The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Rita Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1986 for her collection of poems Thomas and Beulah. The collection, which is dedicated to the poet’s mother, contains poems that are meant to tell two sides of the same story and are meant to be read sequentially. In the back of the collection, a chronology of events in the lives of Thomas and Beulah aids in understanding the events dramatized in the poems.

The collection consists of forty-four poems arranged in two parts, some of which had been published in various places before 1986. The collection is divided into two parts: Part 1, entitled “Mandolin,” presents twenty-three poems; part 2, entitled “Canary,” consists of the volume’s remaining twenty-one poems. The volume has eighty pages including the chronology. An epigraph from Melvin B. Tolson’s Harlem Gallery (1969) prefaces the first part. The quotation attached to the second part is taken from Anne Spencer’s poem “Lines to a Nasturtium.” Both authors’ passages further elucidate the permanence and depth of Thomas and Beulah’s love. Their love becomes the “fire” they pass on to their children and grandchildren. Their union becomes the family’s bridge over the “troubled waters” of variance, a “viaduct,” as Dove calls it, that spans the differences between their families.

Thomas and Beulah is a volume of narrative verse that presents the saga of Dove’s family, depicting the generations that started with her maternal grandparents. Thomas was born in Tennessee, and his wife, Beulah, who was four years younger, was born in Georgia. When Beulah was two years old, her parents moved to Akron, Ohio, Rita Dove’s birthplace. Thomas is portrayed as a virile young man when he arrives in Akron, Ohio, in 1921. Three years later, he and Beulah are married, and two years afterward (1926), their first daughter, Rose, is born. The story thus continues to unfold, telling of the birth of all their daughters and the death first of Thomas and then of Beulah.

The first part of the collection tells Thomas’s story. The opening poem, “The Event,” portrays Thomas as a young man on a riverboat leaving Tennessee. It boasts of his silver falsetto, his good looks, and his mandolin. “Variation on Pain,” “Jiving,” and “Straw Hat” show Thomas assuaging the pain in his soul with the help of his mandolin; going to Akron, Ohio, in 1921 and his attractiveness to the young women there; and, finally, his meeting with Beulah. Set in the parlor of Beulah’s...

(The entire section is 1038 words.)