Rita Dove: Poetry Society Annual Lecture

Thursday 22nd October 2015

The 2015 Poetry Society Annual Lecture will be given by former US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove, who will talk about the poet’s role in re-shaping, reframing and reimagining history, interweaving her talk with poems.

Rita Dove was the first African American US Poet Laureate, and the youngest, serving from 1993-95. She has received the 2011 National Medal of Arts from President Obama and the 1996 National Humanities Medal from President Clinton, making her the only poet to have received both presidential medals. She has received many academic and literary honours and is currently Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

Coinciding with Black History Month, the lecture will explore how poetry can pull lives from the shadows. The lecture takes as its starting point what might have remained a footnote in musical history – the fact that Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, his Violin Sonata No.9, was originally titled ‘Sonata Mulattica’, and composed in honour of a now-forgotten musical wunderkind, a ‘mulatto’ virtuoso violinist called George Bridgetower.

Dove has pieced together Bridgetower’s story, with its underlying theme of racism, for her own lyric narrative, Sonata Mulattica. Exploring the intersection between history and imagination, Dove will describe how she reconstructed Bridgetower’s life, working from historical sources and filling in the gaps. “Poetry is not about biographical truth, it’s about an emotional truth,” explains Dove. Being wrapped up in facts, is to be trapped by facts. The poet needs to fantasise, speculate, and “eavesdrop on the gods”.

Dove will also reflect on earlier work, such as her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Thomas and Beulah, a verse cycle loosely based on her grandparents. She will talk about the process of editing The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, discussing the politics of selection, the influence of “a largely whitewashed poetry establishment”, and the struggle of the poor, the non-white and the female to be heard. Dove will analyse her anthology’s attempts to answer the essential questions: “Is this a voice that will be remembered? Did he or she make an impact that mattered?”

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