Sunday, October 27, 2013

Elizabeth Alexander as a link between generations of poets

By Briana Whiteside

Elizabeth Alexander's Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 provides us with an opportunity to consider approximately two decades of a poet's work. Such coverage is rare for poets born after 1960 in our dataset. Poets under the age of 50, in our dataset at least, typically do not publish collected works. Alexander, who was born in 1962, serves as a connector between previously established generations of poets and a younger group of writers.

For instance, Alexander's book links to the collected works in our dataset by Lucille Clifton, Ai, and Nikki Giovanni as well as works by Michael Weaver, and Carl Phillips. Alexander’s poems and volumes of poetry have also linked to works by poets born after 1965. Her concentration on history and series of poems on the Amistad in American Sublime correspond to Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard (2006), and Kevin Young’s Ardency (2011), respectively.

Of the 151 poems in Crave Radiance, “The Venus Hottentot” and “Praise Song for the Day” have become Alexander’s two most widely well-known pieces. “The Venus Hottentot” first appeared in Callaloo in 1989 and then in book form as the title poem for her volume The Venus Hottentot. Alexander first read “Praise Song for the Day” at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and Graywolf released the book later in the year as a pamphlet.

“The Venus Hottentot” generated interest because of its focus on the exploitation of black female bodies; the poem is also an extended persona poem, a mode that has become increasingly utilized by contemporary African American poets. Alexander read “Praise Song for the Day” in front of a live audience of around 1.8 million people and millions of television viewers, guaranteeing that her poem would have one of the largest audiences ever.

An Introduction to 208 volumes of poetry by African American poets, 2000-2013 

Briana Whiteside is a graduate student in English at SIUE and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.   

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