then Dove has won many prizes and awards, including, for her most famous book, the poem cycle Thomas and Beulah (a collection based on the lives of Dove's grandparents), a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Dove was only the second African-American poet (after Brooks) to win a Pulitzer. In 1999 Dove was reappointed as special consultant in poetry for the 1999-2000 bicentennial year celebration of the Library of Congress. Since 1989 she has taught at the University of Virginia.
Although the historical particulars of slavery, segregation, and American race relations are frequent concerns of her poetry, Dove's work also demonstrates her wide-ranging interest in world history, culture, and religion. Poems that deal directly with the wrongs of racism may appear alongside poems that forsake visible social concerns in favor of examining individual characters or events separated from modern America by geography or history. This broad range of reference is evident even in Dove's early work. In The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Dove's first book of poems, for example, the poems "The Transport of Slaves from Maryland to Mississippi," "The House Slave," "The Slave's Critique of Practical Reason," and "Kentucky, 1833" appear along with "Robert Schumann, Or: Musical Genius Begins with Affliction" and "The Bird Frau." This dual interest in African-American identity and unrelated issues that are more obviously within the traditional realm of American poetry—a tradition that tended to avoid confronting racial injustice—persists throughout Dove's work.
Dove frequently divides her books into separate sections that cohere more or less thematically, which helps readers make sense of the vast thematic differences between such poems. Most critics consider Dove's willingness to address such widely varying subject matter a great strength. The diversity of subject matter in Dove's poetry reminds readers that an African-American writer need not choose between social engagement and the kind of historical, imaginative, and multicultural awareness often identified with literary modernism. As literary critic Therese Steffen explains, Dove's work "documents and enriches the American European literary and humanist dialogue. Particularly intriguing and fruitful is Dove's fusion of African-American, German, and Greek backgrounds" (163).
It is worth noting that, although in past generations America's literary critics and audiences might have been more likely to praise an African-American poet's willingness to turn away from social issues toward the type of poetry more concerned with art, history, or other aspects of high culture, Dove has garnered great acclaim for books that deal most deeply with race. Thomas and Beulah constructs a social background of inequality and racial tension while telling the stories of the title characters' lives. In "Roast Possum," Thomas reads to his grandchildren from an old encyclopedia, omitting racist details, such as the encyclopedia's claim that, although black children were intelligent, this intelligence "clouded over at puberty, bringing / indirection and laziness." In "The Great Palaces of Versailles," reading a library book's account of how French ladies would defecate in the beautiful gardens of Versailles reinforces Beu-lah's distaste for white people as she irons clothing for white customers: "Nothing nastier than a white person // She mutters . . . in the backroom of Charlotte's Dress Shoppe." Dove's acclaimed 1999 collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks deals extensively with characters and events related to the Civil Rights movement, particularly the 1955-56 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.
Dove's poetry avoids making grand statements about race and racism; instead, Dove works through individual characters, specific events, and the ways those events shape the lives and minds of the characters. In the introduction to her Selected Poems, Dove writes, "The mystery of destiny boils down to the ultimate— and ultimately unanswerable—questions: How does where I come from determine where I've ended up? Why am I what I am and not what I thought I'd be? What did I think I'd be? Where do I reside most completely?" (xxi). Dove's is clearly not protest poetry in the standard sense. It is not didactic, not a poetry that directly proclaims things about the historic injustices of race relations in America. Instead Dove's presentations of individual characters and their experiences provide a more subtle rendering of race and racism along with eloquent reminders that her poetry is inspired by other things as well: Dove says, "I'm very interested in getting inside a person's head, with all of those intricate thoughts; then that person can never be lumped into a stereotype again" (Mullaney 33).
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