Word Cloud Resized

by Nona Blyth Cloud

Rita Dove, United States Library of Congress Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, served two terms: 1993-94 and 1994-95. She has the distinction of being the first African-American, AND at age 40, the youngest poet to be appointed Poet Laureate by the Librarian of Congress.**

Rita Dove was a a National Merit Scholar, and received a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University of Tübingen in West Germany. Her verse-novel Thomas and Beulah (1986) won the Pulitzer Prize, and her poetry collection, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Her photograph should be next to the definition of “overachiever” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

She wastes not a single scrap of her education, or her personal history. From the Classics and Opera of  the European tradition to American Smooth ballroom dancing and writing lyrics to be set to music by John Williams; from the sensible coat of a woman who just wanted a seat on the bus that was a birth-spark for a movement to her mother’s first job, or her own attempt to bring Romance home from a department store, Rita Dove writes it all down.

Demeter’s Prayer to Hades

This alone is what I wish for you: knowledge.
To understand each desire has an edge,
to know we are responsible for the lives
we change. No faith comes without cost,
no one believes without dying.
Now for the first time
I see clearly the trail you planted,
what ground opened to waste,
though you dreamed a wealth
of flowers.
…………….There are no curses – only mirrors
held up to the souls of gods and mortals.
And so I give up this fate, too.
Believe in yourself,
go ahead — see where it gets you.

demeter-french 15th-16th century

She moves effortlessly from Greek Mythology to American Jazz legend Billie Holiday and Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks:


— for Michael S. Harper

Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.

(Now you’re cooking, drummer to bass, 
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)
Fact is, the invention of women under siege 
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can’t be free, be a mystery.



How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.

That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.

Doing nothing was the doing.

The clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.

How she stood up
when they bent down to retrieve
her purse. That courtesy.

Rosa Parks On Bus

 And takes us from events on the national stage to memories of her mother and a glimpse of her effort to keep life at home in balance:

My Mother Enters the Work Force

The path to ABC Business School
was paid for by a lucky sign:
Alterations, Qualified Seamstress
Inquire Within.

Tested on Sleeves, hers
never puckered — puffed or sleek,
Leg o’ or Raglan — they barely
needed the damp cloth
to steam them perfect.

Those were the afternoons.
Evenings she took in piecework,
the treadle machine with its
locomotive whir traveling the lit path
of the needle through quicksand
taffeta or velvet deep as a forest.

And now and now sang the treadle,
I know, I know….

And then it was day again,
all morning at the office machines,
their clack and chatter
another journey — rougher,
that would go on forever
until she could break a hundred words
with no errors — ah, and then

No more postponed groceries,
and that blue pair of shoes!

treadle sewing machine


The conspiracy’s to make us thin.
Size threes are all the rage,
and skirts ballooning above
twinkling knees are every man-child’s
preadolescent dream.
Tabula rasa. No slate’s that clean–

We’ve earned the navels sunk in
grief when the last child emptied us
of their brief interior light.
Our muscles say
We have been used.

Have you ever tried silk sheets?
I did, persuaded by postnatal dread
and a Macy’s clerk to bargain
for more zip.

We couldn’t hang on, slipped to
the floor and by morning the quilts
had slid off, too. Enough of guilt–
It’s hard work staying cool.

Silk Bedsheets

Rita Dove was also the first U.S. poet laureate to reimagine it as a mandate to generate public interest in poetry by going out into America. She crisscrossed the country during her terms, giving readings in schools,  hospitals and other venues large and small. In the Washington Post, she said her appointment was “significant in terms of the message it sends about the diversity of our culture and our literature.” The laureates who’ve come after her have followed in her footsteps, and made use of the travel stipend provided by the Library of Congress Center for Poetry and Literature.

She continues to be a force in American letters, from serving as editor of the Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry in 2011, to making extensive recordings of her work which have been used to introduce thousands of school children in the United States to contemporary poetry.

Few writers have the talent and scope to be so extraordinarily successful in so many different branches of the literary arts. Rita Dove is truly a national treasure.

rita-dove - Fred Viebahn photo

** In 1992-93, Mona Van Duyn became the first female Poet Laureate.  Prior to 1985, the title was “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.” The first woman Consultant in Poetry was Louise Bogan, and the first African-American Consultant in Poetry was Robert Hayden.

Sources and Further Reading:



  • 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 newspapers and 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, andPloughshares; associate editor, Callaloo, 1986-98; advisory editor, Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, Callaloo, Georgia Review, Bellingham Review, International Quarterly, and Mid-American Review.


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.

NOTE: All of the information listed above is from the Poetry
Foundation entry on Rita Dove.


  • The Poetry Foundation — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/rita-dove
  • Biography — http://www.biography.com/people/rita-dove-9278390
  • Academy of American Poets — https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/rita-dove
  • University of Virginia — http://people.virginia.edu/~rfd4b/compbio.html


  • Demeter – unknown French painter, 15th or 16th century
  • Billie Holiday singing
  • Rosa Parks on the bus
  • Treadle sewing machine
  • Satin sheets
  • Detail from photograph of Rita Dove by Fred Viebahn

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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