Rita Dove:
breathing poetry

Rita Dove wants poetry to be as essential to our lives as oxygen, and she hopes to reduce what she has referred to as the "anxiety that people have about poetry."

Regarded as one of the nation's leading poets, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet has said she is perplexed that "poetry seems to exist in a parallel universe outside daily life in America."

Dove served as America's Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995 with the Library of Congress, the youngest poet ever to hold that distinguished post as well as the first African American. She was asked to serve two terms to continue her outreach efforts at bringing poetry into a more public forum, especially with children.

Born 45 years ago in Akron, Ohio, Dove said her parents allowed her to read whatever she wanted. This freedom fostered a great love of words, evidenced in her prolific work.

It also became an impetus to introduce poetry into children's lives at an early age, an effort she continues between her writing and her teaching at the University of Virginia, where she is commonwealth professor of English.

One of the central features of her writing is the power of history and memory. She has said that part of her drive to write comes from not seeing herself represented in the books she read as a child. In a tone that combines objectivity and personal concern, she strives to tell the particular stories of ordinary people who are not represented in history books, but are part of this country's history nonetheless.

Her best-known publication is Thomas & Beulah, a collection of poems loosely based on the lives of her grandparents, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. It commemorates their lives while at the same time chronicles the collective experience of African Americans during the 20th century.

Although Dove is primarily known as a poet and has published numerous collections of verse, she has also authored short stories, a novel, a number of essays and a play, The Darker Face of the Earth, which premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1996. She wrote the text for composer Alvin Singleton's symphonic work "Umoja -- Each One of Us Counts," for performance during the opening festivities of the Centennial Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta in July 1996. She also wrote the poem "Lady Freedom" for the 200th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol.

"Writing is a constant for me," she has said. "There's an edge that needs to be explored, the edge between being unconscious and then suddenly being so aware that the skin tingles."

And yet, Dove wants to move beyond language -- which may seem strange for a woman whose life is all about words.

A woman who is equally adept speaking for a nation before Congress as she is reading to preschoolers with Big Bird, Dove graciously offered her perspective on "The Delights & Consequence of Poetry " to a Millersville University crowd in April 1998.

Elegant in an emerald green column dress, yet whimsical with fingernails painted in multi-colored polka-dots, Dove said it was easier for her to talk about the delights of poetry than the consequences. The consequences, she said, came as her status as a poet grew and requests for her time multiplied.

"But the delights are always there. One hopes that poetry begins and ends always with delight," she said.

She spoke of the simple delight that comes from being an infant learning to form words. "There's a delight in saying, in learning how to name, in the power of being able to handle one's world with words," she said. "All of us have this initial delight with language."

For Dove, that delight continued as she played with language, the feel of words in her mouth, how some felt smooth, others rough.

"I found the music of the language fascinating," she said, confessing that she could spend an afternoon thinking about the subtle shades of difference between similar words. That love of the sounds of words, coupled with the stories that unfolded in the imagination of a voracious reader, helped shape Dove's "love affair with language" that led to her life as a poet.

One of her poems, "Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967," is what she calls her "love poem to libraries" in appreciation of the "worlds opened up to me" through reading. But she also feels an impetus to write about what she doesn't find in books -- the ordinary struggles of ordinary people -- saying that she feels "a charge to bear witness to the human condition."

"Poets give us a blueprint of where we are, spiritually and emotionally, in the world," she said. "Poetry uses language to get at something you can't express in other ways." She called this phenomenon "soul-to-soul telling," saying it is an essential need for humans.

"This hunger for community goes deeper than language," she said. "We're losing that sense of community. We don't get together in groups anymore and allow ourselves to feel touched."

By sharing her work, she hoped in some small way that her audience will experience this sense. "I hope they go home with a powerful communal feeling that can't be duplicated in a movie theater, or even at a play," she said. "Poetry goes beyond that, right to the jugular."

Her work obviously did that for the audience, prompting a standing ovation.

Dove said she's heartened by a resurgence of public interest in poetry. "When I was poet laureate, I could see it," she said. "Poetry was pushing out of the cracks in the sidewalk."

Her challenge is to help reduce the anxiety much of the public associates with reading poetry.

"I found as poet laureate, that if you don't talk down to someone, if you don't make them frightened, they can understand any poem," she said. "I think anyone can find meaning if they are made open to it."

It's a challenge she accepts wholeheartedly. "This is the best kind of work that one can do," she said.

by Daina Savage