Rita Dove's poetry encompasses historical events, mythic contexts, and deeply personal poems about her immediate and past family history. The connection is that the poems seek to understand history through the lives of individuals, seeing the points of view, dreams, and injustices that make up individual lives and the culture that surrounds them, in a poetry that is finally about tolerance and patience, the importance of language, understanding, and the responsibility of the poet to help stress that importance and foster that understanding. In writing such poetry, for Dove, the truth of memory -how something is recalled or imagined - can be as valid or more so than the truth of mere fact.
Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, a city dominated by its tire industry. Her father was the only one of ten children to finish high school and attend college, and like his own father he worked for the Goodyear Tire Company. His work in chemistry produced only employment as an elevator operator at Goodyear, until the protests of one of his professors led to his becoming the first black chemist in the industry. Rita Dove was a star student at Miami University, Ohio, and upon graduating in 1973 won a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University of Tübingen, in Germany. In 1977 she received an MFA from the University of Iowa. Dove has been writer-in-residence at Tuskegee Institute. She taught creative writing at Arizona State University until 1989, and now teaches at the University of Virginia. Dove has said in interviews that, while she was always reading and writing as a child and as a teenager, she knew no professional writers and had not realized that it was possible to have a writing career. As an undergraduate, she recalls, she realized that she was arranging her college course work around taking writing courses.
Dove's first two books of poetry were The Yellow House on the Corner (1980) and Museum (1983). The first volume begins in the neighborhood of her childhood in Akron, and broadens thematically and geographically as it progresses. The cosmopolitan reach is continued in the second volume. The books include poems on historical figures, such as "Banneker," the eighteenth-century African American scientist, and more generalized historical situations, such as "The House Slave" and "Kentucky, 1833," the latter poem capturing the quality of slave life in some few hours of leisure: "It is Sunday, day of roughhousing. We are let out in the woods." "'Teach Us To Number Our Days' " details the tensions between police and inhabitants in a more contemporary scene of "alleys" and "low-rent balconies." More personal poems include the three entitled "Adolescence," where the speaker tries to understand and come to terms with the onset of sexual desire, and romantic hopes, fears, and fantasies. "The Secret Garden" continues the theme into what appears to be early adulthood, with sexual love as healing:
I was sick, fainting in the smell of teabags, when you came with tomatoes, a good poetry. I am being wooed. I am being conquered by a cliff of limestone that leaves chalk on my breasts.
In the poem "Parsley," from 1983, Dove explores the motivation of then Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo in having 20,000 Haitian canefield workers killed on October 2, 1937, because they could not pronounce the Spanish word perejil correctly. Her aim, she has said, is to do more than merely deplore a despicable act, but to examine the role of what she has called the creativity of evil in how he came to his decision.
Dove drew national attention with her third book, Thomas and Beulah (1986), which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. This narrative sequence tells the story of the individual lives, courtship, and subsequent life in Akron of Dove's maternal grandparents, as told by her mother, recalled from her childhood, and imaginatively rounded out as in her earlier historical poems. At the end of the sequence, a timeline of public events is set against the poems' chronology of personal milestones. The sequence is divided into two sections, one from Thomas's point of view and one from Beulah's. Grace Notes followed in 1989, and again focuses upon the black experience in the United States, including a section that explores the possibility of salvation through words and language. "Arrow," for example, records a patronizing and sexist presentation by an "eminent scholar," the pained response of various listeners, and the poet-narrator's determination to "learn" from the experience rather than just be appalled. Mother Love appeared in 1995, a contemporary retelling of the story of Demeter and Persephone. On the Bus with Rosa Parks from 1999 was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
A Selected Poems was published in 1993, and Dove has also published Fifth Sunday (1985), a book of short stories, Through the Ivory Gate (1992), a novel, and The Darker Face of the Earth (1994), a verse drama. She guest-edited the annual volume Best American Poetry (2001). In addition to the Fulbright Award that she won as an undergraduate, she served as Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995, the first African American poet to do so. Other honors include grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
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