GAMBIER — The keynote speaker of the Kenyon Review Literary Festival, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove, told her captivated Rosse Hall audience Friday evening that one reason she began writing poems as a child was, “I dreamt up world where somebody like me could appear.” She described herself as a shy child, but one whose fascination with libraries and books opened her imagination to infinite possibilities where the rhythm and rhymes in her works led to the answers poems sometimes seek to offer.
Dove, who is from Akron, recently received the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, an honor bestowed upon her in New York. Before her keynote talk about poetry and love for her writing craft, she was introduced by Kenyon Review Editor David Lynn. Her address at Rosse Hall marked the end of an annual weeklong literary festival at Kenyon that is all about writers and their works, including creative writing and poetry.
At one point in her childhood, Dove said she wrote a poem called “The Rabbit with One Droopy Ear.” That poem came through the encouragement of a teacher who asked students to engage in a creative writing activity for Easter. The poem was about rabbit’s struggles to fit in, something many young people including her try to figure out as they grow into teenagers and adulthood. Writing poems is a much about self-discovery — basic things, such as whether one writes better in the day or at night — as it is about finding that amazing line of prose, she offered.
“The conundrum of a writer’s life, particularly that of a poet’s, is learning to embody a paradox,” Dove said. “One must be fierce and tender, and in turn, loud and quiet, brash and introspective.”
Writing poetry is also about trying to express the inexpressible, or close to it, she said. It is trying to use descriptions to define “ephemeral” terms, or things in one’s life that are really difficult to wrap one’s arms around. Poets can best accomplish this by drawing from their own meaningful moments in life, she offered. Dove carries a notebook with her to gauge how she feels during certain times at certain moments. In speaking with Kenyon students throughout the week during the Kenyon Literary Festival — giving many of them one-on-one time with her — she uses terms when discussing poetic efforts that include “heighten, darken, and lighten.”
One of the poems she recited to students, “Singsong,” contains lines that harkened back to her childhood. While those who read her poems will often interpret the same poem differently, it is the creativity of poetry that allows each reader to bring personal meaning from its contents. Dove, who now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, said she works on several poems at once — “each in various stages of fragmentation.”
“Singsong” offers lines such as, “When I was young, I ran the day to its knees. There were trees to swing on, crickets for capture.”
The poem continues, “I was narrowly sweet, infinitely cruel, tongued in honey and coddled in milk, sunburned and silvery and scabbed like a colt. And the world was already old. I was older than I am today.”
Dove was the nation’s poet laureate during the Clinton administration from 1993-95. Her Pulitzer came in 1987 for a book about her grandparents, “Thomas and Beulah,” and their part of being The Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the northern United States. Her most recent book is titled “Collected Poems: 1974-2004.” Before she signed copies of it and other books for Kenyon students and faculty, she answered audience questions.
One student, sophomore English major Tariq Thompson, asked her what one single word is closest to her heart — and why.
She said there really is no single word, but offered, “It depends on the day; it depends on the moment.” She added that for some reason, “ragamuffin” had popped into her mind. “Ragamuffin” is defined as a person typically wearing raggedy clothes. She said it likely had to do with her slight affection for the South.