In her poem “Education,” professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84 imagines the life of a Yale student nearly two centuries ago.
“In 1839, to enter University/ The Yale men already knew Cicero,” she writes. “Dalzel’s ‘Graeca Minora,’ then learned more Latin prosody,/ Stiles on astronomy, Dana’s mineralogy.”
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The poem comes from a series of 23 poems about the nineteenth-century Amistad slave rebellion. The trial of those involved took place in New Haven. Alexander did extensive research on the rebellion — and on Yale in the mid-19th century — before writing the poems. But she already knew a thing or two about Yale students, both from her experience as a professor in the English and the African American studies departments, where she has taught since 1999, and as an undergraduate, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English.
Alexander has been writing poetry for over 20 years, and her work has recently attracted national attention. Earlier this month, she was awarded the first annual Jackson Prize for Poetry, and her collection “American Sublime” was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. The Jackson prize, which comes with $50,000, was awarded by poets Stephen Dunn, Jane Hirshfeld and Lucille Clifton.
Elliot Figman, executive director of Poets and Writers, Inc. — the nonprofit group that sponsored the Jackson Prize — said the award is given to a poet who has “demonstrated exceptional talent and promise,” but who had not yet received major national acclaim. He said he did not have any part in awarding the prize to Alexander, whom the judges selected from a pool of 20 nominees, but she “fit the bill” of the type of poet the Jackson Prize is intended to honor.
Alexander was on vacation when she first learned she had been awarded the Jackson Prize and was “tremendously excited” to be honored by the panel of judges, whose poetry she said has influenced her own. She said she did not do anything special to celebrate but has been inundated with congratulatory e-mails and phone calls since her return to New Haven, in what she described as a “collective accolade” from her well-wishers.
Alexander said she appreciates the increased attention her work has been receiving, and she plans to give some of her unexpected windfall back to the poetic community.
“It’s important to make these out-of-the-blue moments of good fortune serve the community a little bit,” she said.
Alexander said some of the money will go to Cave Canem, a program that sponsors summer programs for young black poets and writers. She has been involved with the organization from its inception as “faculty member, encourager, board member and overall sustainer,” and she said she enjoys working with the group because it allows her to nurture and support talented poets who need an extra push.
Annie Boutelle, a poet and English professor at Smith College — where Alexander was the first director of the college’s Poetry Center in the late 1990s — said she has always felt that the “poetry gods” had brought Alexander to Smith. She left Smith in 1999 to come to Yale.
Boutelle said Alexander left a lasting mark at Smith with her contributions to the Poetry Center, where she started a tradition of providing fresh flowers for every poetry reading — by fledgling poets and legends alike — which continues to this day.
Robert Stepto, the chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale, said providing flowers to show poets they are appreciated is a good example of what he called Alexander’s exceptional thoughtfulness. Stepto knew Alexander when she was an undergraduate at Yale and said he felt like he was “hitting a home run at my first baseball game” when he found out she had been awarded tenure at the University nearly two decades later. Besides their professional relationship, Stepto said Alexander is a “dear personal friend” who has provided him with support over the years and helped him through a recent personal tragedy.
Boutelle said Alexander’s “very huge, very generous spirit” comes out in her poems, which deal with a wide range of issues, including slavery, motherhood and American history. Alexander, whose first book of poetry, “The Venus Hottentot,” was published in 1990, said she has always been inspired by “the world of language and the world of culture.”
Although many of Alexander’s poems make specific references to elements of black life, Alexander said she resists a race-based classification of her work. Her poems reflect her wide-ranging interests, she said, including visual art, literature, culture and history.
“In ‘American Sublime’ there are poems about facing the end of life of a beloved parent, about thinking about the relationship between the recently dead and the living, poems that think about motherhood,” she said. “And yes, the speaker is an African American woman at the dawn of the 21st century, but she is meditating on many different topics.”
Alexander carefully selects the art depicted on the covers of her collections — which often include a poem about the image she has selected — and said she finds inspiration for her poems in her everyday life. She said the idea for the series about the Amistad came to her while she was “strolling, strolling, strolling” around New Haven with her then-toddler and wandered into the New Haven Historical Society, where she came across information about the Amistad trial. Alexander said she began to conduct more research on the trial, which took place in New Haven, and as she learned more, she became convinced that New Haven’s landscape contained a history that was “begging to be told and explored.”
While Alexander’s all-encompassing subject matter and elegant, deliberate verse has garnered critical praise and a following of devoted fans — who she said do not hesitate to show their appreciation with effusive letters and phone calls — her work has drawn some criticism. A 2005 review of “American Sublime” in the New York Times Book Review described the work as “a birthday sweater of a book: substantial, thoughtful, practical, dull.” The reviewer, Joel Brouwer, praised Alexander’s “smartly observed and sometimes beguilingly rhythmic” style, but he disparaged the “relentless levelheadedness” of the resulting poems.
But Figman said Alexander’s work is “first-rate,” and he feels the judges made their choice based on the “demonstrated talent and promise” that emerges in her poetry.
Students in Alexander’s seminar “August Wilson and His Contexts” said they think their professor richly deserved the Jackson Prize, although most admitted they have not read her poetry.
Naeha Chaudhry ’08 said she had taken a class with Alexander last year and this semester jumped at the chance to take another. Alexander makes rigorous demands of her students, Chaudhry said, but she is approachable and engaging — and although she is not a household name in poetry, Chaudhry said, “she should be.”
Alexander said she plans to pick up where she left off before her vacation, teaching classes, organizing poetry readings through the African American Studies Department and working on the “August Wilson at Yale” symposium, which will take place on April 9. But the Jackson Prize provides added motivation to get back to work on her poetry, she said.
“The next step is always just to return to the page,” she said. “I keep thinking I had better just write some more poems and live up to what they saw in me.”