The Common Good
July-August 1998

The Poet's Obligation

by Scott Robinson | July-August 1998

Rita Dove balances creative solitude with a public vocation.

Rita Dove is a woman who does not back down from unexplored territory. She is the youngest Poet Laureate in U.S. history; she is also the first African American to be so named. She is the author of several books of poetry, including The Darker Face of the Earth (1994), Mother Love: Poems (1995), and Museum (1997). Composer and free-lance writer Scott Robinson interviewed Dove while she was in Minneapolis preparing for a vocal performance with the Plymouth Music Series. —The Editors

Let us honor the lost, the snatched, the relinquished,
those vanquished by glory, muted by shame.
Stand up in the silence they’ve left and listen:
those absent ones, unknown and unnamed—
remember!
—Rita Dove, from "Umoja—Each One of Us Counts"

‘‘I was very aware of the public nature of the piece," says Rita Dove of her poem "Umoja," "and I wanted it to have a certain majesty, and a certain pageantry." Commissioned for the Atlanta Centennial Cultural Olympics in 1996, and set to music by composer Alvin Singleton, "Umoja" is one of a number of Dove’s poems written for very public occasions.

A musician herself, Dove is keenly aware of the interplay of music and poetic word. But while poetry is most often a private undertaking, read by individuals in books or magazines, music-making is, by its nature, a public act. And Rita Dove, both in her enthusiasm for music and in her educational outreach—which emphasizes the music inherent in poetry itself—is a public kind of poet.

"Umoja," whose Swahili title means "unity," sets before a public gathered to experience the Olympic "thrill of victory" the image of those who never felt it themselves, implying that winner and loser partake of one humanity.

"It’s a poem about celebrating also the failures," Dove says. "For every person who succeeds, this is a triumph of what the human being can become. [But] all of us have failed at some time." The orchestral setting, written for the Atlanta Symphony and originally narrated by Andrew Young, was revived this year in Minneapolis during the annual Witness concert, the Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota’s annual celebration of African Americans in music, with Dove herself narrating.

Collaboration with composers is, says Dove, a "relatively recent facet" of her writing. Several of her poems have been set to music before, but always after the fact; "Umoja" was her first poem written specifically for musical performance. But Dove, who sings with the opera chorus at the University of Virginia, where she is Commonwealth Professor of English, is in a position of strength as a writer of lyric poetry. She is currently collaborating on a song cycle with composer John Williams, and believes her experience with the voice to be exerting a positive influence.

"I understand," she says, "how important it is to have the right vowel or consonant to spring off on, and what words don’t make a good ending. And though I try not to think about what the composer may come up with in terms of music, I think subconsciously I am also thinking of how [a poem] sings as language. I think all my life, even before I started singing, I tended to think of poems as kind of musical scores without the notes."

FITTINGLY FOR A poet whose poems are rife with references to music, Dove leads a full musical life. In addition to singing, she plays the viola da gamba—an ancestor of the cello—in an early music consort.

"I had been playing the cello since I was in fourth grade," she explains, "and it was in 1978, when I was in Oberlin—my husband was teaching in the German department then—I went over to the Conservatory naively thinking, ‘Oh, I could just take some lessons!’"

There was no room, of course, for additional cello students, but an instructor invited her to join a start-up early music ensemble. Fond of the extemporaneity of pre-classical music, she took up the viol.

"Early music reminds me of jazz in some odd way," she muses. "I think it’s the way that one is encouraged to invent the embellishments. You have to listen to one another in a kind of improvisational way when you’re playing in a consort."

Dove also improvised her own initiation into the world of poetry. "No one taught it to me," she recalls. "No one said, ‘This is great, you should read it.’ I stumbled on it myself. And it was my own private playground for many years. It was much later when I realized it wasn’t everybody’s playground."

With this realization came the conviction that most of the average person’s resistance to poetry is due to fear, instilled by a scholastic overemphasis on interpretation. She began to look for an opportunity to introduce people to poetry in a non-threatening way. In 1993, when she became the youngest person—and the first African American—to be named the American Poet Laureate, she knew her chance had come.

"That’s when I really began to think about how poetry can reach every person," she recalls. She visited schools and gave readings, presenting her poetry in a way that never condescended either to students or adults, and made no presumptions about what people were able to understand. "If I can reduce the anxiety level of the audience out there," her plan went, "and just read the poem as if it’s any everyday thing, let’s see what they get out of it." What they got was far more than they expected. Young and old, "people would come up and say, ‘I didn’t realize poetry could be like that!’ They were just terrified, that’s all."

But we don’t start out terrified, Dove believes; rather, we revel in the fun of words from our earliest days. "When you’re a child, you play with language, from babbling as a baby on up into the word games that children make. You’re really right in the whole mess of language, and it is a music." She describes this music as "synesthesia," a complex interwovenness of sound and sense.

"But then we get so sophisticated. We grow up, and we don’t want to be tickled, because that’s kid-like. So often I’ve had people write to me and say, ‘I used to love poetry, and then I got to school, and I just couldn’t interpret it correctly.’ And I hate that word ‘correctly’! You understand things sometimes by their intonation, and not by the absolute meaning of things.

"If you have a passage in a poem which is difficult to understand on a rational level," she suggests, "if you listen to its music, you very often understand it. It reminds me of the way we understand music—how a musically uncultured person can listen to a Beethoven symphony and still be moved. They may not know everything you would know, and they may not be able to appreciate all the finer points, but they can be moved."

Is poetry, then, somehow more than the sum of its parts? Does the artifice of poetry communicate something more to us than what the poem actually says? Or does it merely clothe what the poem says in an agreeable garment?

"I think that the two should really grow out of one another," Dove replies. "The poem in its denotative, strict meanings will pull you into its world. But its sounds will also pull your body into its world—it will pull your breath, it will pull your heartbeat. It will truly allow you to bring both your mind and your breath, or your soul, into that world."

DOVE HERSELF HAS been pulled into the world of literary celebrity, though her soul is not fully at home there. In 1993, for instance, she read her poem "Lady Freedom Among Us" at a ceremony celebrating the restoration of the Freedom Statue atop the Capitol Dome. Like Dylan Thomas and Maya Angelou—and like the earliest poets, for whom verse was an oral art—she performs her poetry. But while fame has provided her with the means to pursue her vocation as a public poet, Dove has also had to struggle with what she calls "the estranging power of good fortune," through which public recognition can alienate artists from their own creativity.

"The act of creation for me is an intensely private process," she explains. "It’s even beyond private. When it’s really working, in a sense the poem is writing me, so that the self disappears. When I go into my cabin to write, it takes a while for the junk of the world—and then the self-consciousness of being at the desk trying to write a poem—to fall away." Only after this clarifying process has taken place can the poet "finally enter that level of language and sound and silence."

"Now that’s the act of poetry," Dove says, "and fortune, and having a high public profile, is the opposite of that for me." The period since she became Poet Laureate has been a "time when I have to be relatively self-conscious—or, at least, I am made conscious of myself because other people are looking at me or asking me questions, or I’m talking. Talking about what can’t be talked about.

"So that in itself is estranging. And it becomes increasingly difficult to let the world fall away and to become just one more cluster of atoms in the universe if the phone is ringing and the fax machine is clicking on, and you’re constantly being reminded by someone that you are Rita Dove, whatever that is. It’s a very complicated thing, and I’ve been trying to explore what it does to be referred by your entire name all the time by total strangers." (Asked if there is a double meaning to the curious phrase "vanquished by glory" in "Umoja," she replies only, "Yes!" and laughs.)

Oddly enough, it is this process of self-emptying that makes communication of the self possible. Just as Christ communicated the divine nature by self-emptying, this "falling away" of worldly encumbrance frees us to make coherent our experience of the world.

"One of the most difficult things for human beings to do is to work through our troubles and to articulate them," Dove says. "When we can’t find a way to communicate to others exactly how we feel, we feel alone, lost in that emotion. There is nothing more empowering than to share that with someone else and have them understand, as precisely as possible, how we feel. Being able to articulate as closely as I can what it is that is haunting me or bothering me helps me to become less afraid of it or less depressed by it. It becomes more graspable."

This transfiguration of human experience through art is especially potent in Dove’s poem "Gospel," an account of an African-American choir’s use of music to redeem their collective and individual suffering.

Swing low so I
can step inside--
a humming ship of voices
big with all

the wrongs done
done them . . .
From a fortress
of animal misery
soars the chill voice
of the tenor, enraptured

with sacrifice . . .

The tenor, her grandfather, is one of the two title characters of her cycle "Thomas and Beulah," winner of a 1987 Pulitzer Prize. In his setting of this poem, commissioned for the 1998 Witness concert, composer Singleton brought this transfiguring power of music to life by avoiding a literal imitation of any particular style of gospel singing. Instead, he focused on the transcendent spiritual act of singing in the face of hardship. The result is at the same time detached and achingly beautiful. His objective approach to this emotional poem captures the spirit of Dove’s "notes brightly rising towards a sky blank with promise," though she was of course evoking a very different style of music.

But though Dove’s poems are often filled with "the wrongs done done" the people in them, they are ultimately about the people, not the wrongs. Having a transfigurative emotional agenda is not equivalent, for Dove, to having a transformative social or political agenda. A poet’s first duty is to poetry.

"Any art form," she says, "has the responsibility to engage its medium as much as possible. In other words, to pay as much attention as possible to how something is said: the meaning of every word, the sound of every word, the sound of the silences at the end of the line—all these things go towards shaping one’s emotional response to the poem."

"When one has a program to get across in a poem," on the other hand, "and allows the artistic integrity to be compromised simply for the message, then I think it ceases to become a poem. It becomes a hybrid of sorts. This is not to say that a political movement or a political expression is not important, but if you’re writing a poem, you’re writing a poem."

Of course, the writer also has obligations to the reader, the first of which is emotional truth. "I believe that if we have an emotion, to deny it only allows it more of an opportunity to grow in the dark and eventually take over. We have to confront every aspect of ourselves, and a poet’s obligation is—if that is part of the poem—to bring it into the poem, while also paying attention to the disciplines, the aesthetics of the art."

It is unusual to hear artists use words like "aesthetics" so boldly, in these days when recognition and funding so often revolve around other issues. Yet an insistence on the primacy of discipline and aesthetics over identity and agenda does not mean that Dove, who has a distaste for political poetry, is an apolitical poet. Her expectations of our leaders are clearly and publicly expressed.

"We are not listening to our poets and our artists," she declares. "Our government certainly isn’t. [But] we can suffer from a malnutrition of the spirit just as easily as we can suffer from other kinds of poverty, and [we need] to recognize that art is not frivolous, that it is essential to our souls. We have to feed our spirit as well as our bodies. That means federal support of the arts. Other countries do it—they’re proud of it."

The composer Hans Werner Henze said that "art has to go right among the people, [and] play a vital role in the shaping of a new and better society." And if an artist aspires to the public, one hopes that the public may aspire to art. Dove draws a metaphor from a world with a long history of political ferment and high art disguised as popular entertainment—the world of the opera.

"Beverly Sills, the opera diva, once said that art is the signature of civilizationsùit's what remains of us, what remains of our spirit, more than anything else, and we need to recognize that."

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