or most readers of poetry, American poet Rita Dove requires little introduction. Her eight full-length collections of poetry, along with a novel, a short story collection, a verse drama, and a book of essays, have earned her an extensive list of honors, most notably the Pulitzer Prize. Several interviews in print and on video, along with Dove's own home page and an extensive article on the website of the Poetry Foundation, offer copious information on her life and work, and numerous scholars and critics have addressed Dove's poetry. However, although Dove recently noted that she has "led a life steeped in music,"2 little attention has been directed to the place of music in her poetry. Allusions to music, portraits of musicians, and arguably musical techniques all pervade Dove's work, often in the service of other recurring themes—history, mythology, family—but sometimes with music itself the main object of contemplation. Throughout her oeuvre, Dove pays homage to music, and her poems resonate with its vitality.
"One Note Pours into the Next"1
: Music in the Poetry of Rita Dove
by Jean L. Kreiling
Born in 1952 in Akron, Ohio, Rita Dove grew up in a household full of books and was encouraged by her parents to read widely (Poetry Foundation). The poet reports that "from the age of six I loved to read," and she remembers her delight in Louis Untermeyer's Treasury of Best Loved Poems (Dove 1995, 73, 78). Dove has said that books "made her want to be a writer" (Kirkpatrick 36), and she wrote her first poem during a free period in fourth grade (Dove 1995, 73-4). Her intellectual curiosity led her to study German in early adolescence, when she was frustrated by her inability to read her father's reference texts in that language—"the only books in the house she could not read" (Vendler 1994, 2). Her father, Ray Dove, was a chemist at Goodyear, although despite excellent credentials, he was initially denied a position as a chemist because of his race. He was instead offered the job of elevator operator; he labored at that post until a change in management led to his being hired as the first African-American research chemist in the rubber industry (Dove 1995, 76).
Music was a major component of Dove's childhood environment. She reports that when attending church services with her family, she "waited for the hymns…I was ready…to join that swell of people. …My father and I would stand there and sing and make up harmonies and play around with the notes" (Montes-Bradley). From the age of ten, Dove studied cello, later switching to viola da gamba. In addition, she remembers that "music was always being played at our house. There was Bessie Smith and Josh White, but there was also Fauré…" (Ratiner 113). Dove's poetry reflects this variety: Robert Schumann and Ludwig van Beethoven make appearances, along with jazz and blues musicians like Noble Sissle and Champion Jack Dupree. Moreover, her poetic style has been cited for both its blues elements (Harris 273; Pereira 2003, 119; Righelato 2006, 4; Schneider 68) and its use of techniques associated with classical music (Righelato 3, 12; Boone 475). Acknowledging the visceral power of music, Dove once claimed, "Music offered me my first experience in epiphany—of something clicking into place, so that understanding went beyond, deeper than rational sense. …At a very early age, music was my private sphere of discovery" (Ratiner 113).
While in high school, Dove was named a Presidential Scholar, the first of an extensive list of honors she has accumulated. She later earned her B.A. summa cum laude from Miami University of Ohio. It wasn't until Dove's college years that she made a choice between poetry and music as her professional pursuit. She played cello in the college orchestra, but confessed in a recent interview that "stage fright" made her decide that music "wasn't going to be my true profession" (Montes-Bradley). In the same interview, Dove explained, "I loved music…and I loved writing just as much. Those loves were equal. I would even say they're still equal."
During a year spent studying on a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Tübingen, Germany, Dove's identity as an African-American apparently made her an object of some curiosity. She has explained that "I became an object. I was a Black American, and therefore I became a representative for all of that" (Ingersoll and Rubin 233). Racial issues would emerge as one of several recurring themes in Dove's poetry.
When Dove returned to the U.S., she completed an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa. There she met German novelist Fred Viebahn, whom she married in 1979; they have a daughter and a granddaughter. In 1980, Dove published her first full-length poetry collection, The Yellow House on the Corner. In the following year, she joined the faculty of Arizona State University, and in 1982, she served briefly as writer-in-residence at the Tuskegee Institute. A second book of poetry, Museum, appeared in 1983, followed by a book of short stories titled Fifth Sunday in 1985, and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poetry collection Thomas and Beulah in 1986. Dove was only the second African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, Gwendolyn Brooks having preceded her in 1950. Dove described her reaction to the prize: "[I]t was immensely gratifying to see how these stories dealing with intimate moments in the lives of ordinary people, those who'll never make it into the history books, found resonance on a national level and beyond, regardless of race or gender" (Time).
In 1988, Dove was appointed to the faculty of the University of Virginia, where she was later awarded the title of Commonwealth Professor of English. By this time, she had earned the first of the several honorary doctorates that would be granted by prestigious institutions across the country, including Columbia University, Yale University, and most recently, Harvard University. Her numerous additional honors include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, and the NEA National Medal of Arts; more extensive lists appear on the Poetry Foundation website and Dove's own web page.
Especially notable among Dove's honors is her appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States in 1993-1995, representing not only a great personal honor for the poet, but also a historic milestone. Although Gwendolyn Brooks preceded her here, too, having been named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985, Dove was the first African American to hold the new title of Poet Laureate. She was also the youngest poet ever named to the position. In 1999-2000, she extended her legacy, as a Special Bicentennial Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress; she served along with Louise Glück and W. S. Merwin.
Meanwhile, Dove had published three more volumes of poetry (Grace Notes in 1989, Mother Love in 1995, and On the Bus with Rosa Parks in 1999), along with a novel and a play. Two more poetry collections would follow, both with especially significant ties to music: American Smooth (2004) and Sonata Mulattica (2009). In 2011, Dove edited the Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, provoking a conversation about the past and future of American poetry. Helen Vendler asserted that "multicultural inclusiveness" had led Dove to omit poetry that was "far richer" (2011, 19-20), while other critics called the anthology "an engaging, informative, high-quality collection" (Berman) and praised its "commitment to telling powerful, encouraging stories about demographic trends in twentieth-century American poetry" (Kunkel 167).
Dove's recently published Collected Poems, 1974-2004, has been assessed as "an astounding body of work" (Teicher), her poems praised for their "earthiness, originality, power and range" (Garner). The volume was the winner of the 2016 NAACP Image Award in Poetry and a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award. Echoing assessments of her individual collections, one critic notes that:
Dove writes about subjects near at hand—her family's past, her own experiences of love and motherhood. Yet the harshest facts and joys—of African Americans' struggles, as well as all human struggles—are ever-present beneath and between her lines. …Dove gives us the world we know and simultaneously goes beyond it (Teicher).
Dove remains extremely active in the poetry community, giving readings in widely varying venues and serving on the advisory boards of organizations such as The MacDowell Colony and the Givens Foundation for African American Literature. She has appeared in numerous television and radio productions, including "Bill Moyers' Journal," "A Prairie Home Companion," and "Sesame Street." In music, her activities include participating in the multi-disciplinary production Ozone, based on her poem of the same name, and singing the premiere of Walter Ross' composition The Pleasure's In Walking Through, which also sets her words; she has also performed on the viola da gamba with the University of Virginia Early Music Consort. Pursuing yet another artistic direction, Dove and her husband are devotees of ballroom dancing; a recent interviewer notes that "The back-and-forth of dance is not too different from how she describes the allure of poetry…the conversation, the common ground, the understanding" (Gruss 37).
Dove has enthusiastically acknowledged the role of music in poetry. She explained:
To me, poetry is very musical. It is a sung language; it is also a way of—not capturing, not reminding us—no, letting us relive the intensity of a moment. …A poem convinces us not just through the words and the meaning of the words, but the sound of them in our mouths—the way our heartbeat increases with the amount of breath it takes to say a sentence . …It's the way our entire body gets involved in the language being spoken. Even if we are reading the poem silently those rhythms exist (Ratiner 114-5).
In an autobiographical essay, Dove described how playing the viola da gamba enhanced her understanding of rhythm and modulation, and asserted, "I am quite certain this music has spilled into my poems, which are modulated by shifting word patterns and syncopation" (Dove 1995, 88). Moreover, Dove claims that the "resolution of notes, the way that a chord will resolve itself, is something that applies to my poems—the way that, if it works, the last line of the poem, or the last word, will resolve something that's been hanging for a while" (Pereira 2003, 166). In a recent interview, she said of her work, more simply, "The poem has to sing" (Kreiling). While Dove's poems seldom inhabit traditional poetic forms, critic Pat Righelato has observed in them "an acute sense of pattern and proportion" that she attributes to Dove's "musicality" (2006, 4). The formal device that most clearly links Dove's poetry to musical techniques may be her manipulation of repeated, unifying motifs, the most striking example being the recurring image of Thomas' mandolin in Thomas and Beulah.3 Significantly, Dove describes her own powers of observation this way: "I have to trust my inner artist who knows that there will always be sympathetic strings, and that I will pick up on them" (Schwartz 13).
Music in Dove's Early Poetry: The Yellow House on the Corner, Museum, and Thomas and Beulah
Dove's first full-length collection of poetry, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), features themes that would occupy her throughout her career: history in general, the African-American experience in particular, travel, myth, family, and music. Music appears most prominently in "Robert Schumann, Or: Musical Genius Begins with Affliction" (10). The poem's deceptively simple opening phrase—"It began with A"—references the musical pitch, usually played by an oboist, to which an orchestra tunes, thus the "beginning" of many musical experiences. We find out later in the poem that this first line also refers to the first man, Adam. In the first stanza, the refined surroundings of classical music ("a room / with a white piano and lyre-back chairs") are juxtaposed with decidedly unrefined sexual activity, as the composer "panted on a whore…and the oboe got its chance." The implication is that Schumann's later mental illness, which included the recurring auditory hallucination of a repeated A, might have had its genesis in syphilis, a theory supported by some historians. The second stanza of the poem tells us that the A "never stops," and begins a listing of Schumann's orchestral works in the key of A (though he did not actually compose a "Symphony in A," which appears in the list). The recurring A thus represents the composer's accomplishments, during years when his alleged syphilis would have been latent, as well as the torture he would later experience; the reader understands the change from one to the other in the short line, "no chord is safe from A." The conclusion of the poem looks back at the "room with delicate chairs," when Schumann was "happy…He was Adam naked in creation, / starting over as the sky rained apples." Even the fruit representing dangerous sexual temptation has a name beginning with the letter A. Thus, Dove has brought history to life with a specific and very human incident, in part by employing a repeated motif (the letter A), as a composer might.
A very brief, but significant, reference to music appears in "Upon Meeting Don L. Lee, in a Dream" (16), a poem more concerned with the question of race; it has received considerable attention as a signal of Dove's rejection of the Black Arts movement represented by Lee (Righelato 2006, 13). Amid this poem's disturbing images of decay, music survives: "Women…begin / To chant" Midway through the poem, the speaker (perhaps Dove herself) interrupts Lee, saying "Those years are gone— / What is there now?" In a recent interview, Dove explained that:
as a young artist, I fretted and struggled against the Black Arts Movement. It's not that I was opposed to it—it just wasn't my movement. …It's necessary that blackness be part of the national conversation, but the Black Arts Movement's insistence on projecting only certain aspects of black life was limiting if you wanted to talk about the complexity of being black or explore the negative spaces of racial identity—feelings of inferiority, beauty standards—this was sometimes shot down as being "not black enough"…On the other hand, I did not want that poem to be an unconditional confrontation. it's almost more like the daughter breaking away from an overprotective family…(Schwartz 6-7).
Concerning her identity as an African American and her treatment of race in her work, Dove has said, "I guess I've always had a resistance to being typecast, and did not want to, from the beginning, be put in a category of 'Black Poet'" (Johnson and Peabody 21). In stronger language, she declared, "…it's so ass backwards to say that there is a black way of writing and then there is a white; this is madness. Every black person that I know speaks at so many different levels all the time, and why not use all of that? All of it" (Pereira 2003, 172). Indeed, critic Arnold Rampersad observed in Dove's first two books "an eagerness, perhaps even an anxiety, to transcend—if not actually to repudiate—black cultural nationalism in the name of a more inclusive sensibility…an ever-expanding range of reference" (53).
Dove also resists being pigeonholed as a feminist, asserting that:
politically I consider myself a feminist, but when I walk into my room to write, I don't think of myself in political terms. …As a writer I just happen to be a Black and a woman, and those perceptions may appear on the page more often than not because those are the viewpoints I'm most intimate with, and so I filter my intentions, my subject matter, through them. (Talbe-Khyar 81-82).
On the other hand, Dove had earlier offered this explanation for her interest in telling stories:
it really begins with two feelings I had as a child: first that I wasn't represented in History—I'm talking of History with a capital H—neither as a female or as a Black person. And second, the nagging sense that ordinary people were not represented in history, that history gives you the tales of heroes, basically—and not what happens to 'ordinary' people who live through the events. …If you can edit someone out of history, then the next generation—those who do not have a personal memory of certain events anymore—won't have anything to go on (Ratiner 103).
A reconciliation of Dove's resistance to "typecasting" with her interest in preserving her heritage as an African-American woman might be found not only in her own words quoted above ("why not use all of that?"), but also in the words of critic Helen Vendler, who wrote that "Being a black poet in the US presents a great challenge, and Dove's works represent some of the best examples of how to be faithful to race, yet unconstrained by this faith" (Vendler 1994, 1).
Dove certainly draws our attention to racial issues with the title of another poem in The Yellow House on the Corner: "Nigger Song: An Odyssey," which "empathize[s] with the dreams and delinquent energies of young black males imprisoned in their ill-environed lives" and features "syncopated rhythm" (Rigehelato 2006, 12, 14), while creating other musical effects with alliteration and assonance. Dove's interest in techniques that parallel musical devices is also apparent in her use of the word "Suite" for a group of poems in the middle of this collection: "A Suite for Augustus" (25-30). These short poems represent Dove's talent for observing history in the experiences of individuals: they trace the progress of a love affair in the 1960s, with the first poem setting the historical context by alluding to the assassination of President Kennedy. This group of related but contrasting poems are counterparts to the dances in a suite, which are often in the same key but differ in tempo and meter.
Dove's second collection, Museum (1983), addresses many of the same themes as her first, and musical allusions play a variety of roles; two of its four sections are introduced by epigraphs from musicians (Bob Marley and Bessie Smith). Many of the poems in this volume reflect Dove's interest in portraying history through the lens of ordinary individual experiences. She said of this book, "One of my goals…was to reveal the underside of the story, not to tell the big historical events, but in fact to talk about things which no one will remember but which are just as important in shaping our concept of ourselves and the world" (Ingersoll and Rubin 232). A musical allusion in "The Hill Has Something to Say" (18-19) urges readers to pay attention to this "underside," as the wind "hoots its one bad note…a bugle…What's invisible sings…if we would listen!" In "Shakespeare Say" (33-4), Dove links black American blues singer Champion Jack Dupree both to the Elizabethan bard and to a more ordinary individual: "He drums the piano wood…every song he sings / is written by Shakespeare / and his mother-in-law."
Dove began work on Museum while in Europe, and much of the collection spans a generous geographical and historical range, as in "The Ants of Argos" (14), "Catherine of Siena" (23), "At the German Writers Conference in Munich" (43-4), and "Early in the Morning on the Tel Aviv-Haifa Freeway" (66). But the third section of the book, "My Father's Telescope," keeps an affectionate focus on family and home, with beloved individuals characterized in vivid snapshots. In "Song. Summer" (53), the speaker's brother "flies / over the house…and hums / as he circles," and a musical detail helps bring to life a "Sunday Night at Grandfather's" (50) when we read of "Grandma humming hymns."
The fourth and final section of the book returns to a broader world view, and also brings a sharper focus on music. In "The Left-Handed Cellist" (72), the speaker "played in high heels to be closer" to someone who apparently betrayed her: "you broke / my little finger…Tell me that you did not profit from me…." In the much-praised poem "Parsley" (75-77), the musical qualities of a traditional form help to portray the difficult life of peasant farmers in Haiti. The first section of the poem has the shape of a relaxed villanelle (without regular rhymes), in which the repeated refrain "out of the swamp the cane appears" might be read as symbolic of the "recurring growth of sugar-cane, no matter how often it is cut down" (Vendler 1994, 3). In another significant musical element of the poem, the singing of common folk reveals a dialect without rolled R's—and that lack is the criterion for punishment by death decreed by a dictator who slaughtered thousands. But perhaps the most musical poem of Museum is "Exeunt the Viols" (71), which contains only two pieces of musical terminology ("viols" and "chord"), but offers an imaginative and lyrical tribute to the sound of viols: "with their throb and yearn, their sad / stomach of an alley cat…their last chord a breath drawn / deep in a garden maze, there / near the statue / smiling under the stars."
In Dove's Pulitzer-Prize-winning third collection of poems, Thomas and Beulah (1986), musical motifs provide crucial nuances in the story of a couple based loosely on the poet's own grandparents. Dove explained, "I was after the essence of my grandparents' existence and their survival, not necessarily the facts of their survival" (Schneider 66). According to Dove, the book presents "two sides of the same story—the story of a Black couple growing up in the industrial Midwest from about 1900 to 1960. And the first part is Thomas's point of view; the second part is his wife's point of view" (Ingersoll and Rubin 236). Again, Dove illuminates what she has called "History with a capital H"4 (here, the Great Migration of African-Americans from South to North, Midwest, and West) through a vivid personal history. As one critic observes, "the poems themselves are not about an individual's relationship to her history, nor about the weight of history. They are, more, history allowed to speak for itself…. (Steinman 433)
Thomas's story begins with the accidental drowning of his friend Lem, a tragedy that haunts Thomas until his own death. Lem's mandolin, an image that will recur throughout the volume in the manner of a musical motif that unifies a symphony, appears in the first poem, "The Event" (11), as an emblem of the men's friendship:
Ever since they'd left the Tennessee ridge
with nothing to boast of
but good looks and a mandolin…
to Thomas' silver falsetto.
But by the end of the poem, Lem has died, and in the next poem, "Variation on Pain" (13), Thomas holds the mandolin in his arms as he lies on his bunk, the instrument embodying his pain: "Two strings, one pierced cry." Some version of the phrase "two strings" recurs three times in the poem, each time in a slightly different context—like a musical phrase whose recurrences have slightly different harmonizations—the "variation" of the title. Lem's spirit shadows Thomas' relationship with Beulah: in "Courtship" (16), Thomas woos Beulah with the "mandolin belly pressed tight / to his hounds-tooth vest," and in "Refrain" (18), Lem and his mandolin are "sailing / past the bedroom window" on their wedding night.
Music contributes to the story throughout. In "Compendium" (28), when marriage forces Thomas to give up "fine cordials and / his hounds-tooth vest," he becomes "a sweet tenor / in the gospel choir"; he resents Beulah's "canary, usurper / of his wife's affections." The poem titled "Gospel" (35) offers a sumptuous description of gospel music, beginning:
Swing low so I
can step inside—
a humming ship of voices
big with all
the wrongs done
No sound this generous
ride joy until
it cracks like an egg,
seethe and whisper.
The canary that appears occasionally in Thomas' section of the book becomes Beulah's musical motif, counterpart to his mandolin. Beulah's version of their courting days, in "Courtship, Diligence" (50), implies that she felt some scorn for Thomas' mandolin: "the strings tinkle…Cigar box music! / She'd much prefer a pianola…." Thomas' feelings about the canary are clear in "The Satisfaction Coal Company" (40-42), when he is unhappily confined at home after a stroke and characterizes the canary's song as "curdled."
In two poems, the juxtaposition of mandolin and bird suggests difficulties in Thomas and Beulah's marriage. As Thomas recuperates after his stroke in "Recovery" (70), his mandolin hangs on the wall, as idle as he is. As she looks after him, Beulah remembers that he once promised to take her to Chicago; her unvoiced disappointments are "secrets like birdsong in the air." In "Company" (74), Beulah reminisces about Thomas after his death: "No one can help him anymore. / Not the young thing next door / in the red pedal pushers, / not the canary he drove distracted // with his mandolin."
Not surprisingly, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Thomas and Beulah has received considerable critical attention, including discussions of such issues as history (Righelato 2006, 71; Steinman 433), racial identity (Steffen 2001, 96; Vendler 1994, 5), language (Harris 271-2), and grammar (Shoptaw 377). Discussions of the book's musical resonances include comments on its "italicized song-like rhymes" (Schneider 68), and its "blues" qualities (Harris 273; Righelato 2006, 104-5). One analysis of the form of Thomas and Beulah evokes Bach's Inventions for harpsichord, the book's two individual narratives described as "cunningly counter-balancing each other into stability, [as] the tart and touching individual poems add up to a sturdy two-part invention" (Vendler 1994, 5). Dove was certainly in a musical frame of mind while composing the collection; she has said:
While I was writing this book I was playing a lot of music, everything from Lightnin' Hopkins to older ones like Larry Jackson or some of the recordings that Al Lomax made of musicians, all the way up to Billie Holliday, stopping about in the '50s. It seemed to be the music for the book (Schneider 68).
Music in Dove's Mid-Career Poetry: Grace Notes, Mother Love, and On the Bus with Rosa Parks
The music of Grace Notes (1989) ranges from the blues to Berlioz. A poem titled "Canary" pays homage to Billie Holiday (64), its title evoking not only the complicated significance of Beulah's pet, emblem of both beauty and captivity, but also the difficult life of a female singer (a "canary"). In discussing this poem, Dove has pointed out that the canary is the bird "that miners take down to mines to test for poison gas leaks, and if the bird dies they know that the mine is not safe for men" (Cavalieri 147); the poisons that Billie Holiday faced are suggested in these words from the poem: "magic spoon, magic needle…women under siege." The poem ends by remarking on Holiday's stylish dignity, despite her troubles; in its deceptively simple rhyme and rhythm, the line has the timbre of a song lyric: "If you can't be free, be a mystery." An epigraph from composer Hector Berlioz prefaces the poem "Obbligato" (67) with a confession of obsessive love; this cryptic poem finds the composer annoyed by the "murmured solicitudes" of patrons and by trumpets "failing their entrances." Not until the isolated penultimate line is his true preoccupation suggested, as it presumably refers to the woman mentioned in the epigraph: "The entire summer he was twelve she wore pink shoes." As is so often the case in Dove's work, this small personal detail carries the weight of a broader story. As critic Righelato wrote of Grace Notes as a whole, "There is harmony…a showing forth of the individual note within the whole." (2006, 141).
Dove's next collection of poems, Mother Love (1995), is especially notable in two ways. First, the entire volume constitutes a retelling of the myth of Demeter and Persephone: the abduction of a daughter into the underworld is transposed into a modern mother's fears of losing her daughter in a variety of ways. In an interview, Dove described her own maternal anxieties: "I hadn't anticipated the vulnerability of being a mother; the vulnerability of accepting that…you can't protect another person completely…. The feeling of exposure and helplessness is something I was trying to explore in this book" (Kirkpatrick 1995, 37).
Second, most of the poems in Mother Love represent Dove's idiosyncratic approach to the sonnet form. In her preface to the book, Dove notes that "sonnet" literally means "little song" (iii). Both her attraction to the form and her intent to use it flexibly are signaled in this comment from the preface:
[I]f the "true" sonnet reflects the music of the spheres, it then follows that any variation from the strictly Petrarchan or Shakespearean forms represents a world gone awry. Or does it? …I like how the sonnet comforts even while its prim borders (but what a pretty fence!) are stultifying; one is constantly bumping up against Order. The Demeter/Persephone cycle of betrayal and regeneration is ideally suited for this form since all three—mother-goddess, daughter-consort and poet—are struggling to sing in their chains (iii-iv).
Dove stated elsewhere that she was "interested… [in] how I could make the sonnet fresh again" (Kirkpatrick 36). In fact, while most of the poems in the collection are fourteen lines long, and some have the traditional "turn" in thought or perspective at or around the ninth line, the poems employ end-rhyme only infrequently, and seldom scan in traditional meter. Dove linked her compositional process for this book to music:
When writing sonnets, what I would actually do, was not to think about rhyme and not think about meter and not think about fourteen lines, just write. If you're a musician you have a key signature; so I put myself in a key signature and a time signature—then just wrote. I would look at what I'd written and see if the form was in it. …It was uncanny because if I looked at it, the rhymes were there. They may not have been at the ends of the lines during the first or second draft, but they were there…. Most of the sonnets do half-rhyme. There's also a lot of internal rhyme from phrases that would not allow themselves to be pushed into the sonnet form (Kirkpatrick 1995, 36-77).
The resulting poems led one critic to complain that "by playing this loosely with the form, Dove abandons the psychological appeal of the sonnet …Most of the sonnets here are hobbled by form rather than made whole by it." (Ward 115). Another reviewer, however, claims that in this volume Dove is "at the height of her powers" (Publishers Weekly 1995).
As in previous collections, brief musical allusions often intensify or color the ideas in Mother Love. For example, in the title poem (17), Dove makes clear the sometimes strident call of maternal responsibility: "duty bugles and we'll / climb out of exhaustion every time, / bare the nipple or tuck in the sheet …." This poem might be considered an unbalanced double sonnet, its two sections consisting of twelve and sixteen lines respectively, each employing some rhyme and half-rhyme. Here and elsewhere, Dove's apparent ambivalence toward the sonnet form may reinforce her theme, "the ambivalence of love and duty from the archetypal mother Demeter's perspective" (Steffen 1998, 112). In "Persephone in Hell," a multi-part poem that makes virtually no gestures toward the sonnet form, Dove portrays the decadence of Paris with another carefully chosen musical instrument: "Banjos appeared, spilling / zeal like popcorn" (23).
Music plays a more major role in "Golden Oldie" (19), which evokes both the weariness of a mother and the yearning of an adolescent girl. Irregular but frequent rhyme combines with a provocative final couplet to create some of the traditional effects of a sonnet, despite the poem's loose meter. The image of the blind pianist counterpoints the picture of the "stalled" driver "caught in a tune":
I made it home early, only to get
stalled in the driveway, swaying
at the wheel like a blind pianist caught in a tune
meant for more than two hands playing.
The words were easy, crooned
by a young girl dying to feel alive, to discover
a pain majestic enough
to live by. I turned the air-conditioning off,
leaned back to float on a film of sweat,
and listened to her sentiment:
Baby, where did our love go?—a lament
I greedily took in
without a clue who my lover
might be, or where to start looking.
Dove's next collection, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999) portrays several ordinary and obscure individuals who resisted segregation. Again, music helps Dove make her point. A poem called "Homework" (20-21) presents stereotypes about "the Negro" on the right side of the page: "The Negro and his song / are inseparable…his music is primitive…his love of rhythms and melody, his / childish faith in dreams…." The left-side portion of the poem forcefully declares the Negro's wider interests: "Shit, / he'll take Science, most / Exacting Art…Better / columns of figures…he'd like to study / the composition of the stars." "Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967" (32-3) makes a similar point, in a possibly autobiographical description of a young girl's exploration of the library's collection of diverse knowledge, including "binary codes…Gestalt theory…lead poisoning…Dutch Renaissance painting…," and this: "I studied history for its rhapsody of dates, / lingered over Cubist art for the way / it showed all sides of a guitar at once." And in "Freedom Ride" (77), the poet invokes music to urge participation in the movement: "You can ride / into the afternoon singing with strangers, / or rush home to the scotch / you've been pouring all day— / but where you sit is where you'll be / when the fire hits."
Music in American Smooth and Sonata Mulattica
Dove prefaces American Smooth (2004) with the dictionary definition of its title: "a form of ballroom dancing…permitting improvisation and individual expression." A New York Times reviewer asserted that for Dove, "dance is an implicit parallel to poetry. Each is an expression of grace performed within limits; each an art weighted by history but malleable enough to form something utterly new" (Nussbaum). Moreover, both dance and poetry are intimately connected to music, the other art that suffuses this volume. The title poem (39-40) describes dance's combination of discipline and freedom: "the effort of / keeping my frame / (the leftward lean, head turned…) /…I didn't notice…we had done it / (for two measures? / four?)—achieved flight…."; Note that in the moment of dancing's purest, most liberating pleasure, time is considered in musical terms (measures). In "The Castle Walk" (43-5), a jazz band plays for an uptight audience learning dance from Irene and Vernon Castle, and the musical details are vivid: "Buddy's snare drum…pour on // the violins, insinuate / a little cello / lay some grizzly piano…mortify 'em / with your cornet's / molten silver moan!"
A few poems address music especially directly. "Soprano" (30-31) depicts the transcendent moment of a perfectly articulated tone: "When you hit / the center / of a note…the soul dies / for an instant"; the poem's very short lines function like brief musical phrases, discrete but connected, as "one note / pours into / the next." Dove recently called such a moment "the sweet spot" and likened it to a poet's discovery of just the right word or syllable: "It can take years of all sorts of practice, but it must seem effortless" (Kreiling). The poem "Bolero" (90-91) summons up the sounds of Ravel's famous piece even as it insists that its subject is "an older, / crueler / passion …Bessie Smith in a dream of younger…slimmer / days." In the final image, "she moves, moves with him to the music in the space allotted them." Although "Blues in Half-Tones, 3/4 Time" (97-8) does not mention music at all beyond its title, its content might remind the reader of the repetitions and word-play of the blues, in lines like "From nothing comes nothing…Not a thing for you, sweet thing" and ""So they say. They say / the play's the thing, too, / but we know that don't play."
American Smooth also explores racial injustice, often through music. Several poems focus on the prejudice faced by African-American soldiers who played in dance-hall bands during the First World War. "Noble Sissle's Horn" (57-8) alternates eloquent testimony to the famous musician's understanding of his art ("A cornet's soul is in its bell— / trap that liquid gasp / and you're cooking"), with quotations of racial insults he heard ("Take your hat off, boy…Nigger, where you been raised?"). In "The Return of Lieutenant James Reese Europe" (65-6), the bandleader recalls how poorly his unit was equipped, though they spread "American good will / in a forty-four piece band." Dove understands that the "American" dance is not always "smooth," and her poetry gives voice to both its stumbles and its grace.
Dove's most recent collection of poems tells a story in which three of her favorite preoccupations coalesce: music, history, and racial identity all inform the story of George Bridgetower in Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play (2009). Dove spins her colorful tale from the somewhat obscure backstory of Ludwig van Beethoven's famous "Kreutzer" Sonata for violin and piano, Op. 47,5 which by rights should be known as the Bridgetower Sonata, as it was originally composed for celebrated Afro-European violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower, who premiered it (with Beethoven at the piano).6 Dove's title comes from Beethoven's original, "outrageously personal" dedication, "Sonata mulattica Composta per il Mulatto Brischdauer gran pazzo e compositore mulattico" (Mulatto Sonata composed for the great crazy mulatto composer Bridgetower), which acknowledged "the brilliant violinist with whom Beethoven would consort in a brisk social circuit" for several months in 1803 (Kramer 57). After a personal conflict with Bridgetower, Beethoven changed the dedication to honor the eminent violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, though the composer had never met Kreutzer, who would never perform the piece in public.7
According to Dove, the story told in her poems "is not just the story of [Bridgetower's] life, but about the nature of fame, the nature of memory, public memory" (Lee). In her preface, Dove states that "any resemblance to actual people, events, or locales is deliberate…however,…incidental details, behavioral quirks, and philosophical musings are either full-blown figments of the author's imagination or are amalgams of truth and fantasy…." Like so much of Dove's work, the poems offer vivid but sometimes cryptic snapshots more than a comprehensive account. While one critic asserted that some of the poems are "prosy" (Publishers Weekly 2009), another called the book "scintillating" (Seaman 15), and yet another deemed it "a virtuosic treatment of a virtuoso's life" (The New Yorker).
Even a brief consideration of Sonata Mulattica makes clear Dove's considerable ambition, wide-ranging research, and versatile craftsmanship. Using narrative, dramatic monologue, song-like stanzas, diary entries, and even a short dramatic scene, Dove "delves into the nature of genius and power, class and race, and the consequences of exoticism and lust, creating a unique celebration of art and spirit" (Seaman 15). The role of race is illuminated in "What Doesn't Happen" (37-8), when Bridgetower plays for an audience that includes a dark-skinned girl ("dark yet warm / as the violin's nut-brown sheen") who stares at him "as if to say / you are what I am, what I yearn to be— / so that he plays only for her and not her keepers…." But the class conflict between musician and patron looms just as large as racial differences, as in "Andante con Variazioni" (157-9), when Bridgetower acknowledges that European society regards him much as they do the "two monkeys / in identical red waistcoats, one with a toy violin" that he sees at a traveling fair. In fact, the celebrated white composer Joseph Haydn feels a similar humiliation: "Haydn, Overheard" (69-70), begins, "It is a sad thing always / to be a slave, / but if slave I must, better / the oboe's clarion tyranny // than a man's cruel whims."
Several notable poems in Sonata Mulattica expertly match form—and arguably musical technique—with content. "The Lesson: Adagio" (57-8) offers a visceral and rapturous account of learning to bow a stringed instrument—"To bow / is to breathe: open / then / fold again, slowly: / deep inside / a wounded angel's / wing throbs…." The poem's short lines and irregular spacing draw on the page a series of graceful arcs that might be seen as part of a violin's shape—and/or the carefully executed movements of a bow. In "Black Billy Waters" (67), the simple rhymes and repetitions of a sing-song villanelle suggest the grinding routine of a journeyman fiddler's life. The aforementioned "Andante con Variazioni" (157-9), with its four variations, "mirrors" the second movement variations of the Kreutzer Sonata (Boone 475).
Dove makes the reader privy to Bridgetower's thoughts about the premiere performance of the Sonata in "The Performer" (119-21). The poem's first "movement" finds him absorbed in the profound joy of performing ("This is what it is like // to be a flame: furious but without weight, breeze / sharpening into wind, a bright gust / that will blind, flatten all of you— / yet tender"), while the second finds him politely thanking patrons and insisting that he is "merely the instrument." The Finale voices his desire to be accepted in society: "if I could step out / into the street and become / one of them… / I would sing— / no, weep right here—to simply / be and be and be…" Even at the moment Bridgetower wishes he were free of his identity as a paid performer, music is at least a momentary part of his deepest desire.
A review of Rita Dove's Collected Poems, 1974-2004 asserts that the collection "reminds readers why she is one of the nation's most respected literary figures…a writer who masterfully balances narrative and poetic finesse" (Lund). Dove's record as "one of the nation's foremost ambassadors of poetry" (Gruss 33) is also substantial, and her passion for sharing the art is straightforward. To those who find poetry intimidating, she says:
I often make an analogy to music. Just listen to it. You can like different kinds…jazz or pop or Bob Dylan or whatever. It's the same with poetry. …If only people would think of poetry as this incredible abundance, that they can dip their hands in the honey pot instead of thinking that they have to be privileged to enter the halls of culture (Kirkpatrick 1995, 57).
As has been demonstrated here, Dove's own work contains an abundance of music—jazz, pop, folk, classical, and gospel—not only in those poems that focus on music overtly, but also in poems that address other subjects through the use of musical allusions and in manipulations of rhythm, form, and motif. Dove has captured in words the varied experiences of those who make music, and she has exploited our shared musical cultures to enrich the language and imagery of poems that explore history, mythology, and family. As "one note pours into the next," this prolific and accomplished poet opens our ears and our psyches to stories and ideas that resonate with eloquent music.
1 Rita Dove, "Soprano," American Smooth (NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 30.
2 Rita Dove, interview with Jean L. Kreiling, May 22, 2018 (hereinafter cited as Kreiling).
3 Dove has noted that though this technique might be perceived as musical, "it's also a technique used by writers, poets, artists, and dancers . . . it's some basic feeling of wanting to catch echoes and build on them—a trick that finds its particular vocabulary in each field" (Kreiling).
4 In her 1994 interview with Bill Moyers ("Poet Laureate Rita Dove"), Dove stated, "I think that we understand history through the family around the table and those who aren't there anymore but yet who are kind of called in from the past, and I think that particularly in the poems in Thomas and Beulah, about my grandparents, one of the things that I was trying to do was to show how grand historical events can be happening around us but we remember them in relation to what is happening to us at that particular moment, what happens to the individual, and the idea of how an individual fits into the flux of history has always fascinated me."
5 Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata has directly or indirectly inspired a handful of literary and musical works in addition to Dove's Sonata Mulattica. In Leo Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), the Sonata's dazzling and passionate first movement drives a man into a jealous rage, and he fatally stabs his wife. A few decades later, Tolstoy's story inspired Czech composer Leoŝ Janáĉek to write his String Quartet No. 1 (1923), to which the composer gave the title "The Kreutzer Sonata." In 1967, Ted Hughes published his poem "The Kreutzer Sonata," a meditation on Tolstory's story. Later, the Janáĉek String Quartet inspired by Tolstoy's novella figures in a 2001 novel called The Kreutzer Sonata, written by Dutch author Margriet de Moor. Like Tolstoy's story, this novel tells a story of a very jealous husband; in this case, the husband thinks his wife, a violinist, is having an affair with the violist with whom she performs the Janáĉek quartet, and so plans to kill her. However, this time a random circumstance prevents the murder, and the married couple stays together.
6 Bridgetower's parents have been variously identified as an African prince, an Indian Prince, and/or an Indian princess; an early twentieth-century article asserts that "One thing is certain, from whichever parent he obtained his dark-hued visage, he was a mulatto" (Edwards 302). More recent scholarship describes him as "the son of a West Indian father and a European mother" (Grove and McVeigh).
7 The revised dedication may reflect more than just a personal falling-out between Beethoven and Bridgetower. Ahn (1997) points out that the path from the initial dedication to the one the piece now carries took several months, including an intermediate step in which the sonata was to be dedicated to both Kreutzer and the pianist Jean-Louis Adam (141). In addition, Ahn attributes Beethoven's motivation to the composer's musical borrowings from Kreutzer's own Grande Sonata for pianoforte with violin accompaniment (138-139).
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____________. Collected Poems 1974-2004. NY: W. W. Norton, 2016.
____________. Grace Notes. NY: W. W. Norton, 1989.
____________. Interview with Jean L. Kreiling, May 22, 2018.
____________. Mother Love. NY: W. W. Norton, 1995.
____________. Museum. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983.
____________. On the Bus with Rosa Parks. NY: W. W. Norton, 1999.
____________. The Poet's World. Washington: Library of Congress 1995.
____________. Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play. NY: W. W. Norton, 2009.
____________. Thomas and Beulah. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1986.
____________. The Yellow House on the Corner. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1980.
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