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WORLD FOCUS: The world of a poet laureate

April 12, 2012
FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

"Poetry gets at the very marrow of language. From an early age I've been deeply in love with words, their musical cadence, their meanings and sub-meanings, their texture and historical baggage, even the way they feel in the mouth. Writing poetry allows me to work with words on the deepest level possible, and it is a profound privilege to be considered a poet," said Rita Dove in a recent interview with the Lake Placid News and The Virginia Gazette Gazette.

She served as Poet Laureate of the United States and Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia. She won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and has received numerous literary and academic honors, among them more than two dozen honorary doctorates. She is currently Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

"We have tried over the years to bring Rita Dove to William & Mary, but the stars were not aligned," said Prof. Hermine Pinson, one of the main organizers of this year's Patrick Hayes Writers Series at the college. "I am a longtime admirer of her poetry and have taught her poems in my creative writing and African American lit courses."

Prof. Henry Hart, an award-winning poet and biographer, said: "I was enthusiastic when I learned about the possibility of bringing Rita Dove to W&M, as headliner of the Festival. I teach her poetry every spring in my Contemporary Poetry class. I have seen her read on TV. She's a very charismatic reader and an exemplary ambassador for poetry,"

A New York Times reviewer described her poetry as "opening the petals of the commonplace to look in at her soul and ours." Literary critic Edward Byrne pointed out that "lyricism and musicality is evident in her carefully crafted lines, even in her more narrative poems. Indeed, given Dove's history as a trained musician and singer comparisons between verse and song, the metrical and the musical, in her works have seemed even more natural."

Dove was quoted saying: "It is perplexing that poetry seems to exist in a parallel universe outside daily life in America."

I asked her whether she thinks that a poet has to live in an oppressive society to have the sort of impact that Yevtushenko and Voznesenky had in the Soviet Union.

"Not necessarily," she said. "Although the citizens living in an oppressed society may feel more pressure never to speak out openly. For them certain images, say, a butterfly fluttering by, might take on meanings beyond sheer aesthetics. The butterfly might symbolize liberation, for example."

Dove, however, sees the role of the poet in closed as well as in open, democratic societies as the "shaman of the tribe because they can give voice to their community, articulate the unspeakable, even point out ways of how to escape oppression, be it political tyranny or personal calamity."

She believes that even in a relatively "free" society, critical positions toward the power structure and its representatives are often scattered, and despite freedom of expression, "feelings of helplessness can mute our push for positive change. Poetry, through its reaches beyond ordinary language, can mitigate those feelings of helplessness."

She also has the reputation of trying to make poetry part of the life of most Americans.

I asked her, why is that an important goal. "We are privileged with the most intricate and efficient information system ever known," she said. "Yet many of us still seem to be starving for communication beyond the preprocessed sound bites of TV and the communal loneliness of Facdebook; Twitter seems to me the ultimate gasp of that loneliness."

Dove feels that literature, particularly poetry, "provides a way for incorporating our interior lives into the facts of daily existence; it allows us to connect on a level where we can meet soul to soulBut I am neither a preacher nor a motivational speaker. I'm a poet who abhors clichs I would hope that students, faculty and local residents who came to my reading will warm to the renewable pleasures of poetry. That they will enter the individual world of each poem and find some nugget - of aching beauty, of unexpected empathy or compelling truth-to take home with them."

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.



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