Poet, parent and Pulitzer Prize nominee Elizabeth Alexander ’84 is a connoisseur of history, art and politics. Her book, “American Sublime,” which received the nod from the Pulitzer Prize board, explores the African American tradition through a collection of sonnets, elegies, narratives and a sequence of long poems about history, language, religion and art.
An associate professor of African American studies, Alexander said the nomination was “tremendously exciting” and a “great honor.” But she said that while she appreciates the importance of such recognition, she does not base her perception of herself as a poet on awards.
“I’ve been writing poetry for a long time and, nominated or not nominated, it wouldn’t change my approach to my work,” she said.
Fiona McCrae, director of Graywolf Press, which published “American Sublime” and many of Alexander’s other works, said she would describe Alexander’s style as “immediate, savvy, musical, witty, engaged, lively, aware, serious, subtle and surprising.” McCrae said she has seen Alexander’s poetry evolve in the past several years, now encompassing an increased number of subjects and themes.
“The range in her work is growing, and I think it makes her an increasingly interesting writer,” she said. “We see the self as the main subject in some of the poems, but she also reaches out and tackles wider social and cultural issues in her work.”
Now more than ever, McCrae said, Alexander’s work is appealing for its depth of content and variety of styles.
“She can be almost surreal at times, and then write about concrete details — of life as a mother, for example,” she said. “She can be very funny, but there is always a sense of there being something at stake in her poems.”
Alexander said it was impossible to be disappointed that she did not win the Pulitzer Prize because she wrote the best book she could. McCrae said she was “delighted” to be nominated and that when something of this magnitude happens, it is important not to worry about the “what-might-have-beens.”
“Hundreds of poets did not even make this final three, so there is much to celebrate here,” she said.
Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, said each of the three final nominees are so qualified for the award that the choice of the winner does not necessarily mean that the two other candidates lagged far behind.
“You have to have at least a majority of the members voting in order to win the prize, and her entry did not muster a majority,” he said. “But all three of them were highly regarded. They were all good work.”
Jonathan Holloway, a professor of African American studies and master of Calhoun College, said reading Alexander’s work is “transporting” for him because he finds “deep resonances” with his own experiences in her words. He said her nomination is a testament to her gift as a poet.
“You’re always surprised when anybody gets nominated that you know,” he said. “It’s sort of a wonderful surprise, and at the same time, if you know her work, it’s not that surprising at all. … To me it’s really an aesthetic experience, and I have no idea what flaws one could point out [in her work].”
Holloway said one poem, “Billy Strayhorn Writes Lush Life,” took him right into the lyrics and the emotions of the John Coltrane song of the same title, even illustrating the way in which the singer’s deep, baritone voice starts out low and becomes high by the end of the song.
“I read it and it took my breath away,” he said. “It transported me to the first time I heard it as an undergraduate.”
But some reviewers did find reasons to criticize “American Sublime.” The New York Times Book Review, for instance, recognized Alexander’s greatest strength as being her ability to revive the past by making it collide with the present, but the review characterized her pieces as relentlessly “levelheaded” and somewhat monotonous.
“A birthday sweater of a book: substantial, thoughtful, practical, dull,” reviewers Joshua Clover and Joel Brouwer said in their review last November. Of one poem that Alexander called the “centerpiece of her book,” the reviewers wrote, “The Amistad sequence stumbles under its burdens of diligent facticity, unconvincing dramatic monologues and stilted rhetorical gestures.”
Still, most critics lavished the book with praise and admiration.
“Alexander is an unusual thing, a sensualist of history, a romanticist of race,” a Chicago Tribune reviewer wrote last year. “She weaves biography, history, experience, pop culture and dream. Her poems make the public and private dance together.”
Alexander said the diverse interests and themes in her work stem from her childhood, during which she was raised to be “civic minded” and to keep up with what was happening in her Washington, D.C., community and in the world. Even now, she said, she is extremely “eclectic” in her reading, devouring everything from poetry and books on African American studies to biographies and art history. She said she is also fascinated by ephemeral popular culture.
“I’m very interested in how our times are chronicled,” she said. “It’s almost like, what don’t I read?”
Alexander, who received her doctorate in 1992 from the University of Pennsylvania, has been a professor at Yale in the Department of African American Studies since 2000.
Though she said it is difficult to find modern anthologies of African American poetry that do not contain her poems, Alexander said she does not assign her own books to her classes.
“Even though I have many things to say about my work, I will leave that to others,” she said.
English professor and novelist-in-residence Caryl Phillips said Alexander is an asset to the University faculty and a valuable source of knowledge and guidance for students.
“She is a dedicated and passionate teacher who reaches out to her students way beyond the confines of the classroom,” he said. “Having her as a full-time tenured member of the faculty is a coup for Yale University and a great blessing for her colleagues, myself included, who hold her and her work in the highest regard.”
Holloway said Alexander, who is on the board of the Afro-American Cultural Center, fills a vital gap as a creative writer in the African American Studies Department. But he said the best way he can describe Alexander is as a “presence.” He said this is partly because she is an international star, but mostly because of her personality.
“She just has a way about her that lets you know that she’s an intellectual force, a creative force,” he said. “She’s a really charismatic and powerful person. She captivates people.”
Alexander said that at the end of the day, she has to keep herself focused on her writing and not on the awards it may garner.
“The most important triumph is finding a way to keep doing your work,” she said. “Prizes are like flowers falling out of the sky.”