Rita Dove (1952-   ) - Modern America - 1914 to present

Address: Department of English, Wilson Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia 22903, U.S.A.

 
by Andy Stamper, student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
 
Biography: 

      American poet and writer Rita Dove became the second African- American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her collection of poetryThomas and Beulah in 1987.  From 1993 to 1995 she was U.S. Poet Laureate.  Rita Dove was born on August 28, 1952 in Akron, Ohio to Ray and Elvira Hord Dove.  After graduating summa cum laude from Miami University in Ohio in 1973, Dove received a Fulbright award to study at the University of Tübingen in West Germany.  She went on to the Iowa Writers Workshop and completed an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1977.  
      Dove then joined the faculty of Arizona State University in 1981 and spent 1982 as writer-in residence at Tuskegee.  At Arizona State she was a member of two literary panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and worked on the board of Associate Writing Programs from 1985 to 1988.  In 1987, Dove became a member of the Commission for the Preservation of Black Culture at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  She also had editorial positions on the journals Callaloo, Gettysburg Review and Tri-Quarterly.  She received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1983.  
      From the Academy of American Poets she received the Lavan Younger Poets award in 1986.  She then wrote Thomas and Beulah in 1986, poems based on her grandparents' lives.  Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Thomas and Beulah in 1987, making her the second African-American woman to achieve this award.  Gwendolyn Brooks was first to receive it in 1950.  In addition to the chapbooks Ten Poems (1977) and The Only Dark Spot in the Sky (1980), Dove's poetry includes The Yellow House on the Corner (1980) and Museum (1983).  Some of her later poetry includes Grace Works (1989), Selected Poems (1993), and Mother's Love (1995).  She has also written a novel, Through the Ivory Tower (1992), the play The Darker Face of the Earth (1994), a collection of short stories called Fifth Sunday (1995), and a collection of essays called The Poet's World (1995).  At 40, Dove was the youngest person and second African -American to be U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993 through 1995. Dove has also received honorary doctorates from Miami University and Knox College.  She has received numerous awards including the NAACP Great American Artist Award and the Renaissance Forum Award from the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Also, Dove is a recipient of the prestigious Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement.  
      Rita Dove now teaches at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, where she was promoted to the Commonwealth Professor of English.  She currently resides in Charlottesville with her husband, Fred Viebahn and their daughter Aviva. 

Analysis: 

     Nearly all of Rita Dove’s poetry deals with aspects of history. Shakespeare, Boccaccio, and Dove’s grandparents are topics of her poetry.  Dove puts a light on the small truths of life that have more meaning than the actual historical factsIn a time when African-American poetry has been criticized for too much introspection, Rita Dove has taken an approach to emotion and the person as human. Dove’s poetry is not about being black, but about being alive. 
     Dove appreciates the strength of black speech as essential to the American way.  As far as African-American poets are concerned, Dove definitely believes the folk element of the black language is a creation of their own tradition.  Dove’s poetry, similarly, is rooted in song and is different from Caucasian Poetry.  Dove, as a black poet, seems to have taken the ideas of the white literary world, and interpreted them in the culture of the black people.  Dove’s roots are in Africa, though she does not mind dealing with universally-minded issues; she has no trouble working around the conflicts of a multi-cultural society like that of America.  Her poetry is concerned with the pain of the blues. 
     Rita Dove acknowledges the dialectical tradition of African-American poetry with pride because it is an element of the black literary expression.  Dove applauds the song-like poetry that stems all the way from Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.  Dove has her own unique way of presenting that sort of speech in her poems.  
     The most important influence on African-American literature is the idea of an audience.  Oral tradition is incredibly important in association with the black audience in their literary lives.  Interestingly, Dove has made a decision to write in choice of colloquialisms rather than the standard English preferred by white poets.  Most black poets have alternated between styles because they find themselves speaking to dual audiences. 
     In Fifth Sunday, Rita Dove has a quality that is obviously African-American.  The short stories contained herein are about adolescence and the love of others.  Dove also deals with womanhood and sex in a new world; a new country.  The kind of language that Dove’s characters use is just like that of a younger Dove and the speech used in African-American churches. Fifth Sunday is about the black church and biblical names.  The characters in Dove’s stories represent a universal opinion that rhythm is a tradition of black names and stories.  In Dove’s poems, she takes average names and raises them to greater importance due to their simple sounding.  The major talent of Rita Dove is to write with the authority of a scholar, the modern alertness of a contemporary poet about a form of art too often distracted by professional jargon or literary cliques.  Dove has overcome a literary challenge for the common reader of 20th-century poetry. 
     Grace Notes is a good place to analyze Dove’s poetry.  In that particular collection are some of her best poems from her earlier days. The language of these poems contain Dove’s cultural awareness and sense of what works with what.  The subject matter is universal and her concern for humanity is always present.  The importance of these characters and their views never lack universal concern. 

Bibliography: 

Contemporary Poets. 5th edition ed. Tracy Chevalier.  St. James Press Chicago 1991. 
     This anthology features numerous living poets and their classic poems.  Each  
     author is focused with an informative biography and short analyses of their  
     style.  For anyone interested in being exposed to Dove's work, this is a good  
     place to begin.  However, if you are looking for more in-depth analyses then  
     this book will be of little aid. 

Critical Survey of Poetry Revised Edition ed. Frank N. Magill.  Salem Press  
     Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1992. 

http://www.poets.org/LIT/poet/rdovefst.htm 
    This website is quite informative as it has links to many other relevant  
     websites.  It features a collection of links concerning Rita Dove's critical and  
     historical background.  For close, in-depth research about Dove, this is the best  
     site to begin from. 
 

Study Questions:

1) How do Dove's works from The Yellow House on the Corner and   
    Thomas and Beulah reveal the significance of ordinary lives? 
2) What is the importance of Dove's modeling characters in Thomas    
    and Beulah after her grandparents and their experiences? 
3) Why does Dove choose to use the Greek mythological tale of    
    Demeter and Persephone to explore motherhood in her writing? 
4) After reading "Lady Freedom Among Us", think about who Dove may  
    be speaking of and then why? 
5) While often Rita Dove writes about herself, she has received virtually  
    no criticism for this.  Her poetry focuses on Black history in America  
    primarily.  Read a few of her poems and think about how her poems  
    may be introspective and still universally viable.   
Chronology: 

1952, August 28: born in Akron, Ohio 

1970: visits White House as Presendential Scholar 

1973: graduates summa cum laude from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio 

1974-75: studies at University of Tubingen, West Germany 

1974-75: recipient of Fulbright Scholarship 

1975: research assistant at University of Iowa 

1976-77: teaching assistant at University of Iowa 

1977: M.F.A. from University of Iowa, Iowa City 

1977: Ten Poems 

1978: National Endowment for the Arts grant 

1979: marries Fred Viebahn 

1979: Ohio Arts Council grant 

1980: The Yellow House is published 

1981-84: Assistant Professor of creative writing at Arizona State University, Tempe 

1982: Writer-in-residence, Tuskegee Institue, Alabama 

1982: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship 

1983: Museum 

1983: Guggenheim fellowship 

1984: became member of editorial board for National Forum 

1984-87: Associate Professor at Arizona State University, Tempe 

1985: Fifth Sunday, short story collection 

1986: became poetry editor for Callaloo 

1986: Thomas and Beulah wins Pulitzer 

1986: Lavan Younger Poets award 

1987: Pulitzer prize 

1987: advisory editor for Gettysburg Review 

1987: commisioner at Schomberg Center for the Preservation of Black Culture, NY Public Library 

1987-89: Professor of English at at Arizona State University, Tempe 

1988-89: Mellon fellowship 

1988: advisory editor for Tri-Quaretrly 

1988: Rockefeller Foundation residency, Bellagio, Italy 

1989: Grace Notes 

1989: Professor of English at University of Virginia, Charlottesville 

1991: Through the Ivory Gate, a novel 

1993: First African-American US Poet Laureate 

1993: Selected Poems 

1995: Mother Love 

1996: The Darker Face of the Earth premieres at Oregon Shakespeare Festival