Rita Dove is a celebrated poet, essayist, novelist, and playwright whose works have long received international acclaim. Along with a play, a novel, and essay collection, she has published a dozen major volumes of poetry, including Thomas and Beulah (1986), which received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. From 1993 to 1995 she served as the Poet Laureate of the United States and as Special Bicentennial Consultant, 1999–2000 (see African American Poets ). She also served as president of the Associated Writing Programs (1986–1987) and as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets (2005–2012). The many other honors she has received include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, the 1996 National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton, the 2011 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama, a 2017 NAACP Image Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ 2021 Gold Medal in Poetry. (She was the third woman and first African American to receive the Gold Medal in its 110-year history.) Dove has also been awarded honorary doctorates from twenty-nine academic institutions, including Tuskegee University, Dartmouth College, Yale University, and University of Iowa.
Known for her lyric narrative poems, Dove explores a wide range of themes including coming of age, the complexities of time and history, slavery, family, music, and the blurred lines of identity brought about through intersections of race, gender, class, and culture. Many of her poems also carry a subtle political undercurrent, exposing the realities of Black life in America. In a 2016 interview with William Walsh, she explained that the term “political poetry” has “gotten a bad rap in this country” because it is often too loud and inartistic:
To label someone a political poet automatically suggests mediocre poets given to shouting for a cause rather than creating art out of the life of a cause. I believe a true political poem is a poem about people; after all, the words populace and politics come from the same root—polis. I also think we will tend to listen more intently to a whisper; if it’s shouted, we’ll tune it out. I’ve never been a shouter, though it wasn’t a conscious decision. I just wanted to make mainstream America realize that a black person has the same emotional responses to the entire spectrum of human experience, and not only race—I wanted to write a poem about geometry without the reader being surprised that a black person had written it.
Throughout Dove’s career, critics and scholars have noted the musical quality and rhythm of her language, her evocative and original imagery, and the wide range of allusions that appear in her work.
Kwame Dawes is the author of twenty books of poetry and numerous other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. His most recent books are Speak from Here to There, a cowritten collection of verse with Australian poet John Kinsella, and City of Bones: A Testament, both published in 2017. He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and teaches at the University of Nebraska and the Pacific MFA Program. He is Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival.
April Bayer is a first-year PhD student in Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She obtained her MA in English Literature from the University of South Dakota and recently published her thesis “Women of Myth and Modernity: The Feminine Dual Self in Willa Cather’s Short Fiction.” In 2021, she had the pleasure of receiving the University of South Dakota’s Graduate Excellence in Teaching Award. April’s creative work has previously been published in Capsule Stories. Her research interests include Willa Cather studies, modernism, intersections of literature and media studies, and the pedagogy of composition and literature.
Rita Dove was born on 28 August 1952 in Akron, Ohio. Her mother, Elvira Hord, was a homemaker with a deep love of reading who began writing plays and stories during her time in elementary school. Her father, Ray Dove, was a research chemist at Goodyear, the first Black scientist at any major tire manufacturer in the United States. She grew up with two younger sisters and an older brother. In her 1994 interview with Bill Moyers, Dove reflected on how the freedom her parents gave her as a child inspired her to develop a love of literature:
One of the most valuable things, I think, that happened to me in my childhood was the fact that my parents allowed us, me and my siblings, to read whatever we wanted to. They encouraged reading. There was a freedom involved in reading, so that we felt that we had a whole world of books to explore. And some of my most wonderful memories are wandering along the bookshelves in the solarium of our family house and thinking, “What book am I going to read this time?” and not knowing what’s behind it.
Dove’s father inadvertently contributed to his daughter’s interest in poetry and the German language, as she became fascinated with a book of German poems that he had studied when he thought might be deployed to Germany in World War II.
In addition to her parents, Dove credits several teachers with inspiring her interest in writing. In her interview with Chapman Hood Frazier, she recalled being excited by an elementary-school assignment in which she wrote about the Easter bunny with a droopy ear: “And I knew I had to rhyme, because poems were supposed to rhyme. That actually helped, because halfway through the poem, where I needed to figure out how the dear rabbit was going to get his ear straight again, my solution came through the rhyme, the form itself. What a revelation, what a great moment!” She spoke of two teachers by name: “Mr. Hicks, who had two advanced degrees but elected to teach ninth-grade English and drama—so the rumor went—in order to get to us before society ruined us; and Miss Oechsner, who taught eleventh grade and opened my personal connection to poetry. She took me and a couple of other students to see John Ciardi, who was in town for a book signing; he’d just published his translation of Dante’s Inferno. Of course, he was also a poet. I had never told my teacher that I was writing my little verses on the side; I didn’t show my poems to anyone. Even now, I’ll ask her, ‘How did you know?’ and she says, ‘You just had this look in your eye.’ So she basically called my parents and asked for permission to take me to a book signing on a Saturday. If I had known beforehand, I would have said, ‘What’s a book signing?’ It was remarkable; there he sat, a living person who wrote poetry and had his own books, stacked up beside him. I had never heard anybody read poetry in front of an audience; I never thought such a thing was possible. So that Saturday planted a kernel in my brain.”
Dove excelled at Buchtel High School, leading the majorette squad, studying German, and playing the cello in the orchestra. Her interest in music, so important to her sense of language and her later writing, deepened in adulthood, as she studied and played the viola da gamba and took voice lessons for several years. In 1970 Dove was named among the one hundred most outstanding high school graduates in the country that year and invited to the White House as a presidential scholar.
Dove earned a BA in English from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1973, graduating summa cum laude. She then spent two semesters as a Fulbright scholar at Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen in Germany before joining the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she earned her MFA in 1977. At the time Dove and writers Sandra Cisneros and Joy Harjo were the only non-white students in the program. In 1976 she met her future husband, the German writer Fred Viebahn, who was a Fulbright fellow in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. The two married in 1979.
Elvira Hord, Rita Dove’s Mother
Rita Dove and her father, Ray Dove
The Young Poet
In 1980 Dove published her first book-length volume of poetry, The Yellow House on the Corner. In a 1994 interview with Walsh, Dove described the collection as “a hodgepodge of techniques and visions, with poems that evolved over an extended period as I learned to write and use my voice.” Lekha Roy and Rano Ringo argued that in her first collection Dove explored “a theory of racial positioning that is in a liminal space, strongly connected to its roots yet inclusive in its rejection of binaries. The poems express the need to assert identity as black-white, positing the untenable nature of modernist binaries in a postmodern world.” The volume is divided into five sections, each exploring contrasting dimensions of the past and present along with changing perceptions of race. Images of history and the ongoing effects of slavery are woven throughout several poems, including “This Life,” “Small Town,” and “The Transport of Slaves from Maryland to Mississippi.”
“Ö,” the final poem that appears in The Yellow House on the Corner, explores the poet’s use of language and sound as tools of developing artistry. The speaker recounts how hearing “One word of Swedish has changed the whole neighborhood,” altering their understanding of their surroundings and the future. The poem closes with images of evolution and forward movement, paralleling the development of Dove’s own poetic career:
You start out with one thing, end
up with another, and nothing’s
like it used to be, not even the future.
Speaking to Walsh (1994) about the process of composing the poem, Dove noted that “‘Ö’ felt like a very different kind of poem, one that signaled the end of an apprenticeship. I was ready to begin. For a writer to recognize that the language is both your tool and your clay—that you work with and through it—is liberation, because there are a thousand different ways to get at the ineffable.”
First Teaching Job and Motherhood
Dove studied German and spent several years traveling around Europe before she began her tenure in 1981 as a faculty member at Arizona State University, where she taught creative writing until 1989. During her final two years at the university, she served as the English department’s first and only African American full professor. In 1982 she received a Portia Pittman Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to serve as a writer-in-residence at Tuskegee Institute. She gave birth to a daughter, Aviva Dove-Viebahn, in January 1983.
Rita Dove and her husband, Fred Viebahn, with newborn daughter, Aviva, in Tempe, Arizona, on January 1983
In the same month her daughter was born, Dove published her second major collection, Museum (1983), which includes motifs of art, surveillance, and the broader social dimensions of Blackness. The volume includes “Agosta the Winged Man and Rasha the Black Dove,” which she described as a “breakthrough poem” to Walsh (1994). Based on a 1929 painting of the same name by German artist Christian Schad, the poem presents a married couple employed as sideshow performers: Agosta, a white German man with a skeletal deformity, and Rasha, a Black woman from Madagascar who dances with a snake. Dove explained that instead of approaching narrative “from beginning to end” she for the first time found a more satisfying method: “The bare bones of Agosta and Rasha’s stories come at you in a starburst fashion; little bits of information pop up here and there.” In the poem Schad awaits for the pair to arrive so he can paint their portrait, searching for inspiration on how to pose them to reflect, as Dove puts it, on “how aware they are of their Otherness”:
but their gaze,
Christian Schad painting (1929), featured on the cover of Dove’s 1983 collection Museum, which inspired a poem that Dove marks as a turning point in her development
Thomas and Beulah
After the publication of her short-story collection Fifth Sunday (1985), Dove released her third book of poetry, Thomas and Beulah (1986), a series of narrative poems that tell the partially fictionalized story of her grandparents, Thomas and Georgianna. It describes how they built a life together despite the challenges of living through a history filled with the darkness of racism, including lynchings, cross burnings, and the death of a close friend. Dove discussed this history in her interview with Moyers: “One of the things I was trying to do was to show how grand historical events can be happening around us, but we remember them in relationship to what is happening to us at that particular moment, what happens to the individual. And the idea of how an individual fits into the flux of history has always fascinated me.”
At the bottom of the page dedicating the volume—“for my mother, Elvira Elizabeth”—Dove notes: “These poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence.” The volume is divided into two parts: “I. Mandolin,” which comprises twenty-three poems written in the third-person from Thomas’s perspective, and “II. Canary in Bloom,” which includes twenty-one poems written from Beulah’s perspective. The first poem in the collection, “The Event,” recounts how Thomas dared his best friend, Lem, to swim from their riverboat to a distant island, leading to his drowning:
on deck, saw the green crown shake
as the island slipped
in the thickening stream.
Dove described the process of composing the poem to Moyers as a way of trying to reconcile this story her grandmother told her with the man she knew her grandfather to be:
The question for me was, “How did this man, who must have been wracked with guilt over the death of his friend—how did he come to terms with this guilt in his life? How did he become, then, this sweet, wonderful, quiet man that I knew as my grandfather?” So I was writing poems, in a way, working toward the man that I knew.
“The Great Palaces of Versailles,” a poem told from Beulah’s perspective that Dove told Moyers was one of her my favorites about her grandmother, captures her experience working in the backroom of a dress shop, frustrated that she is not allowed to sell clothes in front owing to her race. (“Nothing nastier than a white person! / She mutters as she irons alterations.”) As an act of rebellion, Beulah begins reading books about the behavior of “French ladies at court.” Speaking to Moyers about her grandmother, Dove said, “She’s always wanted to go to Paris. And so she knows she’s not going to get there now, but in order to feed her dreams, she makes do with what she has. [. . .] And that kind of resilience, you know, of the spirit, saying ‘Well, I’m going to get my France some way,’ is what l liked about that poem.” Thomas and Beulah was awarded the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Dove was the second African American poet (following Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950) to receive the award.
Cover for the first edition of Dove’s third book of poems. The Pulitzer Prize statement was added to the cover after the collection won the award in 1987.
University of Virginia and Grace Notes
Dove began teaching at the University of Virginia in 1989 as the commonwealth professor of English, a position she held until 2020. This appointment coincided with the publication of Grace Notes (1989), the title referring to the “grace notes” in music, which are used to add color and emotion to a basic melody. Throughout the forty-eight poems in the collection’s five sections, she uses lyric narrative to explore moments from her childhood and adolescence moving forward to her present. “The word as talisman is another of her concerns,” the inside jacket of the 1991 edition of Grace Notes explained, “and finally, in the section that most typifies the life of grace notes, Dove considers the embellishments below the melody of daily life.” Notably, she focuses on womanhood and the intimacy of her relationship with her daughter in “After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed.” In one part, she describes the little girl’s questions about her mother’s menstruation:
This is good blood
I say, but that’s wrong, too.
How to tell her that it’s what makes us—
black mother, cream child.
In a glowing review for Mānoa (Spring 1990), Bruce Weigl praised Dove’s ability to relate “a sensuous, brave, and unadorned testimony of the private moments of mother with daughter as they discover their own and each other’s secret selves.”
“Another Way of Writing”: Through the Ivory Gate
Dove’s first and only novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992), was a milestone in her career. It tells the story of Virginia King, a young Black artist who returns to her hometown of Akron, Ohio, to teach puppetry at a local elementary school. The novel addresses themes of racism, conflicts between career and marriage, and the difficult intricacies of family relationships. Dove explained to Walsh (1994) how she viewed fiction writing as an extension of her identity as a writer:
Since writing the novel I get the most bizarre responses from people. Poets will say to me, “This means you’re going to still write poetry, aren’t you?” It’s as if there were some kind of bridge that I crossed and then can never come back, or that I was going to slide into the morass of commercialism—but I never approached fiction in that way. To me, fiction is simply another way of writing. [. . .] I’ve begun to realize the division that exists between the genres, particularly in this country. You know what I mean: there are novelists, and there are poets, and when poets write novels people call them Poets Who Write Novels. A felicitous correspondence between the genres hasn’t really happened in the U.S. since Robert Penn Warren, I guess. In other countries it’s quite common—there’s Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje or Günter Grass. So—I am a writer. I am neither a poet who has tasted the financial fruits of fiction and abandoned poetry, nor am I a poet who has toyed with fiction and decided to “come back to the fold,” whatever that means. I’d like the genres to embrace each other, rather than be exclusive.
Dust jacket for Dove’s 1989 volume of poems
Dust jacket for Dove’s only novel
In 1993 Dove was named Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. At the age of forty, she was then the youngest person and first African American to hold this title since the position was changed from Consultant of Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985. (There were two previous Black Consultants in Poetry: Robert Hayden [1976–1978] and Gwendolyn Brooks [1985–1986].) Her first official act as poet laureate was a public reading of her poem “Lady Freedom Among Us” in October 1993 at a ceremony commemorating the two-hundredth anniversary of the United States Capitol and the restoration of the Freedom Statue on the Capitol’s dome. The poem was later published by Janus Press in 1994, commissioned by the University of Virginia Libraries as their four millionth acquisition. She also read her poetry at President Bill Clinton’s first White House state dinner in 1993. Dove spoke to Moyers of her desire to use her position as poet laureate to make poetry more accessible to everyday Americans:
As a poet, I would like to be able to make poetry much more of a household word than it is now. If I can reduce the anxiety that people have about poetry, I think poetry will do the rest itself. [. . .] If I can—I’ll be a gadfly, if I have to be, on the side, you know, of government. But I would much rather be just a voice contributing and reminding people that we have an interior life that we often don’t talk about because it’s not expedient, because it isn’t cool, because it’s potentially embarrassing, but that without that interior life, we are shells, we have nothing. And we have to remember it, honor and, occasionally, listen to it.
The Darker Face of the Earth, A Verse Play
Dove had made a first foray into drama with “The Siberian Village: A Play in One Act” that was published in Callaloo in 1991, but she combined drama with poetry in The Darker Face of the Earth (1994), a verse retelling of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex set on a slave plantation in antebellum South Carolina. In the play, Amalia, the nineteen-year-old white mistress of the plantation, gives birth to Augustus, a half-black, half-white baby fathered by Hector, a slave she seduced. Augustus is subsequently sold into slavery and later fulfills his “Oedipus” role by murdering Hector and becoming Amalia’s lover against the backdrop of a slave revolt. Dove originally developed the idea for the verse play in 1979, though it was significantly revised in preparation for its stage premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in July 1996, supported by a grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation. Additional performances included a 1995 staged reading directed by Derek Walcott at the 92nd St. “Y” in New York City, a 1997 run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and a 1999 run at the Royal National Theatre in London. Michael Billington gave a mixed review of the London production in The Guardian (6 August 1999), noting that “Dove contrives strong situations and her language, as befits a poet, is rich and supple” but that her “use of the Sophoclean framework often allows her to short-circuit dramatic probability. Why, in 1840s South Carolina, would Amalia buy a notorious troublemaker like Augustus?”
Front and back covers for Dove’s retelling of Oedipus Rex
Dove continued recontextualizing ancient Greek myths in her next poetry collection, Mother Love (1995), which places the figures of Demeter and Persephone into new settings, including Arizona, Mexico, and a Paris café. Mother Love is written in a verse cycle of seven sections composed of sonnets. She notes in an introduction that the volume is structured “in homage and as counterpoint to [Rainer Maria] Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.” Alternating between the perspectives of mother and daughter with occasional interjections from Hades, Persephone’s captor, Mother Love engages in what Lesley Wheeler called “a problematic but persistent metaphor for literary influence: kinship that is simultaneously nurturing and smothering” in a review for Critical Matrix (Fall 1996). Also in 1995, Dove published The Poet’s World, a collection of essays developed from her lectures during her two-year term as poet laureate.
Dove’s life took an unexpected turn at the end of 1997, which she kept private for more than twenty years. Her first public acknowledgment of her perilous medical condition was a note at the back of her 2021 collection Playlist for the Apocalypse, providing background for its final section titled “My Little Book of Woe”:
On December 7, 1997, I woke up, stepped to the shower, and discovered that I was numb from the chest down. It took a few terrifying years before the cavalcade of bizarre, shifting symptoms manifested into a clear diagnosis: Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis. Early predictions were dire, envisaging progressive immobility and a wheelchair-bound future. [. . .] While I floundered between alternating bouts of fear and depression, my husband researched treatment options and suggested I opt for a drug that had only recently been approved. I will forever be grateful to my medical teams at the University of Virginia for being game to try what then was less proven. As the years scrolled by the frequency and severity of my relapses wondrously diminished, symptoms began to flatten out, and MRI scans verified that the improvements I was experiencing were real. All the time I hid what was happening to me from the public—first and foremost to spare my aging parents, but also because I needed to become acquainted with the new me before other people weighed in; the last thing the poet in me wanted was pity.
In 1998, as she was beginning to face her disease, Dove took part in two major musical collaborations. The first was a composition by Walter Ross called The Pleasure’s in Walking Through which set her poems to music and was sung by Dove in March at the Charlottesville Performing Arts Center. The second was Seven For Luck, a song cycle of seven poems which was set to music by John Williams and performed by soprano Cynthia Haymon along with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood on 25 July 1998. The performance was broadcast live on several NPR stations. Dove, who has often worked with musicians and dancers in setting her work to music, spoke to Frazier of the importance of collaboration:
To me, collaboration seems a part of being an artist. Perhaps it’s because I grew up playing the cello; I was a musician well before I acknowledged wanting to be a poet. So before I was writing poems seriously, I was playing music; I had experienced that moment when a work of art—be it a poem or a play or an oil painting—moves you intensely; my first revelation happened in music. All the arts share a space; the feeling they engender shares a space whether you’re looking at Guernica, listening to Mozart, or reading a poem.
So often I feel that the university system has caused the arts to be stuffed into their own separate cubbyholes. I look back with envy on those days when Gertrude Stein could enjoy painters and playwrights and musicians and poets at the same salon, talking to each other. When does that happen these days? Today’s poets don’t even know who’s painting or composing. There’s been a loss of cross-fertilization.
In a 1999 interview with Malin Pereira, Dove reflected on how her classical training in music has influenced her writing:
First of all, at a very basic level, I believe that language sings, has its own music, and I’m very conscious of the way something sounds, and that goes from a lyric poem all the way to an essay or to the novel, that it has a structure of sound which I think of more in symphonic terms for the larger pieces. I really do think that sonnets to me are like art songs. That’s one thing. I also think that resolution of notes, the way that a chord will resolve itself, is something that applies to my poems—the way that, if it works, the last line of the poem, or the last word, will resolve something that’s been hanging for a while.
Dove collaborated with Williams again at the 1999–2000 “America’s Millennium” New Year’s celebration, where she provided a reading set to music for Steven Spielberg’s documentary The Unfinished Journey (1999).
Dove, interviewed by Stanley Plumley in 2014. Among other topics Dove discusses the importance of music to her career.
Fire and Dance
Dove and her husband faced another calamity in fall 1998, when their house burned down after a lightning strike set it ablaze. In her interview with Walsh (2016), she talked of the “horrible experience” but reflected that “in going through an ordeal like that, you learn what’s important.” When asked if she found the experience “cleansing,” she responded:
It was a very strange feeling. There was a sense of being able to do anything I wanted. The world was open. That sounds odd but it really worked out that way, which I think is one of the reasons why, when the neighbors said, “Let’s all take dance lessons,” both Fred and I replied, “Why not?”
She spoke to Frazier of the pleasure she found in their new endeavor:
Life rushed in again when we began ballroom dancing, accompanied by two overwhelming sensations: the physical exuberance of dancing, and finding myself in companionable situations which were not determined by intellectual consensus or social standing. We danced with construction workers, lawyers, housewives—all sorts of people, young and old, academic and working class; and everyone was trying to learn the same steps. We hung out together. It was cool.
The couple’s passion for ballroom dancing led them to build a dance studio next to their rebuilt home. Dancing evidently also helped Dove to learn to cope with her multiple sclerosis, as she recalled in her note for Playlist for the Apocalypse: “I relearned walking steadily through ballroom dancing, which taught me how numb toes could gauge balance by how much pressure was exerted on the floor; I got stumbling under control.”
Rita Dove and her husband, Fred Viebahn, dancing a rumba
Dove continued to serve as an ambassador for poetry while writing new poems. From 1999 to 2000, Dove was reappointed as Special Bicentennial Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress alongside Louise Glück and W. S. Merwin. From 2000 to 2001 she contributed to a weekly column, “Poet’s Choice,” for The Washington Post. After publishing two collections—Evening Primrose (1998) and On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999)—that she had completed before fire destroyed her home, she turned to a new work informed by her newfound love of dance, American Smooth (2004). In an epigraph for the book, Dove offers a definition that speaks to her thematic approach: “American Smooth n. A form of ballroom dancing derived from the traditional Standard dances (e.g., Waltz, Fox Trot, Tango), in which the partners are free to release each other from the closed embrace and dance without any physical contact, thus permitting improvisation and individual expression.” Edward Byrne noted in Valparaiso Poetry Review (2004) that as “the definition for the book’s title suggests, there is a greater attention to imitating motion that mirrors improvisation and allows individual expression. The eloquent language is accompanied by elegant pacing across the page.” Dove’s approach is especially clear in poems such as “Rhumba,” which includes stanzas that alternate between the far left and far right of the page, and “Fox Trot Fridays,” which focuses on the therapeutic nature of movement and music:
Thank the stars there’s a day
each week to tuck in
the grief, lift your pearls, and
stride brush stride
In Sonata Mulattica (2009), Dove took on the ambitious project of crafting a poetic narrative spanning more than two hundred pages, chronicling the career of mixed-race violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower, the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. She experiments with a variety of genres and forms in the book, including prologues, contemporary and traditional poetic forms, and playwriting. In a review for Poets’ Quarterly, Jillian Wriston praised Dove for taking on such a challenging task, noting that “had she not taken such care in these delicate elements, the forms would have felt contrived, the content cliché, and the music—a crutch. However, she took great care to weave the many threads throughout this intricately designed lyric narrative, this illumination of marvel, this successful obsession.” Sonata Mulattica received the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in 2010.
Playlist for the Apocalypse
W. W. Norton published an anthology of Dove’s collected poems from 1974–2004 in 2016. She became the poetry editor of The New York Times Magazine in the spring of 2018 and resigned from the position in August 2019 after writing almost fifty columns. Her most recent book of poetry, Playlist for the Apocalypse (2021), investigates what the publisher refers to as “the vacillating moral compass guiding America’s, and the world’s, experiments in democracy” from “the first Jewish ghetto in sixteenth-century Venice” to the “contemporary efforts of Black Lives Matter.” In the Los Angeles Review of Books (November 2021), Teow Lim Goh claimed that the poems, “in the range of histories and personalities that they invoke, resemble a playlist, a curated selection of songs from a variety of albums and artists, tracking different voices, moods, and themes. They are less about the end times than the cycles of tragedy and redemption that humans seem wired to repeat.” In the collection’s final section, “Little Book of Woe,” Dove’s focus shifts from the historical to the personal. She ponders the nature of mortality, complicated by the realities of chronic illness, in poems such as “Last Words”:
I won’t meet death in a field
like a dot punctuating a page
it’s too vast yet too tiny
everyone will say it’s a bit cinematic
Playlist for the Apocalypse was a finalist for the 2022 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the 2021 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work.
The Fourth Decade of Dove’s Career
Now entering the fourth decade of her career, Dove continues to teach at the University of Virginia, where she serves as the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing. She is a member of the PEN American Center, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Fellowship of Southern Writers. She also serves as an advisory editor for several literary periodicals, including Callaloo, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, and TriQuarterly. Pat Righelato wrote of the author’s lifetime of achievement in the introduction to Understanding Rita Dove (2006):
Dove is a major writer in the canon of American poetry, standing comparison with preceding established figures such as Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, and Robert Lowell, as well as her contemporary, John Ashbery. . . . her poetry is, in its entirety, a critique of American culture: like Lowell, she reveals history through the prism of the family; like Ashbery, fascinated by the materiality of the painted canvas, she accepts materialist culture as the medium of contemporary existence. Like both, she seeks new ways in which to express the autobiographical.
The variety of genres, forms, and perspectives from which Dove has written throughout her career have allowed her to reach many readers, both nationally and internationally, and it is likely that her work will be read and valued for many years to come.
In September 2023 Dove was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
List of Works
Ten Poems (Lisbon: Penumbra, 1977) [Poetry chapbook];
The Only Dark Spot in the Sky (Tempe, Ariz.: Porch, 1980) [Poetry chapbook];
The Yellow House on the Corner (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1980) [Poetry];
Mandolin (Athens: Ohio Review, 1982) [Poetry chapbook];
Museum (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1983) [Poetry];
Fifth Sunday (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985); [Short stories]
Thomas and Beulah (Pittsburgh, Pa: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1986) [Poetry];
The Other Side of the House (Tempe, Ariz.: Procantha, 1988) [Poetry chapbook];
Grace Notes (New York: Norton, 1989) [Poetry];
Through the Ivory Gate (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992) [Novel];
Lady Freedom Among Us, illustrated by Claire Van Vliet (West Burke, Vt.: Janus Press, 1993) [Poem];
The Darker Face of the Earth, illustrated by Mark Woolley (Brownsville, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1994; revised edition, 1996) [Play];
Mother Love (New York & London: Norton, 1995) [Poetry];
The Poet’s World (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1995) [Autobiography and Essays];
Evening Primrose (Minneapolis, Minn.: Tunheim-Santrizos, 1998) [Poetry];
On the Bus with Rosa Parks (New York: Norton, 1999) [Poetry];
American Smooth (New York: Norton, 2004) [Poetry];
Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play (New York: Norton, 2009) [Poetry];
Playlist for the Apocalypse (New York: Norton, 2021) [Poetry].
The Darker Face of the Earth, Ashland, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, July 1996.
Rita Dove Reading from Her Poetry, audio, Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, Library of Congress, 7 October 1993;
Poems by Rita Dove, audio, read by Dove, Poetry Archive, 11 January 2005 [Web, accessed 14 July 2023].
“A Black Rainbow: Modern Afro-American Poetry,” by Dove and Marilyn Nelson Waniek, in Poetry after Modernism, edited by Robert McDowell (Brownsville, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1990), pp. 171–217;
“An Intact World,” in New Expansive Poetry: Theory, Criticism, History, edited by R. S. Gwynn (Ashland, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1999), pp. 173–174;
The Best American Poetry 2000, edited by Dove and David Lehman (New York & London: Scribner, 2000);
The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Dove (New York: Penguin, 2011);
“Who’s Afraid of Poetry?” in Teaching Black: The Craft of Teaching on Black Life and Literature, edited by Drea Brown and Ana-Maurine Lara (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021), pp. 78–85.
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS—UNCOLLECTED:
“Telling It Like It I-S IS: Narrative Techniques in Melvin Tolson’s Harlem Gallery,” New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, 8, no. 1 (Autumn 1985): 109–117;
“‘Either I’m Nobody, or I’m a Nation,’” Parnassus, 14, no. 1 (1987): 49–76;
“The Siberian Village: A Play in One Act,” Callaloo, 14, no. 2 (1991): 396–418;
“Poet’s Choice,” Washington Post, 4 June 2000 [Web, accessed 14 July 2023].
Steven Schneider, “Coming Home: An Interview with Rita Dove,” Iowa Review, 19, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 112–123;
Bill Moyers, “Poet Laureate Rita Dove,” BillMoyers.com, 22 April 1994 ;
William Walsh, “Isn’t Reality Magic?: An Interview with Rita Dove,” Kenyon Review, 16, no. 3 (Summer 1994): 142–154;
Malin Pereira, “An Interview with Rita Dove,” Contemporary Literature, 40, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 183–213;
Conversations with Rita Dove, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003);
Robb St. Lawrence, “‘Taking the Cards You’re Dealt and Building a House’: An Interview with Rita Dove,” Bellingham Review, 29, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 77–84;
Walsh, “The World Has to Fall Away: An Interview with Rita Dove,” Georgia Review, 70, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 25–58;
Claire Schwartz, “An Interview with Rita Dove,” Virginia Quarterly Review, 92, no. 1 (Winter 2016): 164–171;
Chapman Hood Frazier, “A Conversation with Rita Dove,” Agni, 4 October 2018
Robert McDowell, “The Assembling Vision of Rita Dove,” in Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry, edited by James McCorkle (Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1990), pp. 294–302;
Erika Meitner, “On Rita Dove,” in Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts & Affections, edited by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008), pp. 111–126;
Malin Pereira, Rita Dove’s Cosmopolitanism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003);
Pat Righelato, Understanding Rita Dove (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006);
Lekha Roy and Rano Ringo, “Liminality and Otherness: Exploring Transcultural Space in Rita Dove’s The Yellow House on the Corner,” Transnational Literature, 11 (December 2018);
John Shoptaw, “Segregated Lives: Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah,” in Reading Black, Reading Feminist, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (London: Penguin, 1990), pp. 374–381;
Therese Steffen, Crossing Color-Transcultural Space and Place in Rita Dove’s Poetry, Fiction, and Drama (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001);
Helen Vendler, “The Black Dove: Rita Dove, Poet Laureate,” in Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 156–166.
Dust jacket for Dove’s 2004 collection
Dove at the Burlington Book Festival, 24 September 2009, where she was introduced by Major Jackson and read extensively from Sonata Mulattica [time mark 29.20] (Internet Archive)
Dove reading from Playlist for the Apocalypse, 15 September 2021 (PBS Newshour)