Rita Dove's Poetry
Introduction: No Victimhood for This Poet
Acclaimed scholar and critic, Helen Vendler, has correctly summarized the poetry of radical feminists and others who emphasize class, race, and gender in their art: "Poems of victimage, told from the viewpoint of the victim alone, are the stock-in-trade of mediocre protest writing, and they appear regularly in African-American literature."
Rita Dove has avoided that subject matter trap by writing genuine poems that focus on human emotion and experience, instead of how bad it is to be a woman, especially a black woman in Amerikkkka.
Brief Life Sketch
Born in Akron, Ohio, on August 28, 1952, Rita Dove became a Presidential Scholar and graduated from high school at the top of her class. Dove completed a B. A. degree in English summa cum laude from Miami Univerity, Oxford, Ohio.
Dove continued her education at the University of Iowa, where she earned a masters of fine arts degree. In 1987, she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her collection of poems titled Thomas and Beulah.
Dove’s poetry is charming, sometimes nostalgic, and always tough and durable. Her “Golden Oldie” exemplifies the charm and nostalgia of the work.
The speaker is a young woman who arrives home but remains in her car because a cool tune is playing on the radio. She shuts off the air-conditioner, leans back and listens: “'Baby, where did our love go?'—a lament / I greedily took in / without a clue who my lover / might be, or where to start looking.”
Anyone of a certain age will hear immediately the voice of Diana Ross of the Supremes in the line “Baby, baby, where did our love go?”
Dove’s poem, “Vacation,” will be remind anyone who has ever traveled by airplane of those moments just before boarding: “I love the hour before takeoff, / that stretch of no time, no home / but the gray vinyl seats linked like / unfolding paper dolls.” The speaker then describes the other passengers as they wait to be called for the flight.
A Haitian Dictator
Dove's poem, "Parsley," is one of her most famous works; she read that poem at the White House.
This poem was motivated by the “creativity” of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who slaughtered thousands of Haitians because they could not pronoun the Spanish “r” correctly. The Haitians, of course, would pronounce the “r” sound with the French sound made in the throat instead of trilling the tongue as the Spanish “r” requires.
Trujillo intended to murder the Haitians anyway as a matter of racial cleansing, but instead of just unceremoniously killing them, he lined them and required them to pronounce the word for “parsley” in Spanish, which is “perejil.” So as these Haitian French “r” pronouncing tongues failed to replicate the Spanish trill, they were marched off and slaughtered.
The poem masterfully engages the images of sugar cane, a parrot, the death of Trujillo’s mother, and the word itself; thus, the poem concludes: “The general remembers the tiny green sprigs / men of his village wore in their capes / to honor the birth of a son. He will / order many, this time, to be killed / for a single, beautiful word.”
Dove a Genuine Poet
Helen Vendler’s description of the “mediocre protest” poet certainly does not describe the writing of Rita Dove. This former poet laureate continues to offer insightful, accessible, and engaging poems to the American canon.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes