A Festival of Words

September 10, 2018

“We encounter each other in words,” wrote the poet Elizabeth Alexander ’84. This week, we will encounter many words and the people who use them so well as Yale hosts the annual Windham-Campbell festival—a three-day celebration of writers and their craft.

The Windham-Campbell Prizes recognize writers of superb talent and promise working anywhere in the world and writing in English. I will present this year’s prizes in fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry at a ceremony on Wednesday. Elizabeth Alexander, the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a recipient of an honorary degree from Yale last spring, and a former member of our Department of African American Studies, will deliver the annual Windham-Campbell Lecture, “Why I Write.” I hope you will join us for this wonderful occasion or one of the many exciting festival events. All are free and open to the public.

Established in 2013, the Windham-Campbell Prizes are administered by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which holds the Donald Windham and Sandy M. Campbell Collections. This remarkable resource documents two fascinating lives as well as their broader artistic and cultural circles.

Donald Windham was a writer and playwright. Sandy Campbell, a writer and actor, was instrumental in editing and publishing Windham’s work. They were friends with some of the leading literary figures of the mid-twentieth century, helping them understand the challenges of making a life—and a living—as a writer. The Windham-Campbell Prizes award $165,000 to each recipient, helping fulfill the namesakes’ dream of honoring and supporting writers.

The Windham-Campbell Prizes complement Yale’s reputation as an extraordinary home for literature, drama, and the arts. Major American writers, poets, playwrights, and critics—Robert Penn Warren, Sinclair Lewis, Calvin Trillin, Thornton Wilder, and, of course, Elizabeth Alexander, to name only a few—have studied and taught at Yale. More recent graduates, such as Chang Rae-Lee and Claire Messud, are also acclaimed writers.

One of the joys of working for so many years at Yale has been the opportunity to see some of my favorite writers in ordinary circumstances. Many years ago, I was walking down Prospect Street when I saw Marie Borroff ’56 Ph.D., the poet, translator, and Sterling Professor of English, coming toward me. I had just read one of her recently published poems, and seeing her reminded me of her words, which remain with me today: “Connecticut light: sun at the end of snow / Thronging each branch, spinning the shadows wide…. Light opulent in maple red and gold / As the sun’s arc leans southward day by day.”

Thanks to Professor Borroff’s words, I have never seen the light in New Haven or the Connecticut countryside in quite the same way. Such is the power of art—to embellish and reveal, to help us see the world in all its complexity and beauty, and to transform the world around us. I am indebted to her and to all the artists and writers who illuminate our world with their work.