The Poet's Obligation

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—
—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.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
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