Last reviewed: June 2017
August 28, 1952
Rita Frances Dove was born to Ray Dove, an industrial chemist, and his wife, Elvira Hord Dove, a homemaker. Their families had migrated from the South hoping to make better lives for their children in the North, and Dove benefited from their efforts. She grew up in integrated, middle-class suburbia and was educated in its public school systems. At home, her parents kept television to a minimum while encouraging education and a life of the mind.
Like her father, Dove displayed a particularly keen talent for mathematics and the sciences early in life, memories of which sometimes appear obliquely in such poems as “Flash Cards,” which begins “In math I was the whiz kid, keeper / of oranges and apples. What you don’t understand, / master, my father said: the faster / I answered, the faster they came.” She proved to be a good student through high school and attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, graduating summa cum laude in 1973. Following graduation, she studied in West Germany at Universität Tübingen as a Fulbright fellow. She returned to the United States in 1975 to enter the University of Iowa’s master of fine arts degree program, taking her degree in 1977. Rita Dove
After receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that allowed her to focus on her poetry, Dove returned to West Germany as a fellow of the International Working Period for Authors. While there, she met and married German novelist Fred Viebahn, who encouraged Dove to explore her capacities for prose and helped her find employment writing for European radio. Although she had been publishing her poems individually in distinguished literary journals since 1974, she did not come to prominence until l980, when her first full-length collection, The Yellow House on the Corner, was published by Carnegie-Mellon University Press as part of its prestigious poetry series. Dove and her husband returned to the United States in 1981 when she accepted a position as assistant professor in Arizona State University’s creative writing program. Dove spent a semester in 1982 as writer-in-residence at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, her first prolonged period living in the Deep South.
It was here that a later work germinated, The Darker Face of the Earth, a verse drama retelling of the Oedipus legend set on an antebellum plantation in South Carolina. Afterward she returned to her home in Arizona, where she and her husband divided their time between their writing, their infant daughter Aviva Chantal Tamu Dove-Viebahn (born in 1982), and Dove’s teaching career. Dove soon distinguished herself as an important faculty member in Arizona State’s budding master’s program, gaining a reputation for her demanding but supportive readings of student work. Dove’s star was rising nationally as well. With the wide public acclaim of her third volume, Thomas and Beulah, poems based upon the lives of her maternal grandparents, and the Pulitzer Prize it received in 1987, Dove became one of the most highly honored poets of her generation. After spending a Rockefeller Foundation residency in Bellagio, Italy, in 1988, Dove left Arizona State to accept a position at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
In Thomas and Beulah, Dove strives for what she calls the “sweep of a novel” by offering two sequences of poems, one from the point of view of the husband, the other from that of the wife. The central concern of the work is the private lives of a couple whose public lives are limited by circumstance and history, a couple whose intimacies and solitudes alike find articulation in the details of family fare. The cover features a snapshot of her grandparents, and Dove has been quick to acknowledge how she drew from their biographies. However, while her grandfather’s name was preserved intact, her grandmother Georgiana’s was not, for Dove felt that “Beulah” better suited the character she was creating. These are poems, not chronicles, works of art rather than expositions, and while they are grounded in fact they are Dove’s own creations.
Two later collections of poems, Grace Notes and Mother Love, are autobiographical in much this same sense, as is her novel, Through the Ivory Gate. Virginia, the novel’s protagonist, has accepted a position as artist-in-residence in an elementary school district in Akron, her hometown. Her professional success combined with this homecoming causes her to examine the pains of her past and discover their bearing on her achievements of the moment. Similarly, in Grace Notes and Mother Love the speaker tries to locate herself between generations, as mother to one and daughter to another, and define who she is as an artist, as a woman, as a black woman, and most of all as a human being apart from any of these determiners.
In 1993 the Library of Congress appointed Rita Dove poet laureate of the United States. She was in the Midwest on a poetry reading tour when she received the news. Catching her off guard, a journalist asked for her reaction, and Dove, without stopping to think how her sentiments might sound in print, said that while accepting the post would probably mean the end of her writing, she did not see how she could refuse it. She served in the position until 1995. While she was right in assuming that her duties would interfere with her writing, she became a polished spokesperson on behalf of the literary arts during that time. Hers was a welcome voice, for this was a period during which the national funding of all the arts was coming under fire. As the first black woman ever to hold the post, Dove received media attention another writer might have been denied, and she put this to good use. She maintained an exhausting calendar of public engagements championing the arts and the artist, appearing everywhere from White House functions to the children’s television program Sesame Street, where the Muppets pondered how Rita Dove the poet could also be “the poet, Laurie At.”
Dove later served as the poet laureate of Virginia from 2004 to 2006 and as the chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2005 to 2011. Dove has received the 1996 National Humanities Medals, the 2006 Common Wealth Award, the 2008 Library of Virginia Lifetime Achievement Medal, the 2009 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, the 2009 International Capri Award, the 2011 National Medal of the Arts, the 2014 Carole Weinstein Prize, the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, the 2016 Stone Award for Lifetime Achievement, the 2017 Harold Washington Literary Award, and the 2017 Presidential Scholars Award. Her Collected Poems, 1974–2004 (2016) was a finalist for the National Book Award.