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In Anthology, Rita Dove Connects American Poets’ Intergenerational Conversations

December 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove was recently given what may be the biggest honor -- and challenge -- of her career: sorting through poems from the last 100 years to create "The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry." Jeffrey Brown and Dove discuss the task that took more than four years.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, stepping in time through a century of American poetry.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: No, you’re not suddenly watching “Dancing With the Stars,” but it’s not every day we get to start a poetry story with ballroom dancing. And, in this case, the shoe fits.

It belongs to Rita Dove, one of the nation’s best-known poets, author of nine volumes of verse and, with her husband and fellow writer, Fred Viebahn, an accomplished dancer, in the studio they built adjacent to their home in Charlottesville, Va.

As it turns out, dancing has been one way to let off steam over the past four years, as Dove took on a major challenge: sorting through 100 years of poems to create the new “Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry.”

How to capture such a broad and varied portrait of the country’s literary life? Dove says she let the poets themselves be her guide.

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RITA DOVE, poet: I began with the ones that you kind of expect, the Robert Frosts and Elizabeth Bishop and people like that.

And then I listened to who they were reading, who they were talking to, and began to, you know, fan out that way, which made a big mess, of course.

(LAUGHTER)

RITA DOVE: But it was a lively mess, so it’s OK. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: Was it poets or poems that you were more focused on?

RITA DOVE: In the beginning, I went in with poets.

But then it became poems, great poems which somehow encapsulated some energy that made an impact and moved the century forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in fact, in the introduction, you write about changes in America throughout this time, right, all kinds of things happening in the century that poetry responded to.

RITA DOVE: Right.

And I think one of the things that people tend to forget is that poets do write out of life. It isn’t some set piece that then gets put up on the shelf, but that the impetus, the real instigation for poetry is everything that’s happening around us.

JEFFREY BROWN: As she collected the poems, Dove began to see relationships, or conversations, between poets of different generations.

For example, this passage from Alice Dunbar’s poem “I Sit and Sew” laments a woman’s limited role in serving her country during World War I.

RITA DOVE: “The little useless seam, the idle patch. Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch, when there they lie in sodden mud and rain, pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain? You need me, Christ. It is no roseate dream that beckons me. This pretty futile seam, it stifles me. God, must I sit and sew?”

And whew. I mean, that’s really kind of amazingly powerful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dove then heard a kind of echo 20 years later in this poem by Randall Jarrell, who did serve in the Army during World War II.

RITA DOVE: “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”

“From my mother’s sleep, I fell into the state, and I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. When I died, they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

It rhymes, but differently. It’s very quiet until that last line, which just kind of knocks you back. And so they both achieve this effect, but through different ways. And they could have been, you know, talking to each other in an interesting way.

JEFFREY BROWN: In her own poems, Dove has long been interested in history, especially in characters who may have been left out of the mainstream narrative.

RITA DOVE: Claudette Colvin was one of the many African-American women — she was a girl at that time — who was arrested in Montgomery for not obeying the segregation laws.

She wasn’t chosen to be the test case. Rosa Parks was. And I will read you a little bit from the ending. It’s called “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work.”

“So ugly, so fat, so dumb, so greasy. What do we have to do to make God love us? Mama was a maid. My daddy mowed lawns like a boy, and I’m the crazy girl off the bus, the one who wrote in class she was going to be president.”

I am fascinated by those characters who don’t make it into the history books, but…

JEFFREY BROWN: Why is that, do you think?

RITA DOVE: You know, I do think it comes from two sources.

One of them is the fact that I was a very shy child. And so I was always sitting quietly on the sidelines watching other people. The other thing comes from, I think, being both a woman and being African-American, and seeing ordinary people doing uncommonly brave things without recognition for that kind of bravery or tenacity.

JEFFREY BROWN: She wrote very personally about such people in her collection “Thomas and Beulah,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and was based on the lives of her grandparents.

Does all of this help — help you write, inspire you, or this is for the day, and you write at night?

(LAUGHTER)

RITA DOVE: I do write at night, but I do get enough of the daylight to see this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

RITA DOVE: And it calms me and it opens me up.

JEFFREY BROWN: She now teaches at the University of Virginia and lives on a beautiful property in the country.

When Dove was named the nation’s poet laureate in 1993, the youngest person ever to hold the post, she became a kind of ambassador for poetry. Today, she says opening up the world of literature is part of the mission of her newest project.

RITA DOVE: When I was poet laureate, one of the things that struck me the most was that people wrote into me and they would say, “I don’t know much about poetry.” Then came the big but, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

RITA DOVE: But — but — then comes the, you know, “Well, I remember getting my first book here,” or, “This is one of my favorite poems,” or, “I think poetry should do this.”

That’s why I feel to concentrate on the poem, to make an anthology that tells you, true, what the century is like, but also invites you in. It’s really important.

JEFFREY BROWN: And does this experience make you want to someday edit the “21st Century Anthology of American Poetry”?

(LAUGHTER)

RITA DOVE: I have done my duty.

No.

(LAUGHTER)

RITA DOVE: No, it doesn’t because I — I think that I did what I could do. It’s really up to someone younger than me to do the 21st century. I’m looking forward to that, actually, really.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: You want to read that one, right?

RITA DOVE: Yes, I really want to read that one.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, Rita Dove is back to writing her own poems and cutting a rug on the dance floor.

As she put it once in a poem titled “Fox Trot Fridays”:

RITA DOVE: “One man and one woman, rib to rib, with no heartbreak in sight, just the sweep of paradise and the space of a song to count all the wonders in it.”