a professor of poetry at Drew University’s Low-Residency MFA Program in poetry and poetry in translation.