Recipient of many of the nation’s highest cultural honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, the NAACP Great American Artist Award, a Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, the Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Humanities Medal, Rita Dove is an American treasure. She served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-1995, the youngest person ever to be elected to that office. As the second African-American Poet Laureate, after Gwendolyn Brooks’ tenure in the mid-1980s, Dove noted in the Washington Post that her appointment was “significant in terms of the message it sends about the diversity of our culture and our literature.”
Dove’s body of work has won wide critical praise and reflects her interest in music and drama, as well as her commitment to social justice and her sensitivity to women’s issues. As she explained in the Washington Post: “Obviously, as a black woman, I am concerned with race. . . . But certainly not every poem of mine mentions the fact of being black. They are poems about humanity, and sometimes humanity happens to be black. I cannot run from, I won’t run from any kind of truth.” Dove’s “magnificent poems pay homage to our kaleidoscopic cultural heritage,” writes The Kansas City Star.
A writer of startling breadth, Dove has published six collections of poetry, including Thomas and Beulah (1986), Grace Notes (1989), Selected Poems (1993), On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), American Smooth (2004), and, in addition, she is the author of a book of short stories, a novel, a volume of essays, and the play The Darker Face of the Earth. Seven for Luck, a song cycle for soprano and orchestra with music by John Williams, was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1998. She is the editor of Best American Poetry 2000, and from January 2000 to January 2002 she wrote a weekly column, “Poet’s Choice”, for The Washington Post.
Dove’s most recent book of poems, Sonata Mulattica (W.W. Norton & Company, 2009),
dramatizes the life of violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860). Son of a European woman and a self-proclaimed “African Prince,” the child prodigy dazzled the courts of Europe with his playing, and so impressed Beethoven that he dashed off a wildly difficult sonata for piano and violin and named it after the boy. The two played the piece publicly for the first time in Vienna in 1803; but as a result of a quarrel over a woman, it was renamed the “Kreutzer” Sonata, and the young violinist faded into obscurity. “Dove’s richly imagined book,” writes Mark Doty, “has the sweep and vivid characters of a novel but it’s written with a poet’s economy and eye for exact detail.”
Rita Dove is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she lives with her husband, German writer Fred Viebahn.
Poetry Center Reading:
per il Mulatto Brischdauer
gran pazzo e compositore mulattico
––Ludwig van Beethoven, 1803
If was at the Beginning. If
he had been older, if he hadn’t been
dark, brown eyes ablaze
in that remarkable face;
if he had not been so gifted, so young
a genius with no time to grow up;
if he hadn’t grown up, undistinguished,
to an obscure old age.
If the piece had actually been,
as Kreutzer exclaimed, unplayable––even after
our man had played it, and for years,
no one else was able to follow––
so that the composer’s fury would have raged
for naught, and wagging tongues
could keep alive the original dedication
from the title page he shredded.
Oh, if only Ludwig had been better-looking,
or cleaner, or a real aristocrat,
von instead of the unexceptional van
from some Dutch farmer; if his ears
had not already begun to squeal and whistle;
if he hadn’t drunk his wine from lead cups,
if he could have found True Love. Then
the story would have held: In 1803
George Polgreen Bridgetower,
son of Friedrich Augustus the African Prince
and Maria Anna Sovinki of Biala in Poland,
traveled from London to Vienna,
where he met the Great Master
who would stop work on his Third Symphony
to write a sonata for his new friend
to premiere triumphantly on May 24th,
whereupon the composer himself
leapt up from the piano to embrace
his “lunatic mulatto.”
Who knows what would have followed?
They might have palled around some,
just a couple of wild and crazy guys
strutting the town like rock stars,
hitting the bars for a few beers, a few laughs . . .
instead of falling out over a girl
nobody remembers, nobody knows.
Then this bright-skinned papa’s boy
could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame
straight into the record books––where,
instead of a Regina Carter or Aaron Dworkin or Boyd Tinsley
sprinkled here and there, we would find
rafts of black kids scratching out scales
on their matchbox violins so that some day
they might play the impossible:
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47,
also known as The Bridgetower.
From SONATA MULATTICA (W.W. Norton, 2009)
No. Who can bear it. Only someone
who hates herself, who believes
to pull a hand back from a daughter’s cheek
is to put love into her pocket—
like one of those ashen Christian
philosophers, or a war-bound soldier.
She is gone again and I will not bear
it, I will drag my grief through a winter
of my own making and refuse
any meadow that recycles itself into
hope. Shit on the cicadas, dry meteor
flash, finicky butterflies! I will wail and thrash
until the whole goddamned golden panorama freezes
over. Then I will sit down to wait for her. Yes.
From MOTHER LOVE (W.W. Norton, 1995)
The House Slave
The first horn lifts its arm over the dew-lit grass
and in the slave quarters there is a rustling—
children are bundled into aprons, cornbread
and water gourds grabbed, a salt pork breakfast taken.
I watch them driven into the vague before-dawn
while their mistress sleeps like an ivory toothpick
and Massa dreams of asses, rum and slave-funk.
I cannot fall asleep again. At the second horn,
the whip curls across the backs of the laggards—
sometimes my sister’s voice, unmistaken, among them.
“Oh! pray,” she cries. “Oh! pray!” Those days
I lie on my cot, shivering in the early heat,
and as the fields unfold to whiteness,
and they spill like bees among the fat flowers,
I weep. It is not yet daylight.
From SELECTED POEMS (W.W. Norton, 1993)