As a child, Rita Dove had little conception that a person could actually grow up to become a writer, but today she is counted as one of the most influential African American authors in America today. She was the second African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (in 1987) and the first to be appointed Poet Laureate of the United States (in 1993). Born in Akron, Ohio on August 28, 1952, Dove had always been encouraged to read widely and to study hard. Her love for poetry and music was given room to grow in this environment, leading her to play cello in her high school band and visit the White House for the first time in her senior year of high school as a Presidential Scholar (“Rita Dove”, 2005). Her education included graduating summa cum laude from Miami University in Ohio, two years studying in Germany, taking a Master’s from the University of Iowa and then moving on to teach creative writing at Arizona State University. She had already gained some public recognition through magazines and anthologies before she published her first collection of poetry in 1980. Her third collection won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Her career has also included short stories, plays and text for orchestral music (“Rita Dove”, 2005). Although prolific in her writing, Dove says she doesn’t derive inspiration from any one thing. “If you wait for inspiration, inspiration’s going to go away and look for more fertile ground to work with” (“An Online Interview”, 1994). Asked in the same interview for advice for budding writers, Dove adds, “they can only write what they feel. That doesn’t mean they have to experience it, but to write something because someone else thinks its right, to write for PC reasons, to write because you think you ought to be dealing with this subject, is never going to yield anything that is really going to matter to anyone else.” To understand Dove’s inspirations for poems such as those found in her collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks, it is thus necessary to examine the poems themselves.
On the Bus with Rosa Parks is a collection of free verse poems that are loosely connected by the characters featured and the experiences shared. The book has a logical progression. It starts with the individual Lucille as she struggles to give birth alone in her Depression-era home after having been abandoned (temporarily) by her husband Joe. As it develops, Dove increasingly brings in greater involvement with the external world as the children of Lucille and Joe increase and begin to explore the world around them. This is not necessarily a sequential progression, nor is it provided from a single viewpoint or remain focused on an end goal. Occasional forays into meditations on themes such as the Venus of Willendorf or camels force the reader to make connections to the larger world while also bringing up ideas of what it means to be feminine or barbarian. Dove completes the sequence with a brilliant series into Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement in which heroes are unintentional ‘normal’ individuals who gave of themselves for the public good.
As a result of her approach to her collection, there are many themes that run through this book. These include the effects of poverty on the family, the role of women in the family, the estrangement that can occur between generations and the strengthening momentum of the women’s movement. Civil Rights and questions of equality also figure strongly within these poems. However, if a single theme were to be selected as the dominant element of the book, it would have to be the theme of everyday heroes. Through her poems, Dove continues to emphasize that heroes are the people who continue to struggle every day to make life just a little better for someone else – whether that someone is a single person or an entire race has little effect on this estimation.
Dove uses several literary techniques to ensure that these themes are recognized. With her background in music and continued involvement in the field, it is not surprising to discover that one of these devices is the use of sound. Dove discusses the importance of sound in her poetry in an interview with Dungy (2005): “I believe that if a poem doesn’t sing, it has no business being a poem. Granted, each poem must have its own music, but it should sing that music without any kind of shame.” Rather than confining her poetry to specific rhyme schemes or metrical patterns, Dove allows her poetry to move freely in what in commonly called free verse. This approach enables Dove to break her lines as she feels fits with her thoughts and feelings without introducing perhaps less meaningful language in order to maintain a rhyme. However, just because her poetry is laced with sound that dances through the lines bringing emphasis to important elements doesn’t mean there aren’t other means of emphasizing importance.
Dove also uses the form of her poems on the page to communicate some meaning to her poems. Some poems, such as “July 1925”, are centered on the page, emphasizing their central importance to the messages Dove is trying to convey. Others are aligned left, indicating the ways in which the character is either performing as expected according to social norms or according to his own typical behavior patterns with little or no regard for how this might affect others. One that seems particularly interesting in this regard is the poem “Homework”, in which some portions of the poem are right aligned, talking about how the music of the black people sings through their veins and provides a point of connection for all. The other portions of the poem are left aligned, indicating the feelings of the son of Lucille and Joe as he associates himself more with the white man’s world of science and academic knowledge. As this discussion reveals, these concepts are perhaps best understood when they are applied to specific poems.
The struggle of women to acquire what they needed is demonstrated in Dove’s poem “My Mother Enters the Work Force.” In this poem, the speaker tells about how her mother gained her education through a lucky sign – a help wanted sign in an alterations shop seeking a seamstress. Because she was able to sew sleeves that “barely needed the damp cloth / to steam them perfect” (7-8), the mother was able to get a job where she worked every afternoon. “Evenings / she took in piecework” (9-10), running a sewing machine whose sounds became a sort of lullaby of promise for the mother, who was using the money she earned to pay for the school she was attending in order to get a job. The speaker’s translation of the sewing machine’s sound, “And now and now” (15) and “I know, I know” (16) thus becomes a promise as well as a joke with the reader as it is realized that now the woman is already working for the betterment of her family. However, she is forced to constantly struggle, which is suggested by the fact that she is taking in piecework, but reinforced by the language of the poem itself. The sewing machine has a ‘locomotive whir’ indicating the never-ending sense of the work involved even while the needle works its way through “quicksand taffeta / or velvet deep as a forest” (13-14). Having already revealed what fills the mother’s afternoons and evenings, the speaker then reveals the really hard work that the mother engages in during the mornings. Again, she is associated with the constant noise of machines, again portrayed in light of never-ending toil. Only this is “another journey – rougher / that would go on forever” (19-20). This work is harder for the mother, but she perseveres for the betterment of her family. In the very short stanza four, representing in form the level of faith the mother might have at actually being able to realize her dreams, yet still managing to voice them. Because she is still able to put her dreams in words, “no more postponed groceries, / and that blue pair of shoes” (23-24), she still has hope that someday she will be able to earn enough through a single job to support her family without struggle.
Like the mother in “My Mother Enters the Work Force”, Dove continues to carry the theme that one should always strive toward something. In her poem “The First Book”, Dove suggests that the world should be embraced and explored rather than feared and hidden from. The poem describes the literal case of a child’s first book and the initial responses he or she might have. The speaker seems to be the giver of the book, encouraging the child to take a chance and take a peek between the pages. She says, “Open it. / Go ahead, it won’t bite” (1-2). However, she never provides this book with a name or a subject. While some may assume that she means the Bible because of the title, Dove’s language begins to establish a lighter note at the same time that it suggests a much deeper level. The music of the lines is snappy because of the short statements she offers. It seems completely honest and open as it suggests the book might bite a little: “More a nip, like. A tingle. / It’s pleasurable, really” (4-5). Yet, as she continues to encourage, one gets the sense that she is talking about something more than a simple book being opened, perhaps she is talking about opening the mind to new possibilities. This is suggested when she tells her listener, “You see, it keeps on opening. / You may fall in” (6-7). By suggesting that the book will never end, she suggests that there is always something to be learned, always something to explore and always something to challenge you and cause you to work for it. Although this might be frightening, “It’s not like it’s the end of the world – / just the world as you think / you know it” (12-14). While the language tends to suggest both something basic and something incredibly deep, the form of the poem also works to establish these ideas. It appears with a single line at top and bottom with the body filled by two-line pairs. The open space thus inserted into the poem suggests it is open, honest and simple. However, at the same time, the hard stops of each pair, most ending in a period, indicate that there is an effort that must be made in crossing over the gulf of emptiness to reach a greater understanding.
Dove was primarily focused on telling the stories of the people who had to struggle through life under the Jim Crow laws, in which black people were severely oppressed, and into the Civil Rights movement. As a result, many of the poems have a ‘then’ kind of focus, illustrating how life was for the people who lived during this period in time. She captures the mood of the Civil Rights movement in poems such as “My Mother Enters the Work Force” when she illustrates the various ways in which individuals, primarily women, found ways to overcome the challenges in front of them. During this period in history, there were examples of blacks increasingly empowering themselves as there was a “feeling of discontent and a growing consciousness of exclusion from social, economic, and political participation” (Daniel, 1990, p. 893). However, this focus does not make the collection invalid to today’s world. People, black, white and all colors, continue to have to struggle to find new ways to survive in the world and in the process begin to open up new possibilities for future generations. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, she was an ordinary person doing an ordinary thing yet brought significant change into the world. Through her poetry, Rita Dove attempts to show that ordinary people doing ordinary things like opening up a book or exploring the possibilities. The way in which she formats her poems and the language she uses tends to remind us always of the current condition, the adult woman is able to understand how her mother’s struggles have encouraged her to keep reaching forward even as she reminds us of what conditions were then.
Through her poetry, Rita Dove captures the spirit of the postmodern age in the form and rhythm of her free verse while she reminds us of the hardships and heroes of the previous period. She recalls the everyday incidents and events that created heroes out of regular people who were not intending to do anything more than simply survive, people who had had enough of the oppression and injustice and people who were willing to make a stand for themselves if for no one else. Whether it was Rosa Parks encouraging black people everywhere to work against the oppression of their age or the lone mother, demonstrating for her daughters how perseverance and pushing boundaries can lead to a better life, Dove illustrates that heroes are not necessarily always from another planet. Sometimes they can be as close as the kitchen. These are important lessons to remember during these trying economic times when everyone is going to need to figure out new means of surviving. While many of the racial issues have been overcome, there remains a significant disparity between those who have and those who have not. Poverty continues to hold families down, almost forcing children to repeat the patterns of their parents. However, through opening the book, exploring its contents and pushing the boundaries, as the women in Dove’s book have done, much of this, too, can be overcome.
“An Online Interview with Rita Dove.” (June 18, 1994). Modern American Poetry. Nevada: American Academy of Achievement. Available November 25, 2008 from
Daniel, Pete. “Going Among Strangers: Southern Reactions to World War II.” Journal of Southern History. Vol. 77, (1990).
Dove, Rita. (1999). On the Bus with Rosa Parks. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Dungy, Camille T. (2005). “Interview with Rita Dove.” Callaloo. Vol. 28, N. 4: 1027-1040.
“Rita Dove Biography.” (February 1, 2005). American Academy of Achievement. Available November 25, 2008 from