Rita Frances Dove
Rita Frances Dove
In announcing Rita Frances Dove's appointment, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, "I take much pleasure in announcing the selection of a younger poet of distinction and versatility. Having had a number of poet laureates who have accumulated multiple distinctions from lengthy and distinguished careers, we will be pleased to have an outstanding representative of a new and richly variegated generation of American poets. Rita Dove is an accomplished and already widely recognized poet in mid-career whose work gives special promise to explore and enrich contemporary American poetry."
Rita Frances Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, on August 28, 1952. She was the second of four children born to Ray Dove and Elvira Elizabeth (Hord) Dove. Her father was one of ten children and was the first in his family to go to college, earning a master's degree in chemistry. At the time of her birth however, her father was working as an elevator operator for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company because he could not get hired as a research scientist. Eventually, her father broke the color barrier and became the first African American chemist to work for Goodyear.
From a young age, she wrote plays and stories which her classmates performed. In high school she wrote a comic book along with her older brother which featured characters named Jet Boy and Jet Girl who could fly and communicate telepathically. "One of the things that fascinated me when I was growing up was the way language was put together, and how words could lead you into a new place," she told Mohammed B. Taleb-Khyar in a 1991 interview for Callaloo. "I think one reason I became primarily a poet rather than a fiction writer is that though I am interested in stories, I am profoundly fascinated by the ways in which language can change your perceptions."
She was named a presidential scholar in 1970, when she was designated one of the hundred best high school graduates in the nation. A few months later, she enrolled at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, as an English major. A writers' conference she attended with one of her high school English teachers had shown her that writing could be a career. She also took many German language courses and practiced the cello consistently. She decided to become a professional poet while in college and told her parents while on a Thanksgiving break. "[My father] swallowed once," she said, recalling that day, "and said 'Well, I've never understood poetry, so don't be upset if I don't read it."' Faculty members at Miami University were more surprised than her family with her career decision. She said that, "declaring one's intention to be a poet was analogous to putting on a dunce cap," and that many at the school treated her as if she was "throwing away [her] education."
She graduated summa cum laude from Miami University in 1973 and was a Fulbright fellow at the University of Tubingen, Germany from 1974 to 1975. In Germany, she studied expressionist drama and the works of twentieth-century German lyric poets Ranier Maria Rilke and Paul Celan. Her political awareness "increased dramatically" while she was in Germany because she found herself "on display in a strange environment where some people pointed with fingers at [her] and others pitied [her] as a symbol for centuries of brutality and injustice against blacks." It was also in Germany that she met her future husband, Fred Viebahn, a novelist. They married in 1979 and have a daughter, Aviva Chantal, who was born in 1983.
After returning from Europe, she enrolled at the University of Iowa, where she was a teaching/writing fellow in the Writer's Workshop. She received her Master of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa in 1977, the year Ten Poems, her first chapbook of verse was published. In 1980, her second chapbook, The Only Dark Spot in the Sky, was published. Her first book-length poetry collection, based on her master's thesis, The Yellow House on the Corner, was published in 1980.
Dove's second poetry collection, Museum, was published in 1983 and based on her travels abroad from 1979 to 1981. In 1981, Dove joined the faculty of Arizona State University at Tempe as an assistant professor. She was the only African American out of a staff of over seventy members in the English Department. After being promoted to a full professor for the last two years of her stay at Arizona State University, she accepted a position as a professor of English at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in 1989. In 1992, the university named her Commonwealth Professor of English.
The United States Congress created the position of poet laureate in 1985, when it upgraded the half-century-old office of poetry consultant at the Library of Congress. The official title for the position is "Library of Congress Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry" and offers a $35,000 stipend for the one year term.
On October 1, 1993, Dove became the nation's seventh poet laureate by succeeding Mona Van Duyn. In 1993, she gave the first official poetry reading at the White House in more than a dozen years. In her role of poet laureate, she aimed to keep poetry in the public eye and to expose the mass of American society to a form of language that it might not see otherwise. She tried to be "a force" for poetry and revitalize "serious literature." She said that otherwise the country would "drown in the brutalization of a truncated, dehumanized language." Displaying her entrepreneurial energies, she said that she hoped to raise funds for readings of poetry linked with jazz; a conference among scientists, artists, and writers; and "town meetings" focused on poetry. "I'm hoping that by the end [of my tenure], people will think of a poet laureate as someone who's out there with her sleeves rolled up, not sitting in an ivory tower looking out at the Potomac." She succeeded in this aim, and James H. Billington said that she had come up with "more ideas for elevating poetry in the nation's conscienceness than there is time to carry out in one year." To this aim, he offered, and she accepted his February 1994 invitation to serve another one-year term until late-1994.
After her term finished, she went back to teaching at the University of Virginia and keeps a tireless schedule of public appearances around the country to promote poetry and literature. For the occasion of the Olympiad in Atlanta, Georgia over the summer of 1996, Dove's works were scored for Andrew Young and read at the games.
She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim and Mellon Foundations, the National Humanities Center, and the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia. With the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she served as writer-in-residence at Tuskegee Institute as a Portia Pittman fellow. Robert Penn Warren, while poet laureate himself, the first to hold that designation, selected Dove for the Lavan Younger Poet Award bestowed by the Academy of American Poets. She was president of the Associated Writing Programs, made up of persons teaching creative writing in colleges and universities. She holds honorary doctorates from Miami University and Knox College and was inducted into the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame in 1991.
Dove's activities ranged widely outside the world of academia. She served on the Advisory Board for Literature of the National Endowment for the Arts, was a judge for the Walt Whitman Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the $75,000 Ruth Lilly Prize, described as "the largest poetry prize in the United States." She held the Ohio Governor's Award in the Arts and the General Electric Foundation Award. She was also an editor of Callaloo. She was the Phi Beta Kappa poet at a Harvard University commencement an the New York Public Library selected her as a "Literary Lion."
Dove's poems have appeared in a wide range of journals, including Black Scholar and the Yale Review, and have been reprinted in such anthologies as Early Ripening: American Women's Poetry Now, edited by Marge Piercy (1987). She also published five books of poetry, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Museum (1983), Thomas and Beulah, which won a Pulitzer Prize (1986), and Grace Notes (1989), and Mother Love (1995); as well as a book of short stories, Fifth Sunday (1985), and a novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992).
Dove's sometimes intensely personal poetry displays her deeply informed grasp of literary technique. Helen Vendler, a leading critic and student of poetry, wrote in the New York Review of Books that "Dove has planed away unnecessary matters: pure shape, her poems exhibit the thrift that Yeats called the sign of a perfected manner."
Arnold Rampersad, director of African American Studies at Princeton University and a specialist in writing by African Americans, wrote that "Dove is perhaps the most disciplined and technically accomplished black poet to arrive since Gwendolyn Brooks began her remarkable career in the nineteen forties…." He spoke also of "the absence of strain in her voice, and the almost uncanny sense of peace and grace that infuses this wide-ranging poetry…."
Typical of her impressive grasp of classical prosody applied to a modern idiom is her spare free-verse sonnet "Flash Cards" from Grace Notes, which evokes childhood memories of studying with her father:
In math I was the whiz kid, keeper of oranges and apples. What you don't understand, master, my father said; the faster I answered, the faster they came. I could see one bud on the teacher's geranium one clear bee sputtering at the wet pane. The tulip trees always dragged after heavy rain so I tucked my head as my boots slapped home. My father put up his feet after work and relaxed with a highball and The Life of Lincoln. After supper we drilled and I climbed the dark before sleep, before a thin voice hissed numbers as I spun on a wheel. I had to guess. Ten, I kept saying, I'm only ten.
"Horse and Tree," also from Grace Notes, catches a child's excitement about nature and carousels; "Stitches," from the same volume, tersely records the frightening tension during a moment of surgery.
For further biographical material on Dove, see the introductions to her books reported in the text. Articles relevant to her efforts to resuscitate poetry today are Louis Simpson's remarks in the New York Times Book Review (March 1, 1992), and essayist Joseph Epstein's essay "Who Killed Poetry?" in Commentary (August 1988).
Information on Dove's post-poet laureate career can be found in the Atlanta Constitution (July 22, 1996); the Christian Science Monitor (September 7, 1995); the Detroit News (April 18, 1996); and the New York Times (November 5, 1995). □