By JOHN SULLIVAN
The Great Hall in the Thomas Jefferson Building was the scene on Oct. 7 of the inaugural reading of the new Poet Laureate, Rita Dove. By 5:30, when the doors were to open, a large crowd had already gathered.
Just before the start of the 6 o'clock program, the Great Hall was filled to capacity; extra seating was set up in the side galleries, where closed-circuit television covered the proceedings. Coverage by C-SPAN, NBC, local newspapers, Reuters, UPI, Knight-Ridder and "60 Minutes" captured the moment for their viewers and readers.
Carolyn T. Brown, associate librarian for Cultural Affairs, welcomed the 500-plus guests and described the Library's literary program for the coming season.
Prosser Gifford, director of scholarly programs, told the audience that, during the bicentennial celebration of the U.S. Capitol and reinstallation of the statue "Freedom" to the dome on Oct. 23, Ms. Dove would read her poem commemorating the event, "Lady Freedom Among Us."
Dr. Gifford praised Ms. Dove's "energy, enthusiasm and vitality," saying such qualities would lend themselves to the Library's literary program with innovative uses of poetry in jazz, film, environmental awareness programs and poetry workshops."
Ms. Dove began by praising "homegirl Toni Morrison," whose hometown of Lorain, Ohio, is only 30 miles from Ms. Dove's home of Akron. She announced that she "had never before read from a pedestal" (a foot stand was provided so that all could get a better view). Then, the audience became quiet, as she began to read her poem "O," from a Swedish word meaning "island." "The poem is one of appreciation, as a poet often looks for a perfect word, or one that says everything the poet intends, and with this word it even looks like an island, with birds or clouds on top," she said.
The Laureate next read "Ars Poetica," and then "In the Old Neighborhood," a poem, according to Ms. Dove, "of personal experiences and how books became my friends. This poem was also the last poem I wrote before I became Poet Laureate."
Next came readings from her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Thomas and Beulah. The poems were tales of her grandparents, going back to the early days of this century in Akron. She also read "Daystar," "Wingfoot Lake," "Shakespeare Say" and a poem commemorating the city planner Benjamin Banneker.
Her next poem, "Parsley," she said, "was based on an actual historical event during the reign of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, when he ordered the killing of 20,000 Haitian blacks, who worked in the sugarcane fields with Dominicans. The dictator had designed a method to detect the Haitians, using a word they had difficulty saying without revealing their identity. The poem conveys the creativity behind the cruelty. The word was 'parsley.' "
She read "her daughter's favorite poem," "Flashcards," then "The Endless News," which she said "is about the life of newborns when they seem to be incredibly wise, but it's only myopia."
The Laureate's evening ended with two poems, "Canary," which can either refer to a female jazz vocalist or a caged bird, and whose last line is, "If you can't be free, be a mystery," and "The Island Women of Paris," "dedicated to the women of the Caribbean island of Guadalupe:
"Skim from curb to curb like regatta,/from Pont Neuf to Quai de la Rappe/in cool negotiation with traffic,/each a country to herself/transposed to this city/by a fluke called 'imperial' courtesy./The island women glide past held aloft/by a wire running straight to heaven./ Who can ignore their ornamental bearing,/turbans haughty as parrots,/or deft braids carved into airy cages/transfixed on their manifest brows?/The island women move through Paris/as if they had just finished inventing their destinations./And better not look an island woman in the eye-- /unless you like feeling unnecessary."
Earlier in the day, during luncheon in her honor, the literary community and Library staff in attendance witnessed Ms. Dove's enthusiasm for her new role.
In Ms. Dove's party were her husband, playwright Fred Viebahn, and 10-year-old daughter, Aviva, and her parents, Ray and Elvira.
Congress was represented by Reps. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.) and David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), who delivered statements to the guests.
Also at the luncheon, with host Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, was then director-designate of the National Endowment for the Arts, actress Jane Alexander, accompanied by her husband, producer Ed Sherin. Ms. Alexander and Ms. Dove had a few minutes of private conversation. [Ms. Alexander was sworn in the following day, also in the Great Hall.]