Rita Dove is a rarity in many ways, one being that she’s a poet with a high public profile. She was the youngest and first African-American Poet Laureate of the United States, and one of the few to carry the post for two years, from 1993 to 1995. She, like the other two Ohioana poets featured this month, won the coveted Pulitzer Prize. But unlike James Wright, better known internationally than in his own home town, or Mary Oliver, who lives in Provincetown, Mass. and keeps her personal image as separate from her work as possible, Rita Dove gets her due recognition in Ohio; her portraits, varied and beautiful, beam from interviews and newspaper articles. In the Akron Beacon Journal in 1987 she said that since she won the Pulitzer Prize, “everybody suddenly wants to know about Rita Dove and Akron.” And she generously shared herself with them.
But in Dove’s work she focuses on unrecognized heroes. In an interview with Steven Ratiner from the Christian Science Monitor she said, “ordinary people are not represented in history… history gives you the tale of heroes, basically… I think that history is a very powerful weapon. If you can edit someone out of history then the next generation, the one who doesn’t have a memory [of certain events] anymore, won’t have anything to go on. And cultural memory is remarkably short in our day and age because communities are disintegrating, so there is no oral or communal sense of carrying on a tradition.”
Carrying on the tradition of poetry and telling unknown stories are things to which Rita Dove is devoted. This devotion won her the Pulitzer Prize for Thomas and Beulah, a collection of poems about the beauty in her grandparents’ everyday and simple Akron lives, and it continues to guide her work to this day.