An Award-Winning Poet

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Rita Dove is a major force in contemporary American poetry. She has published seven full-length books of poems (her Selected Poems gathers the contents of her first three books), received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and spent two years as poet laureate of the United States (1993-1994). She was born August 28, 1952, in Akron, Ohio, and grew up with two younger sisters and an older brother. Her father, the first African American industrial chemist to work for Goodyear Tires, figures prominently in several of her poems. She shares her father’s love of mathematics and science but has embraced her mother’s love of literature and describes herself as an avid reader since early childhood. The poem “Geometry,” from her first book, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), begins, “I prove a theorem and the house expands.”In her introduction to her Selected Poems (1993), Dove describes herself as “passionate about books,” and she tells of writing a novel when she was in elementary school: “The words led me, not the other way around.” Helen Vendler has described Dove’s imagination as “rapid, extrapolative, montage-like, and relational.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in 1973 from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Dove attended the University of Tübingen, where she studied German and modern European literature on a Fulbright fellowship. She received a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1977, and while there she met her future husband, German writer Fred Viebahn, who was teaching at Oberlin College. They married in 1979 and spent two years writing in Israel and Germany. From 1981 to 1989, Dove taught at Arizona State University, and in 1983 their daughter Aviva was born. Since 1989, they have lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Dove teaches as Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. She is an accomplished cellist and singer with classical voice training, and she and her husband are competitive ballroom dancers.

Poetry Without Limits

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As an African American writer with strong European connections and a sense of the past as well as the present, Dove has claimed a vast world for her subject matter, one full of mysteries, small objects, broken promises, desires, contradictions, cruelties, and strange weathers. She explores the particularities of race, gender, and culture in the interstices of everything and everywhere. At the end of “Nexus,” from her first book, the “giant praying mantis” that has haunted her efforts to write from his place at the window expands and is transformed when she walks into the evening:

I walked outside;the grass hissed at my heels.Up ahead in the lapping darknesshe wobbled, magnified and absurdly green,a brontosaurus, a poet.

In The Yellow House on the Corner, Dove’s subjects range from a slave mutiny in “The Transport of Slaves from Maryland to the Mississippi” to classical music in “Robert Schumann: Or, Musical Genius Begins with Affliction.” Her verse ranges from the simple, domestic images of “Small Town” to the surreal imagery of the three poems entitled “Adolescence,” in which the first-person speaker encounters “three seal men with eyes as round/ As dinner plates and eyelashes like sharpened tines.”

Dove’s second...

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Thomas and Beulah

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Dove’s third collection of poems, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Thomas and Beulah (1986), draws on the experiences of her own grandparents, a connection suggested by the printing of their photos on the book’s cover and acknowledged by Dove in interviews, though not explicitly stated in the book. The volume concentrates on the separate lives of a married couple. Dove allots first twenty-three poems to Thomas and then twenty-one to Beulah, and she provides a chronology dating from Thomas’s birth in 1900 until Beulah’s death in 1969. Their individual lives are shown obliquely in relation to larger social forces and events, such as the March on Washington in 1963.

The stories of Thomas and Beulah are told separately, from their youthful experiences before they met, through a long marriage, and on to old age and death. Each member of the couple is presented as essentially alone, with his or her greatest pains, disappointments, and dreams kept private from others, but shared with readers in a cryptic and fragmented way. The effect is eerily intimate while at the same time tragically distant. Thomas grieves and perhaps feels some guilt for his drowned friend Lem; consequently, he appears slow to find other sources of meaning and affirmation. Late in his sequence, in “Roast Possum,” Thomas reveals a passionate desire to teach a manly kind of woods lore, survival skills, and a capacity for enjoyment to his one grandson, significantly named...

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Post-Pulitzer Work

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Of her fourth volume of poetry, Dove has commented, “With Grace Notes I had several things in mind: every possible meaning of grace, and of notes, and of grace notes, and also a little added riff.” In writing Grace Notes (1989), she sought to counter “the heavy weight of Thomas and Beulah, which had such a big scope.” The collection marks Dove’s return to a purely lyric mode, but an autobiographical impulse also dominates the work. More than in any of her previous collections, Dove can be seen as the actor in each vignette, whether as a young child learning a brutal lesson in the Southern black school of survival (“Crab-Boil”) or as a mother groping for a way to reveal feminine mysteries to her own young daughter (“After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed”). In the ironic “Ars Poetica,” she places herself on the literary chain of being with what might pass for self-deprecation. Her ambition is to make a small poem, like a ghost town, a minute speck on the “larger map of wills”: “Then you can pencil me in as a hawk:/ a traveling x-marks-the-spot.” In her assessment of Grace Notes, Bonnie Costello finds that the literary features readers have grown to appreciate in Dovearise here in their finest form: descriptive precision, tonal control, metaphoric reach within uncompromising realism. Moreover, she has brought these talents to bear upon a new intimacy and moral depth, served by memory and imagination working together.

Prose Works

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Accomplished though she is as a poet, Rita Dove also writes fiction, and discussion of her poetry can benefit from an awareness of her work in that genre. Her slim volume of short stories, Fifth Sunday, was published in 1985 and her novel, Through the Ivory Gate, in 1992. Her stories convey some of the same qualities of compression and understatement that are found in her poems, along with a similar range of locations between Europe and America. Included among the eight stories in Fifth Sunday are “Zulus,” about an American motorcycle gang crashing the wedding of one of its own; “Vibraphone,” about a woman music student who follows one of her musical heroes to a revealing and disappointing meeting in Italy; and “The Spray Paint King,” a moving story about an outlaw graffiti artist. The poignant title story tells of adolescent infatuation.

The subject of incest broached in “Aunt Carrie,” the last story of Fifth Sunday, is revisited in Through the Ivory Gate, which Malin Pereira describes as “a novel of artistic development.” The novel “underlines the importance of reading the episode as a symptom of a repressed primal scene of cultural amalgamation” and concerns the protagonist’s resolution “of some of the tensions about her life as a cultural mulatto.” The main character, Virginia, abandons her relationship with a black man to work with a white man, a puppeteer in an Off-Broadway play. As Pereira observes, the title “alludes to Virginia’s one-way, no-turning-back passage through the gates of the traditionally white-identified, college-educated, middle-class,” and it addresses the issue of maintaining “racial and cultural affiliation when one has gone through the ’ivory gate’ and become culturally mixed.” In Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), the gate of ivory is that of false dreams.

Later Verse

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Following the 1993 edition of her Selected Poems, which collected her first three books of poetry but did not include the poems from Grace Notes, Dove moved into drama with the verse play The Darker Face of the Earth (pb. 1994, pr. 1996), set on a plantation in antebellum South Carolina. Taking its origins from the Oedipus tragedy, the play in fourteen scenes concerns both incest and miscegenation, and it comes to its climax in a slave revolt, but the slaves’ cry of freedom at the end resonates with bitter irony. First aired at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland in the summer of 1996, the play was also staged in the fall of 1997 at The Kennedy Center.

Therese Steffen connects Dove’s use of myth in the verse play with her next collection of poems, Mother Love (1995), which is composed largely of free-verse sonnets (more than forty in number, including the title poem, a double sonnet). In these poems, Dove revisits the myth of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, providing a two-page introduction in which she comments on her use both of the sonnet form and of the ancient story. She declares the myth to refer to “a modern dilemma as well,” that point at which “a mother can no longer protect her child, when the daughter must go her own way into womanhood.” In “Persephone, Falling,” for example, the mother’s voice is offered parenthetically as she warns her daughter to go straight to school and not to speak to strangers, but when Persephone leans over to pull a narcissus, she has “strayed from the herd” and Hades (not named in the poem) springs from the earth “on his glittering terrible/ carriage” and claims “his due.”

In the seven-poem sequence “Persephone in Hell,” which is not composed of sonnets, the first-person speaker appears as a naïve young woman in contemporary Paris “girded” with “youth and good tennis shoes” and speaking just “seven words of French.” In the remarkable six-sonnet sequence “The Bistro Styx,” Demeter meets with her daughter, her “blighted child,” who poses as a nude model for a painter of

appalling canvases,faintly futuristic landscapes strewnwith carwrecks and bodies being chewedby rabid cocker spaniels.

As Pat Righelato has observed, Dove elsewhere has acknowledged her debt to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (1922) in producing her modern-day Persephone.

In her next book, her sixth full-length collection of poems, Dove declared by her title, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), that she would be returning to the context of African American history and culture. The title applies to the ten-poem sequence with which the...

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Dove’s Positions and Poetics

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Dove has made herself available to interviewers, with the result that a number of her ideas about her own writing, about the craft of poetry, and about a variety of other concerns such as feminism, race, politics, and human values are available in published interviews. Thirteen such discussions have been collected in Earl G. Ingersoll’s Conversations with Rita Dove (2003). Both Steffen’s and Pereira’s critical books on Dove’s writing conclude with interviews. In her interview with Mohamed B. Taleb-Khyar in Callaloo (1991), Dove says that in her poems she triesvery hard to create characters who are seen as individuals—not only as Blacks or as women, or whatever, but as a Black woman with her own particular problems, or one White bum struggling in a specific predicament.

Dove considers herself to be a feminist but notes that “when I walk into my room to write, I don’t think of myself in political terms. I approach that piece of paper or the computer screen to search for . . . truth and beauty through language.” Perhaps this passage from her 1992 interview with Steven Ratiner will suffice as a response to the many who have asked Rita Dove about the importance of music to her poems:A poem convinces us not just through the words and the meaning of the words, but the sound of them in our mouths—the way our heart beat increases with the amount of breath it takes to say a sentence, whether a line of poetry may make us breathless at the end of it, or give us time for contemplation. It’s the way our entire body gets involved in the language being spoken.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

McDowell, Robert. “The Assembling Vision of Rita Dove.” In Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry, edited by James McCorkle. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990. Overview of Dove’s Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Museum (1983), and Thomas and Beulah (1986). Regards Dove as a storyteller who “tells all sides of the story” from different perspectives. Stresses her use of myth, which she distorts and revises along gender lines, and her relating public and private events as in “Parsley.”

Rubin, Stan Sanvel, Earl G. Ingersoll, and Judith Kitchen. “A Conversation with Rita Dove.”...

(The entire section is 404 words.)