Quick Notes on Rita Dove

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Rita DoveRita Dove (August 28, 1952) is an American poet whose collection of poems Thomas and Beulah (1986) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, which is what I will focus on.

Thomas and Beulah is a contemporary collection of poetry that uses a Modernist collage technique of telling a story, much like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where four different narrators narrate the decline of the Compson family. With Dove’s collection, she narrates the story of two people (who might be her grandparents) and who eventually become married. The narrator, unlike Faulkner’s narrators, is all-knowing but does not insert herself into the stories. When reading through these poems, I expected there to be a developing love story or that at least something very significant would take place, but after Lem drowns in the opening poem, “Event,” the poems are uneventful. Not that the poetry is uneventful, for the poetry is terrific. But the happenings within the poems and the stories are uneventful. The narrator tells us Thomas’s story of meeting and living with Beulah, but it’s just like so many other marriages, except that Thomas doesn’t mention her name in his section. Beulah’s section is about her life and how it intersects with Thomas’s life. That might be the way to think about this collection: how two seemingly parallel narratives intersect, but share little in common, especially love between Thomas and Beulah. Thomas driving force is his love for Lem, while Beulah’s driving force is an unfulfilled dream of going to Paris and maybe staying in love with a man she met before Thomas. Perhaps Dove made their lives uninteresting for a similar reason that Richard Wright makes Bigger Thomas a murderer. Prior to Wright’s Native Son, writers often presented African Americans as passive and innocent victims of racism, who lived their days in silence but with dignity. As a result of this, Wright creates the murderer so his readers would be forced to confront the realities of racism, and not the tropes and clichés of racism. Dove then, maybe, makes Thomas and Beulah ordinary lovers and workers who have children to show a different aspect of racism. With all the detail Dove gives in her imagistic narrative, the reader can piece together the lives and experiences of two African Americans living in America from the early 1900s through the 1960s, but without using the tropes that have were often used when writing about African American experiences. Dove gives us Two African American experiences across the backdrop of the Great Migration, the Great Depression, and the March on Washington in ordinary but accumulative details. Helen Vendler probably says it more eloquently:

Thomas and Beulah represents Dove’s rethinking of the lyric poet’s relation to the history of blackness. No longer bound to a single lyric moment, she lets the successive raw data of life (perceived over time by a man and by his wife at the same epoch and in the same circumstances) become pieces for a reader to assemble. The sure hand of structural form supports each life-glimpse: cunningly counter-balancing each other into stability, the tart and touching individual poems add up to a sturdy two-part invention which symbolizes that mysterious third thing, a lifelong marriage – lived, it is true, in blackness, but not determined by blackness alone. (82)


Works Cited

Vendler, Helen. “Rita Dove: Identity Markers.” The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. 59-88. Print.


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