By PATRICIA CRAIG
Poet Laureate Rita Dove wants to "chase the bugaboos out of the closet" when it comes to poetry.
At a March 17 news conference and luncheon at the National Press Club, Ms. Dove talked about popular stereotypes of poetry, the current role of poetry in American society and the role it could play for a wider, more appreciative audience. "Poetry -- merely whispering its name -- can frighten people out of the room," Ms. Dove quipped.
"As a poet standing before you, I find it exhilarating that poetry has become news again," she said, addressing an audience primarily composed of journalists. But she noted that interviewers and reporters rarely ask her about her actual poems -- they focus instead upon how she defines poetry or ask her to discuss its influence on her life.
A reluctance to grapple with verse is encountered throughout popular American culture. Ms. Dove suggests that the origin of this disinterest and distrust is rooted in people's stereotypes about poetry and poets. "Who's afraid of poetry is not as interesting a question as why [they are afraid]," she said.
According to Ms. Dove, the belief that poetry is too difficult to comprehend is a primary reason people fear and dislike poetry. Ironically, Ms. Dove noted, one of the most popular poems ever, "Jabborwocky," by the English author Lewis Carroll, is rife with nonsense words whose individual meanings are unintelligible, and yet, when strung together, the words impart a sense of meaning. "Alice explains what she thinks happens in the poem, but the parts that keep floating in her head -- that's poetry," Ms. Dove commented.
She also cited the belief that poetry is too academic and not about real life as a major reason people avoid it. Ms. Dove then dispelled that myth by illustrating how her 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Thomas and Beulah, sprang from personal experience. The work chronicles, through actual and fictionalized events, the courtship and marriage of her grandparents.
Ms. Dove described her childhood memory of a story that her grandmother told about the life of Ms. Dove's grandfather. The story haunted Ms. Dove, and eventually it became the inspiration for "The Event," a poem that forms part of the larger work; it also became the thread that Ms. Dove used to carry the story forward to Akron, Ohio, where her grandfather settled.
A large Quaker Oats factory was located in Akron during her youth, and her memory of the smell of burnt oatmeal cookies provided the spark for the story's continuation. "The tiny detail is the hinge that swings open the door onto the poem. I found my hinge and entered my grandfather's Akron through the sense of smell," she said.
Ms. Dove also commented upon the important role that sound plays in poetry. "I pay a great deal of attention to the rhythm and cadence of a poem -- it's a way of speaking musically. Poems convince us in our bones that how you say things does matter. Poetry has a sense of itself as sound, and sound can influence how we think," she said.
The ability of poetry to stir emotions and inspire people to action has made its use at social or political events appealing. In recent times, several presidents have featured the reading of a poem as part of their inaugural ceremony. Ms. Dove noted, however, that most people have not taken advantage of the potential that poets and poetry have to influence political and social issues in the United States. She commented that while she was living in Germany, she was surprised to discover that poets were often asked to comment on contemporary issues. "Soviet poets have filled stadiums," Ms. Dove said, adding, "It never happens here."
When asked how she felt the role of poetry could be axpanded in America, Ms. Dove urged journalists to revive the past tradition of reviewing books of poetry, which in recent years has largely been abandoned. She also suggested running poems daily in newspapers.
Embarking upon her second year as Poet Laureate, Dove already has an established record of success in presenting unique and ambitious programs that break down the misconceptions surrounding poetry. Her second term offers an opportunity to bring to fruition her dream of bringing poetry back into the mainstream of daily life.
Patricia Craig is an archives technician in the Manuscript Division.