Rita Dove

b. 1952
Rita DoveFred Viebahn

Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952, the daughter of one of the first black chemists in the tire industry. Dove was encouraged to read widely by her parents, and excelled in school. She was named a Presidential Scholar, one of the top one hundred high-school graduates in the country and attended Miami University in Ohio as a National Merit Scholar. After graduating, Dove received a Fulbright to study at the University of Tübingen in West Germany, and later earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop where she met her husband, the German writer Fred Viebahn. Dove made her formal literary debut in 1980 with the poetry collection The Yellow House on the Corner, which received praise for its sense of history combined with individual detail. The book heralded the start of long and productive career, and it also announced the distinctive style that Dove continues to develop. In works like the verse-novel Thomas and Beulah (1986), which won the Pulitzer Prize, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Sonata Mulattica (2009), Dove treats historical events with a personal touch, addressing her grandparents’ life and marriage in early 20th-century Ohio, the battles and triumphs of the Civil Rights era, and the forgotten career of black violinist and friend to Beethoven, George Polgreen Bridgetower. Poet Brenda Shaughnessy noted that “Dove is a master at transforming a public or historic element—re-envisioning a spectacle and unearthing the heartfelt, wildly original private thoughts such historic moments always contain.”
But Dove’s work is known for its lyricism and beauty as well as its sense of history and political scope. She frequently writes about other art forms, including music in Sonata Mulattica and dance in the collection American Smooth (2004). Writing in the New York Times, Emily Nussbaum noted how dance and poetry connect for Dove: “For Dove, dance is an implicit parallel to poetry. Each is an expression of grace performed within limits; each an art weighted by history but malleable enough to form something utterly new.” Sonata Mulattica follows the tempestuous life of 18th century violinist Bridgetower, who took Europe by storm, had a famous sonata composed for him, and died in obscurity. The Los Angeles Times described Dove’s book as an “ambitious effort, using multiple distinctive voices and perspectives to chronicle the complex tale ‘of light and shadow, / what we hear and the silence that follows.’” Poet Mark Doty called the work “richly imagined,” with “the sweep and vivid characters of a novel, but… written with a poet's economy, an eye for the exact detail.”
In addition to poetry, Dove has published works of fiction, including the short story collection Fifth Sunday (1990) and the novel Through the Ivory Gate (1992). Her play The Darker Face of the Earth (1996) was produced at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Dove is also an acclaimed lyricist, and has written lyrics for composers ranging from Tania León to John Williams. Of her forays into other genres, Dove told Black American Literature Forum: “There's no reason to subscribe authors to particular genres. I'm a writer, and I write in the form that most suits what I want to say.” Dove’s own work, the popular Thomas and Beulah, was staged as an opera by Museum for Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2001.
Rita Dove has had a tremendous impact on American letters, not only through the scope of her poetry, but also through her work as an advocate. Dove was named US Poet Laureate in 1993. Just forty years old at the time of her appointment, she was the youngest poet ever elected to the position. She was also the first African American to hold the title (Gwendolyn Brooks had been named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985). Dove was also the first poet laureate to see the appointment as a mandate to generate public interest in the literary arts. She traveled widely during her term, giving readings in a variety of venues from schools to hospitals. Dove noted in the Washington Post that her appointment was “significant in terms of the message it sends about the diversity of our culture and our literature.” Dove has continued to play an important role in the reception of American poetry through her work as editor of the Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (2011). The omnibus collection of a century-worth of American verse stirred controversy and generated new dialogues about the legacy of American poetry, and its current state. Many praised the anthology for its inclusiveness and scope, however. Katha Pollitt in The Nation called it “comprehensive and broad-ranging,” whatever its omissions.
Rita Dove has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including a Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities and a Common Wealth Award. In 1996 she received a National Humanities Medal. She is currently Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.


Arizona State University, Tempe, assistant professor, 1981-84, associate professor, 1984-87, professor of English, 1987-89; University of Virginia, Charlottesville, professor of English, 1989-93, Commonwealth Professor of English, 1993—. Writer-in-residence at Tuskegee Institute, 1982. National Endowment for the Arts, member of literature panel, 1984-86, chair of poetry grants panel, 1985. Commissioner, Schomburg Center for the Preservation of Black Culture, New York Public Library, 1987—; judge, Walt Whitman Award, Academy of American Poets, 1990, Pulitzer Prize in poetry, 1991 and 1997, juror of Ruth Lilly Prize, 1991, National Book Award (poetry), 1991 and 1998, Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, 1992—; jury member, Amy Lowell fellowship, 1997, and Shelley Memorial Award, 1997. Library of Congress consultant in poetry, 1993-95, special consultant in poetry, 1999-2000, member of board of student achievement services, 2002—. Member, Afro-American studies visiting committee, Harvard University, and Council of Scholars, Library of Congress, 2002—. Has made numerous appearances on radio and television, including Today Show, Charlie Rose Show, Bill Moyers' Journal, A Prairie Home Companion, All Things Considered, and National Public Radio's Morning Edition.


  • Ten Poems (chapbook), Penumbra Press (Lisbon, IA), 1977.
  • The Only Dark Spot in the Sky (chapbook), Porch Publications (Phoenix, AZ), 1980.
  • The Yellow House on the Corner, Carnegie Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1980.
  • Mandolin (chapbook), Ohio Review (Athens, OH), 1982.
  • Museum, Carnegie-Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1983.
  • Thomas and Beulah, Carnegie-Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1986.
  • The Other Side of the House, photographs by Tamarra Kaida, Pyracantha Press (Tempe, AZ), 1988.
  • Grace Notes, Norton (New York, NY), 1989.
  • Selected Poems, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Lady Freedom among Us, Janus Press (Burke, VT), 1993.
  • Mother Love: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Evening Primrose (chapbook), Tunheim-Santrizos (Minneapolis, MN), 1998.
  • On the Bus with Rosa Parks: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 1999.
  • American Smooth, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
  • Sonata Mulattica: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 2009.


  • Fifth Sunday (short stories), University of Kentucky Press (Lexington, KY), 1985, 2nd edition, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1990.
  • Through the Ivory Gate (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1992.
  • The Darker Face of the Earth: A Play (first produced at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 1996; produced at Kennedy Center, 1997; produced in London, England, 1999), Story Line Press (Brownsville, OR), 1994, 3rd revised edition, 2000.
  • (Author of foreword) Multicultural Voices: Literature from the United States, Scott Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1995.
  • The Poet's World (essays), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1995.
  • (Editor) The Best American Poetry 2000, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000.
  • Conversations with Rita Dove, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2003.
  • (Editor) The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, Penguin (New York, NY), 2011.


  • The House Slave, music by Alvin Singleton, first presented at Spelman College, 1990.
  • (With Linda Pastan) Under the Resurrection Palm, music by David Liptak, first presented by Eastman American Music series, 1993.
  • Umoja: Each One of Us Counts, music by Alvin Singleton, first presented in Atlanta, GA, 1996.
  • Singin' Sepia, music by Tania Leon (first presented in New York, NY), Continuum International Publishing (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Grace Notes, music by Bruce Adolphe, first presented in New York, NY, 1997.
  • The Pleasure's in Walking Through, music by Walter Ross, first presented in Charlottesville, VA, 1998.
  • Seven for Luck, music by John Williams, first presented in Tanglewood, MA, 1998.
  • Song for the Twentieth Century, music by John Williams, first presented in Washington, DC, as part of Stephen Spielberg's film The Unfinished Journey, 1999.
  • Thomas and Beulah, music by Amnon Wolman, first presented in Chicago, IL, 2001.
Work represented in anthologies. Author of weekly column "Poet's Choice," in Washington Post Book World, 2000-02. Contributor of poems, stories, and essays to magazines, including Agni Review, Antaeus, Georgia Review, Nation, New Yorker, and Poetry. Member of editorial board, National Forum, 1984-89, Isis, and Ploughshares; associate editor, Callaloo, 1986-98; advisory editor, Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, Callaloo, Georgia Review, Bellingham Review, International Quarterly, and Mid-American Review.

Further Reading


  • Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
  • Keller, Lynn, Forms of Expansion, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1997.
  • Novy, Marianne, editor, Transforming Shakespeare, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1999.
  • Pereira, Malin, Rita Dove's Cosmopolitanism, University of Illinois Press, 2003.
  • Steffen, Therese, Crossing Color: Transcultural Space and Place in Rita Dove's Poetry, Fiction, and Drama, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.
  • Vendler, Helen Hennessy, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.


  • African American Review, spring, 2000, Theodora Carlisle, "Reading the Scars: Rita Dove's The Darker Face of the Earth," p. 135; summer, 2002, Malin Pereira, "'When the Pear Blossoms / Cast Their Pale Faces on / the Darker Face of the Earth': Miscegenation, the Primal Scene, and the Incest Motif in Rita Dove's Work," pp. 195-212.
  • American Book Review, July, 1985.
  • American Poetry Review, January, 1982, 36.
  • American Visions, April-May, 1994, p. 33; October, 1999, Denolyn Carroll, review of On the Bus with Rosa Parks, p. 34.
  • Belles Lettres, winter, 1993-94, pp. 38-41.
  • Black American Literature Forum, fall, 1986, pp. 227-240.
  • Booklist, February 1, 1981, p. 743; August, 1983; March 15, 1986, p. 1057; February 15, 1997.
  • Callaloo, winter, 1986; spring, 1991; winter, 1996.
  • Detroit Free Press, July 24, 1993, pp. 5A, 7A.
  • Georgia Review, summer, 1984; winter, 1986.
  • Kliatt, March, 1994, p. 25.
  • Library Journal, August, 1992; November 15, 1993, p. 81; March 1, 1994, p. 88; April 1, 1997; May 15, 1999, Ellen Kaufman, review of On the Bus with Rosa Parks, p. 99.
  • Michigan Quarterly Review, spring, 1987, pp. 428-438.
  • New Yorker, May 15, 1995.
  • New York Review of Books, October 23, 1986.
  • New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1992; April 11, 1999, Matthew Flamm, review of On the Bus with Rosa Parks, p. 24.
  • North American Review, March, 1986.
  • Parnassus, spring-summer-fall-winter, 1985; Volume 16, number 2, 1991.
  • Poetry, October, 1984; October, 1990, pp. 37-39; March, 1996, Ben Howard, review of Mother Love, p. 349.
  • Publishers Weekly, August 3, 1992; January 31, 1994, p. 83; April 12, 1999, Brenda Shaughnessy, "Rita Dove: Taking the Heat," p. 48; July 31, 2000, review of Best American Poetry 2000, p. 90.
  • Southern Humanities Review, winter, 1988, p. 87.
  • Times Literary Supplement, February 18, 1994; November 17, 1995, p. 29.
  • USA Weekend, March 25-27, 1994, p. 22.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1988, pp. 262-276.
  • Washington Post, April 17, 1987; May 19, 1993; November 7, 1997.
  • Washington Post Book World, April 8, 1990, p. 4; July 30, 1995, p. 8.
  • Women in the Arts, spring, 1999, Renee H. Shea, "Irresistible Beauty: The Poetry and Person of Rita Dove," pp. 6-9.
  • Women's Review of Books, July, 1990, pp. 12-13; May, 1994, p. 6; May, 1996.


  • Rita Dove Home Page, http://www.people.virginia.edu/~rfd4b/ (June 28, 2003).

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Rita Dove


Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952, the daughter of one of the first black chemists in the tire industry. Dove was encouraged to read widely by her parents, and excelled in school. She was named a Presidential Scholar, one of the top one hundred high-school graduates in the country and attended Miami University in Ohio as a National Merit Scholar. After graduating, Dove received a Fulbright to study at the University of . . .

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