Nation’s first African-American poet laureate speaks at Battell Chapel

In her first visit to Yale, Rita Dove, the first African-American to serve as the nation’s poet laureate, read poems from “American Smooth,” her latest book, to nearly 100 people at Battell Chapel Tuesday afternoon.

Dove, 52, is a celebrated poet who has dealt with a wide array of topics in a variety of forms during her long career as a novelist, essayist, playwright, short-story writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. In introducing Dove, African-American Studies professor Elizabeth Alexander described her as “a new and thrilling voice in American literature.”

Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for her book “Thomas and Beulah,” a poetic account of a black couple’s life together in the 20th century set against the backdrop of the great migration. In many of her works, Dove has blended personal and historical elements to include wide-ranging subject matter. Dove has written poems about a massacre in the Dominican Republic, the ostracism experienced by black soldiers in the U.S. army, Bible stories, family ties, childhood memories, dancing and race.

“It is no exaggeration to say that she made possible the flowering new generation of African-American poets,” Alexander said in regard to Dove’s fresh approach to race issues in the United States.

Dove began her address, during which she read over a dozen poems and discussed her thought process for many of them, by explaining the genesis of her volume “American Smooth.” Lightning struck her house and burned it down, destroying everything she had, including her will to work, Dove said.

“I didn’t feel like I knew where to begin,” she said.

Neighbors invited her out dancing and the experience sparked a passion for ballroom dancing and ultimately reawakened her poetic imagination. “American Smooth,” released earlier this year, takes its name from a dance move in which the woman releases the man and swings out; many of the poems in the collection take the dance as their theme.

To preface “Samba Summer,” a poem about her childhood memories of the dance, Dove moved away from the podium and demonstrated a samba step. Audience members called the mini-performance a highlight of the event.

Though set in locations ranging from a World War I-era dance hall to a drive-through movie theater in her Ohio hometown, all of Dove’s poetry focuses on the agony — often the result of history — and the rare exhilarations, such as mastering a new dance step or learning to shoot a gun, of daily life.

“We all died of insignificance,” Dove writes in “The Sisters Swan Song,” chronicling the anti-climactic demise of a generation of women.

“We know we’re just the world’s custodians, full-time lovers on half pay,” her dancers say in “Samba Summer.”

After reading for over an hour, Dove finished with the title poem of “American Smooth,” an account of a dance and the brief perfection attained in it.

“We had done it / (for two measures? / four?) achieved flight, / that swift and serene / magnificence / before the earth / remembered who we were / and brought us down,” the poem concluded.

Afterward, audience members were invited to a wine-and-cheese reception at Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

“I was absolutely pleased with the turnout,” Beinecke library assistant curator Nancy Kuhl said. “Mrs. Dove has a huge audience, and people from all around town came to see her.”

Audience members, some already fans of Dove’s and others exposing themselves to her poetry for the first time, said they enjoyed the performance.

“I’d never read her poetry, but I’d heard of her, so I decided to come here,” New Haven area resident Milton Cohen said. “I thought she read very well, and I’m interested in her work now.”

When asked why she came to the event, Lia Bascomb ’05 said she went “because it’s Rita Dove.”

“It was wonderful: the delivery, the presence, the confidence,” she said. “Listening is very different from reading.”

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