Students and faculty filled the Statler auditorium last night to hear the former National Poet Laureate Rita Dove, read from her newest collection of poems at the Robert Chasen reading. The Robert Chasen reading is the English department’s only endowed reading and only takes place every other year.
Dove was introduced by Alice Fulton, A.S. Bowers Professor of English.
“[Dove] is among the first American poets to infuse lyric poetry with narrative,” Fulton said of Doves’ poetic style. “She has made a powerful difference in American literature … given so much without compromise.”
Fulton went on to list Dove’s many titles and achievements, including her current title as poet laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and her previous titles include not only national poet laureate, but consultant to the Library of Congress from 1993 to 1995. Dove has received many academic and literary honors including the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1987, Emily Couric Leadership Award in 2003 and the Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.
Dove read from her newest collection of poems entitled American Smooth. Dove explained that the title refers to a term used in ballroom dancing to refer to the American versions of the “smooth dances” (waltz, tango, fox trot, and others). Dove explained that these American versions are much less rigid in form than their European counterparts.
Ballroom dancing holds a great deal of sentimental value for Dove, as she and her husband Fred initially picked up the hobby as a form of distraction after their home was destroyed by fire.
“I had lost the will to write,” Dove said of her reaction to this difficult period in her life. ” … We began ballroom dancing … the poems came where they wanted to. A lot of the poems are about metaphorical dancing,” Dove said.
The influences of dance were evident not only in the title poem, but in other poems such as “Fox Trot Fridays,” “Bolero” and “Brown.”
The subject matter of Dove’s collection focuses not just on dancing, but also on such varied topics as religion, reflections on target practice and the experiences of African-American soldiers during World War I.
Dove laced her reading with a number of personal details which enabled the audience to comprehend the motivation behind many of her pieces. Dove presented the audience with childhood memories and lessons from history to provide an understanding that would not be possible for a reader of her poems to obtain on their own.
“How elegant she was … her poems and performance. I felt that it was amazing how she managed to evoke the ground and form of the poems,” said Prof. Lydia Fakundiny, English, of Dove’s delivery and integration of personal experience into the reading.
“The poet herself became a work of art,” said Prof. Katherine Gottschalk, the Walter C. Teagle Director of First-Year Writing Seminars for the John S. Knight Institute, in agreement with Fakundiny on Dove’s ability as a speaker.
“I particularly like how her work is so clear and complex at the same time,” said audience member John Paul of Dove’s literary technique.
In addition to Dove’s current title as Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, she is Commonwealth Professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Dove is the author of eight books of poetry including On the Bus with Rosa Parks and Mother Love. In addition she is the author of a novel, a collection of short stories, a collection of essays and several plays.
Archived article by Keri Frank