Rita Dove began writing seriously in college, and published her first book, The Yellow House on the Corner, in 1980, launching an acclaimed career that has spanned decades and artistic mediums. More than a dozen books of poetry, a critically lauded verse play, a novel, a collection of short stories, several musical collaborations, and thousands of readings and performances later, Dove has undeniably carved out her place in the contemporary American canon of literature.
Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1952. She grew up in a middle-class household where reading, writing, and music were ever present and always encouraged. When as a young girl, “I first read the poems of Nikki Giovanni,” she says, “something inside me woke up.” She attended Miami University in Ohio on a National Merit Scholarship before studying in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar, and in 1977 she earned her M.F.A. in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Her work straddles the ever-shifting lines of personal and collective histories, of private and public stories. This is a poet who earned a Pulitzer in 1986 for Thomas and Beulah, a collection of poetry that interweaves the lives of her grandparents with the greater history of African Americans in the United States. This is a poet whose latest work, Sonata Mulattica, gives voice to George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, previously just a footnote in Beethoven’s biography, a black violinist who had a sonata dedicated to him and then renamed. In this groundbreaking book, Dove creates his story and thus captures a lost history of African Americans in classical music.
A classically trained cellist herself, Dove explains “there’s always been a special place in my work for people who drop out of history.” An interest in Bridgetower grew into a book about his world, an arching narrative of poems with a complete cast of characters. “I lived with my scribbled pages and file folders, with classical music blasting and period illustrations plastered all over the walls of my study. And I was in love with poetry again…as I was in my budding years as a writer,” Dove says.
Critics hail Dove for her musicality, for her passionate storytelling, for her technical deftness and unquestioned skill with language and form. “In her locating of the self, the family, and the ethnic and social group within a historical framework,” a biographer writes, “…She has brought African American history into the mainstream of American poetry.”
Other books include On the Bus with Rosa Parks, Mother Love, and American Smooth. Her verse play, The Darker Face of the Earth, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1986. She was named Poet Laureate in 1993, the youngest person to hold the position and the second African American. She spent her two terms as Poet Laureate, encouraging the American public to engage with poetry, giving readings across the country, and appearing on Sesame Street beside Big Bird. In 2008 she was honored with the Library of Virginia Lifetime Achievement Award.
She is also an accomplished singer, ballroom dancer, and holds over 20 honorary doctorates from American universities. She is currently a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, sits on several advisory boards, and is the Commonwealth Professor of Poetry at the University of Virginia. She lives in Charlottesville with her husband and daughter.
Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others? –Ludwig v. Beethoven, Heiligenstadt Testament
Silver ribbons stripped loose from their implacable
eyelets, fingers stuttering through muffled lace,
skittering from the keyboard in disgrace.
Whimpered accompaniment to a tongued nipple.
Cascade-glimmer of a chromatic scale.
Tiny bone clack against porcelain, roast squab
or dove dripping from china plates; a sweating pail
of ice, kicked over by a horse. Ach, to be robbed
in one’s sleep, robbed between a sip and a laugh!
(Because we’re wading through wreckage, we’re
not even listening to all the crash and clatter
chords wrenched from their moorings, smashed
etudes, arpeggios glistening as they heave and sink.)
Ciphers, the lot of them. Their money, their perfumed stink.
Sonata Mulattica (2009)
On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999)
Mother Love (1995)
Selected Poems (1993)
Thomas and Beulah (1986), Pulitzer Prize
Videos of Dove dancing with her husband
New York Times’ review of Dove’s latest collection, Sonata Mullatica