Student Portal: “Blues” by Elizabeth Alexander

by Elizabeth Alexander
Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1962) is a poet, an educator, and an arts activist. She has taught at both Yale and Columbia University and is currently the president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest foundation dedicated to the arts and humanities within higher education. At the time of the 1994 conference, she had published her first collection of poems, The Venus Hottentot, and won the NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, both of which can be looked at as an indication that she was well on her way to the success she has achieved today. However, even with all of her potential, Alexander still experienced “the blues.” At the Conference’s Thursday Night Poetry Reading, Alexander read “Blues,” a poem that she would go on to publish in 1996. As you watch the video and read the poem below, think about what “the blues” mean to you.

Elizabeth Alexander reads “Blues”


I am lazy, the laziest
girl in the world. I sleep during
the day when I want to, ‘til
my face is creased and swollen,
‘til my lips are dry and hot. I 
eat as I please: cookies and milk
after lunch, butter and sour cream
on my baked potato, foods that
slothful people eat, that turn
yellow and opaque beneath the skin.
Sometimes come dinnertime Sunday
I am still in my nightgown, the one
with the lace trim listing because
I have not mended it. Many days
I do not exercise, only
consider it, then rub my curdy
belly and lie down. Even<
my poems are lazy. I use
syllabics instead of iambs,
prefer slant to the gong of full rhyme,
write briefly while others go
for pages. And yesterday,
for example, I did not work at all!
I got in my car and I drove 
to factory outlet stores, purchased<
stockings and panties and socks
with my father’s money.

To think, in childhood I missed only
one day of school per year. I went
to ballet class four days a week
at four-forty-five and on
Saturdays, beginning always
with plie, ending with curtsy.
To think, I knew only industry,
the industry of my race
and of immigrants, the radio
tuned always to the station
that said, Line up your summer
job months in advance. Work hard
and do not shame your family,
who worked hard to give you what you have.
There is no sin but sloth. Burn
to a wick and keep moving.

I avoided sleep for years
up at night replaying 
evening news stories about
nearby jailbreaks, fat people
who ate fried chicken and woke up
dead. In sleep I am looking
for poems in the shape of open
V’s of birds flying in formation,
or open arms saying, I forgive you, all.

Reader Response Questions

1. After reading the poem, how does your idea of “the blues” compare to that of the poem’s speaker?

2. Which is more challenging: forgiving yourself or forgiving someone else?

History and Culture

1. In the poem, Alexander has written about some of the expectations and pressure she felt as a child knowing only of “the industry of [her] race / and of immigrants.” Can you think of any expectations that you feel you have to live up to?

2. Create a T-Chart showing the expectations you feel you have to live up to vs. the expectations you have for yourself.

3. How do you feel that the expectations in your life have shaped you as a person?

Poet's Craft and Structure


1. Sometimes, we associate certain words with specific images. Poets often utilize these descriptive words, or imagery, to create a picture. Alexander’s poem is titled “Blues,” yet the word ‘blues’ does not appear in the poem itself. What kind of imagery does the title bring to mind? How does the imagery implied by the title affect the imagery used in the poem?

2. How does the imagery Alexander utilizes at the beginning of the poem contrast the imagery she uses to end the poem?

3. In the poem, Alexander utilizes the image of sloth. What are the images and connotations that come to mind? Support your interpretation with lines from the text.


1. In the poem, Alexander writes, “Even / my poems are lazy. I use / syllabics instead of iambs, / prefer slant to the gong of full rhyme.” In syllabic poetry, authors use the same amount of syllables in each line. Does Alexander utilize this style of poetry in “Blues?” Why do you think she made this choice?

2. Poems are either written with a consistent structure, which utilizes rhymes, meter, and stanzas, or they are written in free verse. When writing in free verse, the author must rely on a heightened use of language such as word choice, repetition, rhythm, and line arrangement to achieve poetic effects. Look at how Alexander has chosen to structure “Blues.” How does the structure or lack of structure in this poem lend to the idea that the speaker has “the blues?”

Reading and Writing Connections

1. Write a 10-line syllabic poem about the expectations in your life. Choose a syllable number between 5 and 10.


2. Do you feel that the imagery of the poem indicates that Alexander is forgiving herself or her family? Using textual evidence, explain why or why not.