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Rita Dove on the Power of Poetry from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.
BILL MOYERS: From the combative, ferocious and vituperative field of politics, we repair to a quieter place – a respite for the soul, if you will, against the tumult of our time. A few days ago, in the East Room of the White House, along with such greats as the actor Al Pacino, sculptor Martin Puryear, and painter Will Barnet, President Obama presented the National Medal of Arts to the poet Rita Dove.
The award makes Rita Dove the first person to receive all three of the nation’s highest arts and humanities distinctions: the Medal of Arts, the Humanities Medal, which she received in 1996, and the title Poet Laureate of the United States. In fact, she served two terms as Poet Laureate, the youngest and the first African American to be named to that prestigious position.
Rita Dove is the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of nine books of poetry. Among them, the Pulitzer Prize winning “Thomas and Beulah,” a collection inspired by Dove’s maternal grandparents. Her latest work, “The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry” is a banquet of language, images, and ideas.
This is not your usual anthology. The poems were selected for what they tell us about American history, our story. And if you never thought of poetry as a way to snatch the past from George Orwell’s memory hole, you’ll be thinking that after spending a few hours with this book. Rita Dove is the editor — the sole editor — which meant enormous freedom of choice and a great burden of responsibility.
Rita Dove, welcome.
RITA DOVE: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: I felt when I opened this book that I was diving into America’s melting pot. Everybody was in there. I mean, 176 poets swimming around with me. And I wanted to say to all the folks still on the edge of the pool, ‘Come on in, it’s a fascinating place.’
RITA DOVE: Oh, that’s terrific. I’m glad you felt that way. Because that’s how I felt when I began working on this. I just felt, you know, I felt I was in this amazing party. And there were all these people who had little story to tell. And stories to tell about the way that they felt when they were living in this country.
BILL MOYERS: In other words, the emotions that they were experiencing while history was playing out?
RITA DOVE: Well, yes. Their interior lives. Because we all have these interior feelings that we carry while the larger picture is going on, right? While everything is being written down and marked off as something enormously important in history. And to remember the humanity behind the facts, is — I wouldn’t say that’s all that poetry does, but it manages to do that as well.
BILL MOYERS: So what did these poems in particular tell you about the 20th century?
RITA DOVE: I found that even from the very beginning of the century, the poets are wildly different from one another, in a great, kind of wonderful way. Wildly different. You would have someone as pristine and clear and stately as Elizabeth Bishop, and then you would have someone like Anne Sexton.
Or, to go even further, someone like Sherman Alexie, you know, “The Powwow at the End of the World.” And yet they could all coexist. Because there also exists, I think, in America, usually, an understanding that there are many different ways to get at true feelings, you know, and there are many different ways to express it. That was one of the things I discovered.
I also discovered as we went through the century, you could really see the advance of women’s rights, of civil rights, of immigrants’ rights. You could see it in the way that more and more women, African American, Asian Americans, Latinos, that more and more of them became published, became important poets, and their voices began to get heard.
BILL MOYERS: You write in here about how a poem exerts its spirit upon the time in which it was created. Give me a couple of examples.
RITA DOVE: Here’s an early example, fairly early example. And that would be T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Which was — we can’t even imagine how radical that was, you know, anymore. But a poem which traced the way in which a human being thought, and the doubts that he had about this new century. And all of that was a very different way of tackling prosody and talking about one’s emotions.
In other words, instead of making a pronouncement, you know, ‘I feel this way’ or, ‘Truth is beauty, beauty is truth,’ all of that, he said, “Let us go then, you and I, while the evening is spread out across the sky.” Sounds all very poetical. “Like a patient etherized upon a table.” And you go, ‘Whoa, something’s different.’ But also it’s this, ‘We’re going to take a walk.’
What T. S. Eliot does is after he invites us to take that walk, like a patient etherized upon a table, and you know that suddenly things are not going to be pretty all the time. And they’re not going to be soothing. We’re going to discover the roughages together. But he takes his time.
“Let us go through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.”
He’s saying, ‘I’m not going to let you get away, dear reader, with just coasting along. I’m taking you right down the alley with me.’ That’s a different take on things.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, one could think of all the optimism at the start of the 20th century. You think of all the optimism and the bright future was coming, progress was coming. And then World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Iraq, Afghanistan — he has impressed upon, his age, as you say, the sense of foreboding reality that always accompanies the human journey.
RITA DOVE: He does that. And he does it in a very, very interesting and almost quiet way. Another poem from about the same era is Alice Dunbar Nelson’s poem, I Sit and Sew, which was published, I think in 1920 — ’20, ’21, somewhere around there. But now, this is a very interesting poem because she was the wife of Paul Laurence Dunbar. And she wrote, I think one of the most scathing antiwar poems — or war poems, let’s put it just war poems. Because, also the tragedy of war. But it’s also a feminist poem. It’s called “I Sit and Sew.”
“I sit and sew—a useless task it seems,
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams—
The panoply of war, the martial tred of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath—
But—I must sit and sew.
I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul and pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But—I must sit and sew.
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?”
BILL MOYERS: So what did that say that caused you to think that no matter what anyone else might think, you as the editor is going to include that in this anthology?
RITA DOVE: Number one, it’s a phenomenal poem. I think it’s an amazing poem. It’s beautiful in a terrible — in a terrible beauty kind of way. What — to think that there was a woman writing this kind of poem of that level of ferocity and anger and grief, in the year 1920, to say what second, third, you know, fourth wave feminists have been saying all along, you know, let us into all of the arenas, we are human beings, she doesn’t want to just sit and sew when people are dying.
And to also realize how horrible war is. It’s incredibly graphic, it’s incredibly beautiful, you know, it has — as a poem, it’s just exquisitely made. So it had to go in there.
BILL MOYERS: And the voice that comes from her, this — a scream that —
RITA DOVE: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: — one wouldn’t have heard without the poem, right?
RITA DOVE: Without the poem. Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: Let me ask you about another poem you have in here that is in another place from another source. And I also interviewed this poet two or three times, Stanley Kunitz, who was one of the great poets of the last part the 20th century. He lived until he was 102, I think, 101 or 102. And he wrote marvelous poems. This one always gets me. And I want to know why you included it.
STANLEY KUNITZ: “Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.”
RITA DOVE: This one was in from the very beginning.
BILL MOYERS: Oh yeah?
RITA DOVE: Absolutely from the very beginning. Stanley Kunitz lived for most of the 20th century. He inhabited the 20th century. And his voice, his poetic voice is such a beautifully modulated elegiac voice that — it’s a wise voice, it’s so wise. This is a wonderful example of how language also helps to orchestrate the feeling.
The way it begins, “Summer is late, my heart.” And the way that it starts on an accent, “Summer.” And you just go, you’re in the poem. And then he begins to weave that late summer around you. And you feel the tug of autumn coming, even in the rhythm of the poem.
But — but also in what he says. He melds the season and the way that it is waning with the waning of the human body. And yet love endures. All of that – these are elemental and crucial and enduring emotion that we have. But he manages to put it into this direct address, you know, which actually tugs at us as well. You hear him speaking almost to us. It’s an incredible poem. It does render you speechless, it makes me cry almost every time I read it.
BILL MOYERS: Same here, that last — the surprising last line, you know, “Remind me who I am.”
RITA DOVE: Who I am.
BILL MOYERS: You introduced me to many poets in here — whom I did not know. And I’m ashamed that I didn’t know one in particular, because his poetry in your anthology is very powerful, Countee Cullen, and he’s got a poem in here — Incident that I want to, first of all, to ask you about him, and then I want to ask you why you included this poem.
RITA DOVE: Countee Cullen is — I think of him often — the poet who emerged in the Harlem Renaissance that nobody really knows about it, that many people discount, or don’t know about, they think Langston Hughes and they forget that Countee Cullen was right there. He was, you know, fairly young when he died. He died in 1946, born in 1903. He was — I would say that during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, that he was one of the major spokespersons poetically for that era.
He could write a poem like Incident which is a heart-wrenching poem about how prejudice and racial hatred can impact someone at a young age. And at the same time, he can talk about his love for poetry, in another poem, titled “To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time.”
So, in other words, he’s saying, ‘I — this is my heritage. My heritage is both all the heritage that every white poet had, you know, and I love John Keats. I am a poet. But I also had this happen to me when I was a child in Baltimore.’ “Incident.”
“Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.”
BILL MOYERS: And yet there’s something in this man’s spirit that could write the next poem, “To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time” and celebrating Keats, of another century, of another race, of another time, beauty.
RITA DOVE: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: “I cannot hold my peace, John Keats. There never was a spring like this. It is an echo that repeats my last year’s song and next year’s bliss.”
BILL MOYERS: Remarkable juxtaposition.
RITA DOVE: Yeah, and in essence, saying — calling John Keats his brother, you know? His poetical brother.
BILL MOYERS: One of the things that comes through is that the hyphenated America arrives in your anthology. You know, from talking about — you quote Alain Locke’s famous essay on “The New Negro,” you know, and he uses that word over and again, at one time it was a prominently used word, negro. And then you refer to it by the end of the anthology, it’s African American.
RITA DOVE: African American.
BILL MOYERS: So what was Alain Locke trying to tell us in that essay on “The New Negro?”
RITA DOVE: On “The New Negro,” well, he was saying, ‘You must look at first of all, you know, drop all of your preconceptions and what you think you see when you look at the negro.’ And this was in the ’20s, 1920s, beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. He was saying, ‘There is a new era here. We are in a new, you know, the country is in new.’ I mean, we’ve come out of the Civil War.
‘The negro that you think you know,’ and I’m using you in a very general sense to say America knows, ‘is redefining himself. And that it behooves you to look very clearly at what you see. Don’t just imagine, don’t just assume you know what you can see. Look clearly at what you’re seeing.’
And that idea of redefining oneself, or constantly defining one’s self, is also something that I think is uniquely American in the 20th century. Not only for Negro, black, African Americans, but for every immigrant group that’s gone through and for whatever an American is.
BILL MOYERS: You quote Langston Hughes, “We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they aren’t, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful and ugly too. If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves.” What a powerful second declaration of emancipation.
RITA DOVE: Exactly, exactly. So it’s amazing, isn’t it?
BILL MOYERS: When I read those words from Langston Hughes, I immediately thought, because – we’ve done a series based on poetry festivals around the country and have met Lucille Clifton. So, and I interviewed her several times. So when I read these words that you included from Langston Hughes, I immediately thought of Lucille and her poem “homage to my hips.” And you’ve got that in here.
RITA DOVE: Oh gosh, yeah, I got “homage to my hips.” Yes, it’s a great poem.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
RITA DOVE: It is — it has a unique voice. It has a voice you can just hear, just speaking right off the page. And she celebrates her, you know, the big-hipped self, and sees the beauty in it. And frankly, says, ‘If you’re pleased, fine. If you’re not, it doesn’t matter.’
LUCILLE CLIFTON: And this universal poem is called homage to my hips.
“these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved
, they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!”
BILL MOYERS: She was a piece of work wasn’t she?
RITA DOVE: Oh yeah, and what a beautiful piece of work she was.
BILL MOYERS: And you wanted this poem in, you insisted it be in for what reason?
RITA DOVE: It’s — well number one, it has become — an absolute talisman, I think for many poets. And not just for African American women poets, it’s an affirmative poem. It just makes you want to open up and smile.
And it also is a poem that says, ‘Every topic is a fit topic.’ We should not be ashamed of anything that we are, because this is who we are. We are human beings. And this is our mission as poets, first of all, to write about all aspects of humanity, so that humanity can receive it and feel included by it. That poem does it better than anything I know.
BILL MOYERS: There was a turn in the 20th century when poem became quite confessional, intimate. I mean, the intimacy was forced out into the world, Sylvia Plath painted her father as a Nazi with a fat, black heart, and wrote about the dark side of her mind. Anne Sexton wrote about birth and abortion and celebrated her uterus, she pondered suicide. I mean, that’s not John Keats or Elizabeth Barrett Browning or that whole earlier generation. I mean, how do you explain that?
RITA DOVE: By the time that Plath and Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton were writing these poems, which was pretty much middle of the century, into the ’60s and the ’70s, a lot of things have happened. And first of all, we had two world wars. One to end all wars, and then a war that, you know, came after that, which was beyond human imagination in terms of its cruelty.
Its organized cruelty in terms of the Holocaust. So a lot of these incredible ideals that we had about human nature were being battered on all sides.
And also interiorly because psychoanalysts began to come up, people began to realize that we aren’t even in control of who we are inside of ourselves With all of that having occurred, by the time we hit the ’50s, we’re trying desperately to recover from the Second World War and to say, ‘Everything’s wonderful and good and we have Chevrolets and, you know, we’ve got all of these good things,’ there were poets saying, ‘You know, we just can’t cover this up. We’re in turmoil inside and outside.’
And that’s, I think, what gave the impetus for the confessional poets to say, ‘No, we’re going to not even be polite about that. We’re going to talk about everything.’ Ginsberg’s Howl, the beat poets, you know, manage to say, you know, ‘We’re not talking about this stuff, we’re going to talk about — we’re going to break down all these final walls.’ And that’s when the confessionals came in.
BILL MOYERS: I’m so glad you included some of your poems in here. Page 488 is one of my favorites, Daystar. Tell me about that one.
RITA DOVE: This poem comes out of a book of poems called Thomas and Beulah. The book tells the story of one couple’s life through most of the 20th century. It’s based upon my maternal grandparents. And what I really wanted to bring to light were those moments in a life which are unremarked upon. The ones that we — that are essential to who we are, but yet we don’t think are quote, unquote, “important enough” to ever relate to anyone else and so they do disappear.
And so the book is basically the story of their life told through those intimate and yet unremarked upon moments. And in this moment Beulah, though in this poem she comes off – in the anthology it’s just a ‘she.’ This is a woman who is caught in the throes of motherhood and wants to get one moment of peace from her children.
So she’s put them out, up for a nap. And she, well, you’ll hear what she does. Daystar.
“She wanted a little room for thinking:
but she saw diapers steaming on the line,
a doll slumped behind the door.
So she lugged a chair behind the garage
to sit out the children’s naps.
Sometimes there were things to watch –
the pinched armor of a vanished cricket,
a floating maple leaf. Other days
she stared until she was assured
when she closed her eyes
she’d see only her own vivid blood.
She had an hour, at best, before Liza appeared
pouting from the top of the stairs.
And just what was mother doing
out back with the field mice? Why,
building a palace. Later
that night, when Thomas rolled over and
lurched into her, she would open her eyes
and think of the place that was hers
for an hour — where
she was nothing,
pure nothing, in the middle of the day.”
BILL MOYERS: That does catch so dramatically for me and so personally for me the sense that in this tumult of this previous century, you know, century of war and violence, rapid change, we all were longing for a place like that, where Joseph Campbell called ‘a sacred space of our own.’
RITA DOVE: Yes, a sacred space, a space of contemplation, or kind of endless contemplation, yes.
BILL MOYERS: If you were in charge of education today, all education, you were the czar of education, what would you — how would you want children to learn? How would you want them to be taught?
RITA DOVE: If I could, the one thing I would do would be to decree that from K-12, at the end of the day, the teacher would read a poem. No comment, no, ‘What does it mean,’ or anything like that, just read a poem, you know, beginning of the day you read Pledge of Allegiance, at the end, read the poem. Send the kids on their way.
It would teach them to live with the poems. To live with them and to toss the ones they don’t want, but it would resonate and they go back into their lives, their, you know, crazy mix, not the regimented life of school, but their lives that they live with, all their body running across the schoolyard, they would have that poem with them. And then I predict that they would grow up to cherish poems as being part of life. And would not be afraid of them. It would change the entire equation.
BILL MOYERS: So what are you saying about poetry when you say that?
RITA DOVE: I’m saying that poets write about life because they’re living deep in life. The poems are about life, that they make us feel more alive. That there’s some crazy thing, many people have gotten the notion that poetry is for the elite, that poetry is for the intellectual.
And to me it’s anything but. It is really — it gets right down into the center of us. Where no platitudes or theories or everything that we learned, none of that matter as much as the experience it calls back up. It’s a gut thing.
BILL MOYERS: Rita Dove, it’s been a pleasure to be with you.
RITA DOVE: And my pleasure too, Bill, thank you.
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