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'Dead & White': Poet Rita Dove

By Kathy Y. Wilson · April 9th, 2003 · Your Negro Tour Guide

"I gave my promise to the world/ and the world followed me here."

-- "Testimonial," Rita Dove

This is the antidote to war. Burgeoning into poetic brilliance, Rita Dove thought all writers were "dead and white." The revelation elicited polite titters.

"I loved to write, but I thought of it as play," the Miami University alumna (class of 1973) said in a crowded Hall Auditorium on April 3. "And it is play. Serious play."

Dove fell pen over poem in love with writing when, at the outset of a back-in-the-day MU creative writing class, she realized she could "take a class in the thing I love to do."

She cares for words, carries a torch for them. She toils so words might praise her name. She is an elegant thesaurus who nails down glabrous moments.

It's why poets live among us. They straighten abstractions and make obviousness abstract. They remind us life without poetry overwhelms.

Life swallows us whole without the lasso of the deft/Def poet. Successful revision, not name-brand recognition, is Dove's hallmark of success. She told us priorities are obvious once you find what you love. Her priorities are ordered.

This was some Big Name Lecture masquerading as a love song. Imagine Jessye Norman singing "Amazing Grace."

'Twas Dove who taught my intellect to rear, and Dove my fears relieved. When I first read about Thomas & Beulah, I anticipated an ass whuppin.' She won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for the book-length cycle that eye-spied her grandparents -- just 14 years after graduating MU.

Dove vividly remembered when she first tripped the white fantastic. New to MU from Akron in 1969, she wandered, wondering "where are they?" about her fellow incognegroes. Despite some memorable racial insensitivities, undergrad went OK.

"All the black students, we knew each other," Dove said. Her tone assuaged and dispelled. "We knew each other well. We got together and taught one another to dance."

She took a master's of fine art from the University of Iowa. In 1993 she began a two-year stint as Poet Laureate. She's been a Fulbright Scholar. Her husband is German and resembles a holdout from This Is Spinal Tap.

There's a daughter mastering art history. Years ago their house burned to the ground, but some librarians taught them to identify charred manuscripts, which survived as "charcoal blocks."

Dove and her husband study and practice ballroom dancing. The poem "Brown" was born after a travelling saleswoman tried to convince Dove to buy a ballroom gown.

"Any color looks good on you," the woman chirped.

Dove, 52, prefers her brown skin. It rules polite spaces.

She is sleeker and more air conditioned than the dated black-and-white book cover photographs brimming with an unruly Afro that lost a fight with a hot comb.

Her scientist father taught Dove and her brother that learning never ceases and just getting by was intolerable. "Flash Cards" tells it:

What you don't understand, master, my father said.

And the faster I answered, the faster they came.

I had to guess.

"10," I kept saying.

I'm only 10.

"These are poems that trace the education of an artist who didn't know she was going to be an artist," she said.

But for a writer the nougat is hearing of another writer's process. It's conspiratorial validation.

"I write poems in fragments, letting them dangle for a while," she said. "Poems also have a way of completing themselves when they're good and ready."

Hers are dense. They're directly antithetical to the flim flam of the brushfire of poetry slams, which she credits so long as they foist "something good."

Dove's poems ignore the laziness of obvious rhythm and burdensome metaphors. She calls this delving "deeper than logic," as she told a student questioning the tricky imagery of one of her poems.

The former cellist forges poems in the guise of Classical scores expansive as Greek mythology. They demand work. It's only reciprocity. Dove worked them.

We rewarded her with a standing ovation. I milked watered-down prominence and got ushered to 20 seconds of uninterrupted audience in the lobby.

On a page in my favorite journal where, during note taking, I'd already twice scrawled her name, she wrote "Rita Dove." Who's dead and white?

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.


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