Archibald MacLeish once wrote that a poem should not mean but be. Only the same poem may have different states of being. It could be the thing that echoes in your head, or a series of words you study on a printed page, or something you heard declaimed in a public forum.
Different poems, then, may be suited to different kinds of presentation. So when Akron-born Rita Dove agreed to an appearance at PlayhouseSquare’s Ohio Theatre in Cleveland at 7:30 tonight, she had to ponder which of her poems suited the venue.
“There are poems that I have never read aloud that I wish I could read to an audience, but I think will not work,” said the Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate. “There are a couple of poems that are in two voices. … I am not an actress, and I am not going to do the back-and-forth thing. … You have to consider the fact that people are sitting in these seats. Their attention span is going to go in and out. I mean, there is only so much intensity that you can bring to a moment. And a very long poem is not, probably, going to work — unless it’s got spaces built into it where people can take a rest. … So there are longer poems that I say, no, you can’t do that.
“I always make a playlist of poems that I want to do, the kind of evening I want to craft. But I always change it at the last minute. It’s what I read from the air, just being in a place. … I need to know … what I get from the atmosphere around me.”
Still, she has a plan going into the Cleveland program.
“I thought I would read a few poems from earlier books just to set the tone that these are my roots. These are how I grew,” she said by telephone from the University of Virginia, where Dove is Commonwealth Professor of English. “And then concentrate a lot on my last book, Sonata Mulattica.”
That book is a series of poems about George Bridgetower, the part-African, part-German violin virtuoso in the 18th and 19th centuries whose admirers included Beethoven.
“The difficulty is that it is a long book, that tells the story of a life,” Dove said. “So to pluck one or two poems is not going to give you a sense of how the book works. But I’ll intersperse it with stories. …
“I recognize the fact that reading a poem — or any kind of art — is an intimate experience,” said Dove, whose other books include the Pulitzer-winning Thomas and Beulah, American Smooth and Mother Love. “The artist does it but at the end it’s going to be the reader or the listener who is going to have a relationship with that work. It’s actually a very quiet and intimate relationship you get.
“But here [at talks like the Cleveland one] is someone standing in front of you, reading. The things that one might get when you read the poem and have the time to live with the poem and let it drift around in your head — some of that gets lost when you hear it only once and don’t have it in front of you. So I do feel like it’s important to set the tone, and talk about it.
“Some poems I might say how it came to be, and others not. Just let it sit there. But in the second part, with Sonata Mulattica, I could talk about the way the book got started, the way I took a little fact and let it bloom into a poem. I think it was an interesting process, and it’s nice to be able to share that with an audience.”
While Dove’s childhood was steeped in the precision of science — her father, Ray, was the first African-American chemist hired by Goodyear — the art and craft of poetry varies from work to work.
“Like flowers, it depends,” she said. “It depends on the flower and the soil and the sunlight, and whether it’s a perennial or not. … Every poem is different. I’ve had poems where, from idea to fruition has been two, three years. That isn’t to say I’ve worked on it every day, thrashing it and beating it against the wall. But it’s taken that long to happen … and there are some that are there very quickly. …
“For me, the process is not a conscious one, though I do sit down consciously to write. It might start with a line, it might start with an overheard word, it might start with a cadence. It rarely will start with the first line. For some reason, I’ll start in the middle and write outward. It’s always changing. That’s, of course, one of the things that keeps it fascinating and addictive. The end result, though, [is] that you’re using words to express something that hopefully will leave the reader speechless.”
But at the end, as a writer once said, a poem is never finished but only abandoned. So does Dove ever wish she could go back to a poem and take another swing at it?
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I have it all the time. Every time I read something, I think, oh, it’s almost where I want it to be. That’s not something that makes me despair. I made a vow to myself that I would not go back and correct. … Of course, if a poem is going into a collection, I might go back and do some things. There are poems where I wish I hadn’t used that word, but at that moment and at that point in my life, that’s where it was, and I want to honor that journey, too. So I’m not going to back and correct it. I’m going to go forward.”
Yet there is also the nagging question of how to bring poetry to a young audience, especially one that views poetry as a dimly remembered school obligation, not something to be read for pleasure.
Asked how to bring those readers to poetry, Dove said she dreaded mentioning specific authors because the connection between a poem and a reader comes “when they find out that what the poet is talking about matters to them. … The best thing to do is … to start at home. If there are poets who come from Cleveland, who come from Akron, who come from that area, who come from Ohio, where young people can recognize the landscapes that poets are speaking out of — that’s already a connection. …
“Another thing I would suggest is to go to sites online like Poem-A-Day (www.poets.org/poemaday) or Poetry Daily (http://poems.com) or Verse Daily (www.versedaily.org) where you get a poem a day. One of the things I wish I could do, if I had all-encompassing powers, I would say that starting in kindergarten every teacher should read a poem at the end of the day and send [the children] home. Don’t ask the kids to do anything with that poem. Don’t demand something from them. Let it seep in. And if they live with a poem a day, after a while I would bet you any money … the poems become acquaintances. They become part of their lives.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org,