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Dove, Rita 1952–

Rita Dove 1952

Poet, writer, educator

At a Glance

Explores Essence of Her Grandparents Survival in Verse

Evokes Mood of a Decade of Social Change in Novel

Expanding the Role of U.S. Poet Laureate

Selected writings


U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove is the third African Americanand the youngest poet everto hold the post of distinction in her field at the U.S. Library of Congress. From 1937 to 1985, the position was called consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress; in 1986, the name of the consultancy was changed to that of poet laureate. Preceded in the position by black poets Robert Hayden (1976-78) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1985), Dove has infused her role with an unprecedented measure of freshness, resolve, and vitality: she is committed to bringing poetry to the masses throughout the nation. I think people should be shaken up a bit when they walk through life, she commented in Time. They should stop for a moment and really look at ordinary things and catch their breath.When a poem moves you, it moves you in a way that leaves you speechless.

Dove is generally held to be one of Americas best contemporary verse writers and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987. Celebrated for sensitively revealing personal epiphanies and black American collective experiences, she has published several critically acclaimed books of verse since her late twenties, beginning with her first volume, The Yellow House on the Comer (1980), followed by Museum (1983), Thomas and Beulah (1986), and Grace Notes (1989). Her work has also appeared in chapbooks, magazines, and anthologies. A collection of selected poems from her first three books was published late in 1993, while a verse-drama is scheduled to come out in 1994.

In keeping with her interest in African American history, poems in the third part of The Yellow House on the Corner are written from the vantage point of American slaves. In the 1986 volume Thomas and Beulah, the black experience from the early 1900s on is revealed through the lives of Doves maternal grandparents. Though Dove often writes about herself, her family, and black history in America, her works reflect a broad social awareness and deal with a variety of subjects. While she acknowledges her role as an African American poet, she does not like being restricted to that role. Her poems, she has said, are about people, and sometimes these people are black. However, she told the Washington Post, I cannot run from, I wont run from any kind of truth.

Dove has handled fiction successfully as well, receiving praise for her collection of short stories, Fifth Sunday (1985), and novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992). Both of these works established her versatility as a writer. Aside from writing for publication, Dove has taught creative writing for many years.

At a Glance

Born Rita Frances Dove, August 28, 1952, in Akron, Ohio; daughter of Ray (a chemist) and Elvira (Hord) Dove; married Fred Viebahn (a German-born novelist); children: Aviva Chantal Tamu Dove-Viebahn. Education: Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1973; attended Tubingen University, West Germany, 1974-75; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1977.

Poet, writer, educator. Arizona State University, Tempe, assistant professor, 1981-84, associate professor, 1984- 87, professor of English, 1987-89; Tuskegee Institute, writer in residence, 1982; University of Virginia, professor of English, 1989, Commonwealth Professor of English, beginning 1993; named U.S. poet laureate, 1993. National Endowment for the Arts literature panel member, 1984-86; commissioner, Schomburg Center, NYC; past judge/panel member for several awards in poetry.

Member: National Endowment for the Arts, Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, Phi Kappa Phi, PEN American Center.

Selected awards: Fulbright scholar, 1974-75; National Endowment for the Arts literature grant, 1978 and 1989; Guggenheim fellow, 1983-84; Lavan Younger Poet Award, Academy of American Poets, 1986; Pulitzer Prize for poetry, 1987, for Thomas and Beulah; General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers, 1987; Ohio Governors Award, 1988; Bellagio residency, Rockefeller Foundation, 1988; Andrew W. Mellon senior fellowship, National Humanities Center, 1988-89; fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies, University of Virginia, 1989-92; honorary degrees from Knox College and Miami University.

Addresses: Office University of Virginia, Department of English, Wilson Hall, Charlottesville, VA 22903.

She is currently an English professor at the University of Virginia and lives in Charlottesville.

Dove has always felt the need to excel in academic endeavors, perhaps as much because of her familys and peers high standards as her own. She was born in Akron, Ohio, on August 28, 1952, to Ray Dove, the first African American chemist to enter the tire-and-rubber industry, and Elvira Hord, a high school honors student who passed on her love of learning to Dove and her three siblings. In her pursuit of scholarly excellence, Dove scored among the top one hundred high school seniors in the country and visited the White House as a Presidential Scholar in 1970. She went on to study at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, as a National Achievement Scholar, and graduated with honors in 1973. The year after that she attended Tubingen University in West Germany on a Fulbright scholarship. Later, Dove returned to the United States and pursued graduate studies in creative writing at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.

Though she changed her focus several times in college, Dove wound up majoring in English and writing poetry. While her parents supported her decision, her peers questioned it. As a young black person in college I was expected to be a professional, she told the Chicago Tribune. Writing poetry was unthinkable then. I was writing but not showing it to anyone yet because I couldnt see myself as a writer. But her parents and professors recognized her talent and encouraged her to keep writing.

After graduating from the University of Iowa with her M.F.A. in 1977, Dove began publishing poems and short stories, first in periodicals, later in chapbooks, and then in book form. She wrote for six to eight hours each day, every day of the week, for nine years, and supported herself with teaching fellowships at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, and Alabamas Tuskegee University. In the late 1970s, she met and married German-born novelist Fred Viebahn, with whom she had a daughter, Aviva.

Doves first full-length poetry book, The Yellow House, appeared in 1980. While some critics called the autobiographical quality of the book unoriginal and self-serving, others praised Dove for her melodious voice, the universal quality of her characters, and her allusions to the Old Testament. About one poem, A Suite for Augustus, essayist Arnold Rampersad wrote in the African American journal Callaloo, With deft wordplay, an excellent dramatic sense, and a sure ability to choose just the right fragment of experience and expose it to precisely the correct amount of light, Dove takes uswithin the space of relatively few lineson a historical tour of a sensibility. The suites opening, 1963, refers to the death of President John F. Kennedy: That winter I stopped loving the President / And loved his dying. He smiled / From his frame on the chifforobe / And watched as I reined in each day / Using buttons for rosary beads.

Museum, published in 1983, was Doves most critically praised book before the appearance of Thomas and Beulah. In Museum, she writes about her own experiences and those of legendary historical and mythic figures in poems titled Nestors Bathtub, Catherine of Alexandria, Shakespeare Say, Agosta the Winged Man and Rasha the Black Dove, and Parsley. Reviewers noted the works maturity, Doves skilled use of imagery and color, and the thoughtful, foreknowing quality of her voice.

In Callaloo, Rampersad described Parsley as a chilling evocation of the madness that led General Trujillo allegedly to order the massacre of thousands of Haitian blacks in the Dominican Republic apparently because they could not pronounce the letter Y in perejil, the Spanish word for parsley. The first part of the poem, spoken by Haitians, reads: There is a parrot imitating spring / in the palace, its feathers parsley green. / Out of the swamp the cane appears / To haunt us, and we cut it down. El General / searches for a word: he is all the world / there is. Like a parrot imitating spring, / we lie down screaming as rain punches through / and we come up green. We cannot speak an R

Explores Essence of Her Grandparents Survival in Verse

Doves award-winning collection, Thomas and Beulah, enhanced her reputation as a top lyric poet of her generation. Half of the book is told from the point of view of Thomas, born in 1900 in Wartrace, Tennessee, and the other half is from the perspective of Beulah, born in 1904 in Rockmart, Georgia. The book sprang from Doves curiosity about her grandfathers move from the Tennessee Ridge to the North in 1919 with just a prayer and a mandolin. I was after the essence of my grandparents existence and their survival, not necessarily the facts of their survival, she told interviewer Steven Schneider in the Iowa Review.

Poet Emily Grosholz wrote in the Hudson Review, In her wise and affectionate portrait [Thomas and Beulah], Dove emphasizes their separateness by arranging the book in two halves, Thomas story (vignettes from about 1920 to his death in 1963) followed by Beulahs in similar sequence. The ordering reveals how differently each perceived their union.But [the book] is arresting not only as a study of character, but for the brilliance of Doves style.Dove can turn her poetic sights on just about anything and make the language shimmer. Similarly, Jack E. White commented in Time that the effortless economy and exactness of the language she employs to distill the essence of lifes small happenings [etches] gemlike verbal images that detonate a gentle shock of recognition in her readers.

Having taken part in the black migration from the rural, southern United States to the industrial North, the poets grandparents embody the spirit of their era. Dove told the Washington Post, The poems are about industrialization, discrimination sometimesand sometimes notlove and babieseverything. Its not a dramatic storynothing absolutely tragic happened in my grandparents [lives].But I think these are the people who often are ignored and lost. As Peter Stitt put it in the Georgia Review, The very absence of high drama may be what makes the poems so touchingthese are ordinary people with ordinary struggles, successes, and failures.

In her fourth book of poems, Grace Notes, Dove again writes about personal things, such as nursing her daughter and recollecting her own childhood. The poems also deal with living in the moment, the mystery of life, and the relinquishing of facts for larger truths. In Ars Poética, Dove wrote, What I want is this poem to be small, / a ghost town / on the larger map of wills. / Then you can pencil me in as a hawk: / a traveling x-marks-the-spot. About Grace Notes, S. Keith Graham wrote in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, [Doves] tone is sensitive, her style accessible and her imagery chiseled with spare power. Grace Notes presents the small but precious moments of illumination that can come to any of us in ordinary life. While A.L Nielsen commented in the Washington Post, The poems of Grace Notes are largely autobiographical and abound in the unforgettable details of family character.Rita Doves Grace Notes are her turnings of the tunes we all hum, the tunes that pluck at our memories.

Evokes Mood of a Decade of Social Change in Novel

Doves debut novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992), centers on a gifted black woman named Virginia King, who returns home to Akron, Ohio, to serve as an artist-in-residence at a grammar school. While teaching puppetry, she relives memories of family life, a restrictive community, and her participation in a communal puppet theater. Reviewers praised Dove for her understanding of human character, her heartfelt emotions, and her effective discussion of the topic of race. Some, however, were disappointed with her failure to bring fresh insights into ordinary moments, something she does so well in her verse.

Novelist Francine Prose wrote in the Washington Post Book World, Too often, Doves novel recreates moments we feel weve experienced beforeand fails to take that extra step that might transform them into art. But Prose also observed, Dove skillfully evokes the mood of a decade when social change seemed not only possible but imminent.[She] has great affection for her characters and never patronizes or trivializes their hopes and fears and desires. There are no villains here, exactly, just the fallout from human frailty, human error, human misunderstanding. The daily tensions inherent in ordinary family life and magnified over timeare touchingly and convincingly rendered.

Expanding the Role of U.S. Poet Laureate

Though primarily a poet, in the coming years Dove intends to write fiction and poetry. She does not believe one genre excludes the other. Through her post as poet laureate, to which she will devote herself exclusively until her term ends in late 1994, Dove plans to be a force for poetry. Im hoping that by the end [of my tenure] people will think of a poet laureate as someone whos out there with her sleeves rolled up, not sitting in an ivory tower looking out at the Potomac, she told Newsday. Her aim is to keep poetry in the public eye. People are hungry for poetry, she said. What makes poetry spiritually nourishing in a way only poetry can be is that it can stop a moment, and by capturing one moment makes us take a break and look around and feel really alive.

Selected writings


Ten Poems (chapbook), Penumbra, 1977.

The Only Dark Spot in the Sky (chapbook), Porch Publications, 1980.

The Yellow House on the Corner, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1980.

Mandolin (chapbook), Ohio Review, 1982.

Museum, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1983.

Thomas and Beulah, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1986.

The Other Side of the House, photographs by Tamarra Kaida, Pyracantha Press, 1988.

Grace Notes, Norton, 1989.

Selected Poems, Vintage Books, 1993.

The Darker Face of the Earth (verse drama), Story Line Press, 1994.


Fifth Sunday (short stories), Callaloo Fiction Series, University Press of Kentucky, 1985.

Through the Ivory Gate (novel), Pantheon Books, 1992, Vintage Contemporaries (paperback), 1993.

Associate editor, Callaloo Journal of Afro-American Arts & Letters, 1986; advisory editor, Gettysburg Review, 1987, TriQuarterly, 1988. Work published in anthologies and magazines, including Agni Review, Antaeus, Georgia Review, Nation, and Poetry.

Selected poetry from Doves first three collections, read by the author, was released on audiocassette by Random House AudioBooks in 1993.



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 50, Gale, 1988, pp. 152-58.

Contemporary Poets, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 237-238.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets Since World War II, Gale, 1992, pp. 47-51.

Poetry Criticism, Volume 6, Gale, 1993, pp. 103-124.


Atlanta Journal and Constitution, November 19, 1989, sec. L. p. 8.

Atlantic Monthly, July 1989, p. 61.

Booklist, September 15, 1992, p. 122.

Boston Globe, November 13, 1992.

Callaloo, Winter 1986, pp. 52-60.

Chicago Tribune, June 28, 1992.

Christian Science Monitor, October 27, 1992, p. 13.

Ebony, October 1987, p. 44.

Emerge, July/August 1993, p. 12.

Essence, October 1993, p. 52.

Georgia Review, Winter 1986, pp. 1021-33.

Hudson Review, Spring 1987, pp. 157-64.

Iowa Review, Fall 1989, pp. 112-23.

Library Journal, August 1992, p. 146.

Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1991, sec. BR, p. 6.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 22, 1992.

Ms., July/August 1992, p. 23.

Nation, May 16, 1987, p. 654.

Newsday, November 1, 1992; June 1, 1993, part 2, pp. 43, 53.

New York Review of Books, October 23, 1986, p. 47.

New York Times, November 12, 1989, sec. 7, p. 11; May 19, 1993, pp. C15, C18.

New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1992, p. 11.

People, May 31, 1993, p. 92.

Publishers Weekly, July 28, 1989, p. 212; August 3, 1992, p. 68.

Time, October 18, 1993, pp. 88-89.

Washington Post, April 17, 1987; April 8, 1990, sec. WBK, p. 4.

Washington Post Book World, October 11, 1992, p. 5.

Writers Digest, December 1991, p. 12.

Yale Review, Autumn 1988, p. 84.

Alison Carb Sussman

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Dove, Rita

Rita Dove, 1952–, American poet, b. Akron, Ohio. Her first poetry collection, Ten Poems, was published in 1977. Her verse is at once concise, precise, and evocative. History as seen from an African-American perspective is perhaps her most important theme: the history of her country, as in the slavery poem sequence of The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), and the history of her own family, as in the Pulitzer Prize–winning volume Thomas and Beulah (1986), her grandparents' life story in verse. In her many collections, Dove also writes compellingly of mother-daughter relations, e.g., Mother Love (1995), everyday life, travel, and the aesthetic experience itself. From 1993 to 1995 she was U.S. poet laureate, the first African American to hold the post. An English professor at the Univ. of Virginia, Dove has also written short stories, a play, and a novel.

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