Rita Dove (b. 1952)
Contributing Editor: Hilary Holladay
Classroom Issues and Strategies
In my experience, students like Dove's poems, even though they don't fully understand them. I found that dividing the class into small groups (and providing them with several discussion questions) works well with her poems. This gives students a chance to raise issues they might not air otherwise--and accommodates poems that seem to be more about asking questions than answering them. Walking from group to group, I am able to address specific concerns without usurping control of a free-flowing discussion.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
In her poems, Dove often distills the experiences of oppressed groups: women, blacks, and working-class Americans, among others. She does not strike a victim's pose, however. Whether she is dealing with contemporary scenes or historical events, she speaks with the calm confidence of one who knows she will be listened to.
As an African-American woman who has spent virtually her entire adult life affiliated with one university or another, she represents an intriguing mix of "outsider" and "insider" perspectives. The academic life seems to have provided her with a forum quite compatible with her interest in the intersections of the personal, the political, and the intellectual. As an American who believes strongly in the value of traveling to other countries and learning other languages, Dove brings an international perspective to many of her poems as well.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Although Dove has published a novel and a collection of short fiction, she seems most at home in poetry. She writes primarily in free verse, in both first- and third-person. Although the prose poem published here is a departure from her usual style, it is characteristic of Dove's interest in obliquely stated narratives. Thomas and Beulah, a narrative sequence, is hardly straightforward in its development; in that Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Dove provides the pieces with which we can envision (and continually re-envision) the evolving puzzle of two interwoven lives.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Dove can be grouped with other African-American poets, women poets, and poets exemplary for their use of imagery. Because of her German and Scandinavian influences, her poems would also work well in a comparative literature course.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Study questions for the Dove poems selected here might focus on voice and perspective, characterization, and rhetorical strategies. For example, how would you describe the speaker in each of these poems? What is the speaker's perspective on the events described in each poem? How does the mood differ from poem to poem? How does "Kentucky, 1833" blend the historical with the personal? What are the paradoxes at work in this poem? How is the poem's form significant? How would you paraphrase "Ö"? Can you think of other words, in English or other languages, that change "the whole neighborhood"? Explain your selections. What do you think the speaker in "Arrow" means by "the language of fathers"? What is the significance of the enjambment and the three-line stanzas in "The Oriental Ballerina"?
2. Students writing about Dove's poems should read all (or at least a couple) of her poetry collections so they will have a sense of the breadth of her concerns. Their papers could address family relationships, narrative perspective, or her enigmatic image patterns. They could also explore her international themes or compare one or more of her poems about family life with those of another woman poet--such as Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, or Lucille Clifton. An alternative assignment: Write a letter to Dove and present her with a possible interpretation of one of her poems. Then pose several questions that would help you develop your interpretation and perhaps help you better understand her other poems as well. This latter assignment worked well in an advanced composition class, because it enabled students to develop their skills in writing query letters as well as analyzing poetry.