Public History and Private Life in Elizabeth Alexander's Crave Radiance: A Data Analysis

By Phillips, Emily | Journal of Ethnic American Literature, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Public History and Private Life in Elizabeth Alexander's Crave Radiance: A Data Analysis


Phillips, Emily, Journal of Ethnic American Literature


Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (2010) showcases Elizabeth Alexander's ability to use her poetry to both express and teach, reflecting on her own life and highlighting African American figures from history. Alexander explores multiple elements of her identity, including her gender, race, sexuality, and family history. The poet also moves beyond her own experience to those of other figures who share one or more of her identity markers, so that a poem about an African American musician works to expose and enlighten her readers while simultaneously connecting to Alexander's poetic persona as African American and artist. Her poetry gives testimony to history and lived experience that is multidimensional and complex. Through an informal yet thorough data analysis of Crave Radiance, we can highlight the foci of Alexander's work and her ability to combine themes and approaches to reveal the complexities of personal and communal pasts, how they intersect and diverge, and the poet's call to place herself within a shifting dynamic of time, space, and experience.

Although a data analysis is an unusual framework for the study of poetry, the benefits of such a project become clear as we see trends develop and change throughout the course of a poet's career. A data-driven approach toward analyzing poetry leads us toward scholarly work that can, for example, chart trends in relationship to historical events, cultural shifts, and other aspects of the human condition that poetry responds to and illuminates. Analysis of poetry "by the numbers" opens a new path for understanding literary art.

From The Venus Hottentot (1990)

In the first section of Crave Radiance, we find selections from The Venus Hottentot, Alexander's first volume of poetry, published in 1990. Data analysis1 of this selection reveals a prevalent theme of figures from the past; approximately 55% (11/20) of the poetry found in this collection is spent on highlighting and voicing historical figures, from the title character whose time spent in the English carnival circuit as a freakshow attraction illuminates issues of gender, race, and sexuality, to artists and writers like Romare Bearden and Albert Murray. 35% of the selection focuses on presumed personal experiences of the poet herself. This poetry includes insight into family ("West Indian Primer"), youth and sexuality, ("Nineteen"), and feelings and definitions of home ("Letter: Blues"). There are two outliers in this collection that cannot be collected under the umbrellas of public or private: "The Dirt-Eaters," a poem about the cultural legacy of eating dirt, and "Today's News" (1%, or 2/20). "Today's News" gives important insight to the collection as a whole as it represents a hybrid focus that is neither definitely public nor private, but instead reveals the intersection of both for the speaker. Alexander writes,

I didn't want to write a poem that said 'blackness

is,' because we know better than anyone

that we are not one or ten or ten thousand things

Not one poem We could count ourselves forever

and never agree on the number....

.... Most mornings these days

Ralph Edwards2 comes into the bedroom and says, 'Eliz-

abeth,

this is your life. Get up and look for color,

look for color everywhere.' (36)

Through her exploration of several African American figures, Alexander portrays the multi-dimensionality of black experience and interest. Within African American community, there is no simple definition of what "blackness is," and to even attempt such a definition would remove the "color everywhere." This poem serves as an ideal bookend for this collection as it illuminates Alexander's larger project of artistically representing African American history and personal exploration. As the collection progresses, we will see how percentages and organizational terms shift to account for the combination of the public and the personal within poems, transforming the larger pro- ject of The Venus Hottentot into a theme that permeates a substantial amount of Alexander's work. …

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