"I think people should be shaken up a bit when they walk through life," Rita Dove told Time magazine. "They should stop for a moment and really look at ordinary things and catch their breath." Because Dove has the peculiar genius required to make her readers catch their breath with wonder at the beauty of ordinary things, she is a most renowned poet. The literary establishment acknowledged her significance in 1987 with a Pulitzer Prize for poetry; then, in 1993, her country gave her its highest honor by making her Poet Laureate of the United States. At 41, she was the youngest person ever chosen for that position, and she brought to it youthful enthusiasm and joy in the power of language.
Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1952 and earned a B.A. from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1973 and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1977. She has taught at Arizona State University and now teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia. Writer-in-residence at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1982 and recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1983, Dove is a Fulbright scholar and holds important editorial positions on journals such as Callaloo, Gettysburg Review, and TriQuarterly. She is married to Fred Viebahn, a German novelist; they have a daughter, Aviva.
Rita Dove says that she tried to "string moments as beads on a necklace" in the making of the Pulitzer Prizewinning poetry collection Thomas and Beulah (1985). The inspiration for this volume came from a story about her grandfather that was told to Dove by her grandmother. The poems grew over the course of five years, starting with the poem "Dusting," which is one of the key pieces in the "Beulah" section but which appeared in 1983 in the volume entitled Museum. Thomas and Beulah is divided into two sections: Part One, "Mandolin," is devoted to the grandfather; Part Two, "Canary in Bloom," is devoted to the grandmother.
Dove gathered background material for Thomas and Beulah by talking to her mother, by reading Works Progress Administration texts on the state of Ohio, by exploring the significance of black migration from the agrarian South to the industrial North (especially to Akron, Ohio), and by listening to older blues recordings from Lightnin' Hopkins to Billie Holiday. This historical information was distilled into the fictional story of Dove's grandparents' lives. Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Thomas and Beulah, the first black woman to win this award since Gwendolyn Brooks received it in 1950.
In addition to Thomas and Beulah, Dove has published three volumes of poetry and a collection of short stories. The Yellow House on the Corner, published in 1980, relates the experiences of "The Bird Frau," maddened by war, who "went inside, fed the parakeet, / broke its neck." The judiciousness of tone and feeling in this poem about the German woman is matched in the poem "The Abduction," about "Solomon Northrup / from Saratoga Springs, free papers in my pocket, violin / under arm, my new friends Brown and Hamilton by my side" who, participating with his "friends" in a carnival act, "woke and found [himself] alone, in darkness and in chains."
The poems in The Yellow House seem more "domestic" than those in Museum, published in 1983. These poems have an exotic flair, retelling ancient myths, religious legends, and stories about faraway lands. One of the loveliest selections, "Tou Wan Speaks to Her Husband, Liu Sheng," describes the tomb Tou Wan constructs for her dead mate: "I will build you a house / of limited chambers / but it shall last / forever: four rooms / hewn in the side of stone / for you, my / only conqueror." Rita Dove's collection of poetry, Grace Notes, was published in 1989; her volume of short stories, Fifth Sunday, appeared in 1985. Probably the best known of the stories in the collection is "The Spray Paint King," a poignant tale about a mixed-blood black-and-German youth who, with a decidedly contemporary touch, spray-paints the ancient walls of the buildings in the city of Cologne. "The First Suite" (a complex story about a traveling puppeteer who performs for elementary school children), is taken from a novel in progress and was published in the fall 1986 issue of Black American Literature Forum. Her sixth book of poems, Mother Love, was published in 1995.
When Dove was named Poet Laureate in 1993, she was the first African American to be given that title. However, the position, which until 1986 was called "poetry consultant to the Library of Congress," had previously been held by black poets Robert Hayden (197678) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1985), but Dove does not need to rely on either ethnicity or gender for her uniqueness: She immediately set out to destroy the image of the poet as "someone sitting in a garret writing things few understood." She suggested that teachers should stop overtesting poetry in schools and even declared that poems belonged on MTV. In 1994, she was asked to serve another term as the nation's poetry advocate. In 1999, she published another collection of poems entitled, On the Bus With Rosa Parks. Although Dove is no longer Poet Laureate, she continues to be in demand by our nation's government. She contributed to a live reading at the White House's millennial New Year's Celebration.