Elizabeth Alexander was born on May 30, 1962, in Harlem, New York, and grew up in Washington, D.C. She received a BA from Yale University, an MA from Boston University (where she studied with Derek Walcott), and a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania.
Her collections of poetry include Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010); American Sublime (Graywolf Press, 2005), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Antebellum Dream Book (Graywolf Press, 2001); Body of Life (Tia Chucha Press, 1996); and The Venus Hottentot (University Press of Virginia, 1990).
Her memoir, The Light of the World (Grand Central Publishing, 2015), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Alexander's critical work appears in her essay collection, The Black Interior (Graywolf Press, 2004). She also edited The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks (Graywolf Press, 2005) and Love’s Instruments: Poems by Melvin Dixon (University of Michigan Press, 1995). Her poems, short stories, and critical writing have been widely published in such journals and periodicals as The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Callaloo, The Village Voice, The Women's Review of Books, and The Washington Post. Her work has been anthologized in over twenty collections, and in May of 1996, her verse play, Diva Studies, premiered at the Yale School of Drama.
About Alexander's poetry, Rita Dove writes that "the poems bristle with the irresistible quality of a world seen fresh," and Clarence Major notes Alexander's "instinct for turning her profound cultural vision into one that illuminates universal experience."
In 2007, Alexander was selected by Lucille Clifton, Stephen Dunn, and Jane Hirshfield to receive the Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers. Her other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Chicago, and the George Kent Award, given by Gwendolyn Brooks.
In 2009, she recited “Praise Song for the Day,” which she composed for the occasion, at President Barack Obama's first Presidential Inauguration.
She has taught at Haverford College, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Smith College, where she was Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence, the first director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, and a member of the founding editorial collective for the feminist journal Meridians. She has served as a faculty member for Cave Canem Poetry Workshops, and has traveled extensively within the United States and abroad, giving poetry readings and lecturing on African American literature and culture.
Alexander has been a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. She previously served as the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of African American Studies and inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, and the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2015 to 2021. She is the current President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and lives in New York City.