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Best known for Thomas and Beulah, which received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Dove is considered one of the leading poets of her generation. She was the second African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the first being Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950. In addition to her many honors, Dove served as poet laureate of the United States for two years from 1993 to 1995.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Recognition for Superior Academic Record
Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, into a highly educated family. An excellent student, Dove was a Presidential Scholar, ranking nationally among the best high school students of the graduating class of 1970. She traveled to Washington, DC, to receive the award during a time when many were protesting the Vietnam War at the nation’s capital. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in English from Miami University of Ohio in 1973 and then studying in Germany, Dove enrolled at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She graduated with an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1977 and published her first full-length collection of poetry and autobiographical work, The Yellow House on the Corner, shortly after in 1980. Dove taught creative writing at Arizona State University from 1981 to 1989. During her time teaching, Dove continued to publish her work. After releasing a chapbook (a pocket-sized booklet) for publication, she authored Museum (1983), and in 1986 her crowning work, Thomas and Beulah, appeared.
Writing about the Nobodies of History
Similar to her previous work, Thomas and Beulah combines racial concerns with historical and personal elements. Loosely based on the lives of Dove’s maternal grandparents, Thomas and Beulah is divided into two sections. “Mandolin,” the opening sequence of poems, is written from the view point of Thomas, a former musician haunted since his youth by the death of a friend. ”Canary in Bloom,” the other sequence, portrays the placid domestic existence of Thomas’s wife, Beulah, from childhood to marriage and widowhood. Through allusions to events outside the lives of Thomas and Beulah—including the Great Depression, the black migration from the rural South to the industrial North, the civil rights marches of the 1960s, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—Dove emphasizes the couple’s place in and interconnectedness with history. Dove remarked: ”I was interested in the thoughts, the things which were concerning these small people, these nobodies in the course of history.” For her efforts, Thomas and Beulah won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Dove’s next work, Grace Notes (1989), contains auto biographical poems that delineate Dove’s role as mother, wife, daughter, sister, and poet. ”Pastoral,” for instance, describes Dove’s observations and feelings while nursing her daughter, and ”Poem in Which I Refuse Contemplation” relates a letter from her mother that Dove received while in Germany. Like her previous works, Grace Noteshas been favorably reviewed by critics. Sidney Burris observed that Grace Notes ”might well be [Dove’s] watershed because it shows her blithely equal to the ordeal of Life-After-A-Major-Prize: she has survived her fame.”
First Novel Explores Black Identity
Dove’s first novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992), incorporates elements often considered typical of her poetry. The story of a young black artist named Virginia King, Through the Ivory Gate has been praised for its unique structure, which relies heavily on the characters’ memories and storytelling abilities. Documenting the protagonist’s acceptance of her black identity in a society that devalues her heritage, the novel relates Virginia’s attempts to reconcile herself to events and prejudices experienced and learned in her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.
Upon leaving her position at the University of Arizona in 1989, Dove joined the faculty at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; she was promoted in 1993 and currently holds the chair as Commonwealth Professor of English. Also in 1993, Dove read her poem Lady Freedom among Us (1994) at a ceremony celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary of the U.S. Capitol. It was later published in a limited edition.
Service as U.S. Poet Laureate
Dove holds the distinction of being the first African American—as well as the youngest individual—to hold the post of United States poet laureate. She served in this role for two years from 1993 until 1995 while President Bill Clinton was serving his first term in office. In awarding Dove the U.S. poet laureateship in 1993, James H. Billington praised her as ”an accomplished and already widely recognized poet in mid-career whose work gives special promise to explore and enrich contemporary American poetry.”
Works in Literary Context
In her work, Dove draws on personal perception and emotion while integrating an awareness of history and social issues. These qualities are best evidenced in Thomas and Beulah, which commemorates the lives of her grandparents and offers a chronicle of the collective experience of African Americans during the twentieth century. Dove’s poetry is akin to that of such other modern American poets as Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks, especially as to rhetorical structure. Dove’s readers learn that she often melds several time-tested devices to shape an original idiom. Like Alice Walker in Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning (1979), and like Zora Neale Hurston in virtually all of her fiction, Dove bridges the gap between oral communication and written text. Among the authors emulated by Dove are William Shakespeare, Melvin B. Tolson, Derek Walcott, Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, Don L. Lee, Amiri Baraka, and Anne Spencer.
Confronting Prejudice and Oppression
Dove’s poetry is characterized by a tight control of words and structure, an innovative use of color imagery, and a tone that combines objectivity and personal concern. Although many of her poems incorporate black history and directly address racial themes, they present issues, such as prejudice and oppression, that transcend racial boundaries. Dove has explained: ”Obviously, as a black woman, I am concerned with race. . . . But certainly not every poem of mine mentions the fact of being black. They are poems about humanity, and sometimes humanity happens to be black.” In The Yellow House on the Corner, for example, a section is devoted to poems about slavery and freedom. ”Parsley,” a poem published in Museum, recounts the massacre of thousands of Haitian blacks because they allegedly could not pronounce the letter ”r” in perejil, the Spanish word for ”parsley.”
Works in Critical Context
Rita Dove’s body of work was a success from the beginning. Her dedication to the writing process is evidenced in the overwhelming positive reception her poetry continues to receive. Donna M. Williams writes in Ms. magazine, ”The power of Dove’s poetry lies in her ability to wrest beauty from the most ordinary of life’s moments: leafing through Jet magazine, eating figs, unpacking a bottle of Heinz ketchup.” Similarly, critic Peter Stitt calls attention to the sensitivity of Dove’s writing in the Georgia Review: ”The very absence of high drama may be what makes the poems so touching—these are ordinary people with ordinary struggles, successes, and failures.” He concludes, Rita Dove has taken a significant step forward in each of her three books of poems; she must be recognized as among the best young poets in the country today.”
Thomas and Beulah
Critics praised Thomas and Beulah and its author. Helen Vendler, in the New York Review of Books, described Dove as one who has planed away unnecessary matter: pure shapes, her poems exhibit the thrift that Yeats called the sign of a perfected manner.” Few, if any, of Dove’s numerous reviewers gave this volume a negative notice, and many were lavish in their praise. Emily Grosholz, in the Hudson Review (1987), wrote that Rita Dove . . . understands the long-term intricacies of marriage, as the protagonists of her wonderful chronicle . . . testify.” Critics have also described this work as wise and affectionate. Dove succeeds in treating two sides of her subject, and she informs her reader, at the bottom of the book’s dedicatory page, that these poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence.” Dove emphasizes the separateness and the individuality of her grandparents, who dealt with hostilities and the loss of love, as well as grief at the loss of life. But through good times and bad, this ancestral pair never fell out of love, maintaining their devotedness to the other. All critics of the book, in their own ways, have celebrated this melding of biography and lyric, one of Dove’s trademarks.
- Righelato, Pat. Understanding Rita Dove. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006.
- Steffen, Therese. Crossing Color: Transcultural Space and Place in Rita Dove’s Poetry, Fiction, and Drama. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- McDowell, Robert. ”The Assembling Vision of Rita Dove.” Callaloo 25 (Winter 1985): 61-70.
- Rampersad, Arnold. ”The Poems of Rita Dove.” Callaloo 26 (Winter 1986): 52-60.
- Steinman, Lisa M. ”Dialogues Between History and Dream.” Michigan Quarterly Review 26 (Spring 1987): 428-438.
- Stitt, Peter. ”Coherence Through Place in Contemporary American Poetry.” Georgia Review 40 (1986): 1021-1033.
- University of Virginia Web site. Comprehensive Biography of Rita Dove. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http://people.virginia.edu/~ rfd4b/compbio.html.
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