American Spirituals


Publisher: Northeastern University Press

Order: Barnes & Noble


American Spirituals Samuel French Morse Prize, chosen by Carolyn Kizer

“This is lovely writing, precise observation, tender yet realistic.” Carolyn Kizer, Pulitzer-Prize winner

Randall Jarrell Prize for the title sequence, “American Spirituals”

Comment by Eavan Boland

If ever a poem was in the spirit of the prize in acquired, this must surely be it.  Randall Jarrell’s sense of the spaciousness and challenge of the American narrative is well honored here.  This ambitious, questing poem is in ten parts.  It’s purpose, to use the poet’s words from the second section, is to touch “the many planes of reality”. . . . I admired this poem particularly because sequences are never easy to write.  They require the clearest sort of palette, the most confident brush strokes.  And - to press the likeness a little - this is a very large canvas.  Not just in the use of language, from Manhattan to Texas, but also in its changes of tone, its shifts of imagery and interference.  Nevertheless, these are beautifully managed sections, full of swift and daring changes.  But gradually the voice unfolds a portrait of both place and nation and, with it, a beautiful muted elegy for all the ironies and distances we have made of our own lives.  For all the ways we betray ourselves.

Poet Paints a Portrait of a City: American Spirituals Shows Tender, Troubling Side

        West Haven–Though he has achieved status of an associate professor of English at the University of New Haven, Jeffrey Greene doesn't forget that he grew up in the Elm City, in "a sense as a townie."
       And it is that memory–and recognition–that reverberates through Greene's award-winning collection of poetry, "American Spirituals," a volume of alternately tender, humorous and troubling views of New Haven.
        "The way New Haven operates in this book is as a paradigm," Greene 46, said. "You have an incredibly privileged institution where presidents come from, juxtaposed with one of the poorest cities in the country."
        The award bestowed on Greene's book, his second volume of poetry, is the prestigious Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize, given by Northeastern University in Boston. The prize does not require a certain style or genre, but recognizes quality of work, university officials said.
        In her introduction to "American Spirituals," Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carolyn Kizer states that Greene "knows how to make a poem," a craftsmanship that "seems to get rarer and rarer these days."
        But Kizer also points out that Greene's work is full of non-judgmental sympathy, such as when he writes of Latin Kings gang members as "angels." The work also is one of "precise observation," she wrote.
        "Throughout the many poems about New Haven, his home, Greene contrasts the ordinary or sinister life of the city with the rarified atmosphere of the university to telling effect," Kizer wrote.
        Such praise, from one of the distinguished senior poets in the nation, also is rare, according to Guy Rotella, professor of English at Northeastern.
        "One of things you see is the degree to which (Kizer) was taken with Jeffrey Greene's uncommon treatment of urban issues," Rotella said. "And New Haven is the subject and setting for much of the book."
        Greene, who began his way with words as a teen when he wrote song lyrics, ponders other subjects in the poems, including spirituality, apt in light of the title, relationships, social issues, and even pets.
        "Many people think poetry is a party they are not invited to," Greene said. "I wrote this book intending it to be very accessible."
        Greene, who teaches one semester at UNH each year, splits his time between New Haven and Paris, where his wife, Mary Weiss is a molecular biologist at the Pasteur Institute. The couple also are in the midst of restoring a "presbytery," the former home of cleric, in Burgundy province.

                                    -- Helen Bennett Harvey

                                    Originally published in the New Haven Register