Rita Dove, Poet Laureate

May 22, 1993

Americans have an ambivalent relationship to their poets. We revere our native bards for their seriousness of purpose and depth of expression. Yet most people would rather listen to Top 40s hits than an evening's recital of verse. Poetry isn't the stuff of pop idols and media celebrities.

Rita Dove, the 40-year-old University of Virginia poetry professor named national poet laureate Tuesday, hopes to make a difference in how her fellow Americans view her art. Ms. Dove, who won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for "Thomas and Beulah," recently said too many young people today view success solely in materialistic terms, ignoring artistic and intellectual achievement. True, but callow youth isn't the only culprit.

We live in a culture that celebrates externals, but the poet is concerned with the interior landscape of the mind and heart. Making a poem involves a process suggested by the Spanish verb ensimismarse -- literally "to go inside oneself," to introspect. Introspection requires that one have a self to go "inside of" as well as the desire to make that painful journey. Yet the point of modern mass entertainment is to get us out of ourselves, to draw us away from fruitful or dangerous solitude and into the bland anonymity of fashion and trends and fandom.

Poets are supposed to remind us of the deep currents of experience that give meaning and value to life. In "Mississippi," from her 1989 collection "Grace Notes," Ms. Dove described the journey of African slaves along that fabled waterway:

We were falling down

river, carnal

slippage and shadow melt.

We were standing on the deck

of the New World, before maps:

tepid seizure of a breeze

and the spirit hissing away. . .

"If only the sun-drenched celebrities are being noticed and worshiped, then our children are going to have a tough time seeing value in the shadows, where the thinkers, probers and scientists are who are keeping society together," Ms. Dove has said.

Hers is welcome as a clear voice amid the babble. Let us hope during her year as poet laureate, some of that clarity may persuade us to listen more to the inner voice of the heart, and heed the report of its travels.

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