There are two poems in the portfolio of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove that give us a window into what she does best. The first is called “Chocolate,” and the 2004 work is a sensually delightful piece that revels in both the sinfulness of its subject and the near-palpable language Dove uses.
“Pleasure seeker, if I let you / you’d liquefy everywhere,” Dove wrote, “Knotted smoke, dark punch / of earth and night and leaf / for a taste of you / any woman would gladly / crumble to ruin.”
The other is a 1983 work called “Banneker,” which imagines a bit the inner life of Benjamin Banneker, the first black man to devise an almanac and predict a solar eclipse accurately. It’s one of several in which Dove reminds us that historical figures, regardless of their accomplishments, are human beings deep down, with the same quirks and foibles as all of us.
“What did he do except lie / under a pear tree, wrapped in / a great cloak, and meditate / on the heavenly bodies?” she wonders. “After all it was said / he took to strong drink / Why else would he stay out / under the stars all night / and why hadn’t he married?”
Those are the touchstones of Dove’s writing: an adoration for language and the sensations it can evoke, and a voracious desire for knowledge mixed with a boundless imagination. These qualities have been instilled in her writing since she first fell in love with reading and writing at 11 years old, thanks largely to the encouragement of her parents.
“I would say that the first author I remember being enthralled with was Shakespeare,” she says. “No one told me that I shouldn’t be reading him because I wouldn’t understand him. So I picked out the things that I could understand. And the parts I did understand, I seemed to understand with my whole body. And then I just read incessantly.”
From Shakespeare, Dove moved on to poets like Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, and, to a much more influential extent, Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes.
“There weren’t any other black poets in the anthology we had at my house!” she says of Hughes with a laugh. “But his poems seemed to dance off the page and embody something that I had noticed in music.” (Dove is also a trained cellist.)
“The poems could be both happy and melancholy, and that was something I understood musically because I’d heard a lot of blues,” she says.
“And what a beautiful shock Sylvia Plath was,” Dove continues. “I hadn’t heard anyone write about women before and write with such spit and fury. It was stunning.”
Though she’s written plays, song lyrics, and works of fiction, Dove says she’s attracted most to poetry because, in poems, language is often more intense and descriptive than in longer works.
“I’ve always loved words themselves, and the way a word can have a body and a sound and a shape and a history,” she says. “Language even has a silence. It circles back on my musical training because, in a certain way, words are a way of sculpting a different kind of music. There are different accents you heard swirling around you. Languages have different cadences.”
As for her love for humanizing historical figures like Banneker, Dove says it comes from a lifetime of shyness, which made her more of an observer than a participant in the world around her.
“You don’t jump into the fray when you’re shy,” she says. “I would see how people would say one thing and betray their true emotions in the way they were moving. I could also see how my parents and other members of my family could be one thing among the black community and another in the mainstream world. This notion is that there’s always another life behind the one you present. So I knew there was a maelstrom of emotions within others and myself that no one ever saw, so if that was the case, why not the big cats in our history?”
Dove is spending two days on the campus of the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities this week as part of the school’s 2018 Presidential Guest Artist Series, a new program that will bring world-renowned artists to Greenville for free public events and educational opportunities.
In addition to a master class with the school’s writing students, Dove will perform a reading from her latest book, “Collected Poems: 1974-2004,” on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Governor’s School’s Sakas Theatre.
Still a shy person despite decades of public life, Dove says she has some methods to handle her nervousness when it comes to performance.
“When I was writing the poems, I was hoping that someone else would be reading them,” she says with a laugh. “Before my first poetry reading, I was a wreck and my roommate at the time had given lots of readings. She basically told me to stick a pencil in my mouth and read the poems aloud. Then she said, ‘Now take the pencil out and read the poems.’ And it was easy! She said, ‘Think of the pencil every time you go out there.’ It helped, and it was also a matter of distracting myself.”