Rita Dove: “The first thing that goes when a government becomes a tyranny are words”

Salon talks to poet Rita Dove about why degrading language and the arts threatens democracy and humanity

Published February 5, 2017 6:00PM (EST)

Rita Dove   (AP/Charles Tasnadi)
Rita Dove (AP/Charles Tasnadi)

There are few writers worthy of such high distinction, but to read Rita Dove is to encounter the transformative. Her feeling comes in aid of your feeling. Suddenly, you believe you have undergone an alteration of mind and spirit. Dove’s poetry breathes life onto the page and into the reader.

The Pulitzer Prize committee shared this assessment, awarding her the prize for poetry in 1987 for her beautiful, biographical treatment of her grandparents through a series of interconnected poems, "Thomas and Beulah." Dove also received the National Medal of Arts commendation from President Barack Obama, who complimented her singular ability to “blend beauty, lyricism, critique, and politics.”

In a national moment of suffocation, it is for our civic health that we turn to those voices that offer the relief of oxygen.

Earlier this week, I interviewed Rita Dove about the power of poetry and the necessity of the arts, especially in times of political trouble and terror.

You once said that poetry deals with the “unremarked upon.” Could you please elaborate on that to begin our conversation?

Poetry pulls us back into a focus of our impressions as we move through the world. These are things that are unremarked upon because they are too sensitive, or they are considered things that we experience every day, like how the air feels as you walk along on a spring day and the wind catches the hairs on your arms. It goes from that point to the thoughts that are swirling around our minds, but we feel it is better not to express them. We all have a maelstrom of thoughts, particularly now with what is going on, and we are struggling to articulate. So, if someone says to us, “How are you doing?” We can say, “I’m doing well, considering.” That “considering” contains multitudes.

Now, what poetry does is try to remind us of those multitudes. It tries to articulate the complexity of all that we seem not to be able to say. It deals with the silences we impose on ourselves, and the silences that occur when we have no words to capture how we feel. So, when a poem does well, it makes us feel stronger afterwards, because now there is an utterance that someone else has made that reminds us we are not totally crazy. That is the philosophical utility of poetry, but it also stops time for a moment, which is something we don’t do much anymore.

A good lyrical poem allows us to look around, and feel present in our own skin. That is important today because we are being bombarded by so many shocking things — things that are striking us. We forget to ask ourselves, “I’m a human being. How do I want the world where I live? How do I feel about my neighbor?” That kind of communication is getting lost in the kaleidoscopic barrage of events that are happening. We are being scattered. I think it is deliberate, and now we are getting political. We are forgetting to focus on that which is elemental.

A colleague of mine is fond of saying, "a poem is not a bumper sticker.” It is not something that is reducible to a slogan that is fit for the back of a car. What is a poem? It is an experience, and how does it function when we are being barraged by a kaleidoscope of messages and events?

Well, first of all, I love that comment: “Poetry is not a bumper sticker.” In certain ways it is the exact opposite of a bumper sticker, even though they may share something like conciseness. What a bumper sticker does is encapsulates a certain sentiment that makes you feel very safe. You can look at it, and go, “oh, well that clicks.” You feel like now you know something. Whether it is a political bumper sticker or a joke, it makes you feel like you are on top of things, you can feel good about it, ourselves, and move on.

What a poem does is open something up inside. This is also a good feeling. A poem is an experience, because when you experience, it allows you to become larger. It is not something that is quantifiable, and it is not something that you can encapsulate with the closure that you seek. That frightens some people.

But I contend that we are born curious. We are born naked in front of the world, and we want to enlarge ourselves and discover more. We lose that curiosity as we grow older, and become afraid. If we would open ourselves to poetry, it would teach us about ourselves, and other people, and enable us to feel more. There are poems that I love that, over the years, have grown in meaning to me, or suddenly I see a different side of them. So, poetry is a living, breathing entity.

What is the use of this art form that operates in oppositions to slogans in an era of sloganeering?

I think the human spirit craves the opening and the growth that poetry, the arts and the humanities offer. If we only had slogans and statistics we would wither inside. You can almost see it in the things that proliferate on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you push aside the shock and bombardment of current events, you see that we can have all of this information and people will still post something like, “Today, I sat down and ate a grapefruit.” They will post about something ordinary that happened, and it is them saying, “Look, I’m here. I’m a living and breathing human being. I’ve just had this moment, and I want someone to share this moment with me.” It is a basic yearning in human beings to get beyond the sloganeering, because sloganeering does not help you. It is a steady diet of junk food. You cannot get enough of it, but it will never truly satisfy you.

There is so much political consternation and concern right now over the actions of the Trump administration, but one element at play is the continual degradation of language. You had a personal relationship with President Barack Obama, who is an eloquent man. Eloquence plays a powerful role in the cultivation of effective citizenship and leadership. Do you believe we are undergoing a debasement of our language, and if so, what consequences does it have for our national development?

Yes, I agree with the assessment that language is being reduced, especially in comparison with Barack Obama, who was quite eloquent and understood the value and effectiveness of language in all of its registers. He could not only be eloquent, as a leader, in a high, classical speech manner, but he also knew how to get down. That is how you reach people, and make them realize that a leader speaks their language — to demonstrate an understanding of the intimations and syncopations of a common, but elevated language.

Human beings have the language we can write down, which means it can be communicated to other human beings who do not even see the original author. Now, we have this gift, and for it to be reduced, also reduces our capacity to progress and develop. Language is now being reduced to the level of an undeveloped 2-year-old. Everything is “tremendous” or “disastrous.” This drives me mad, because once you have a limited vocabulary for articulation, it blinds your vision. You are no longer able to describe that which exists outside the borders of that cage of language you have put yourself into. What the arts do, especially literature, is to try to push those borders, so that we can always say more, and therefore do more. That expands your consciousness. It sounds hippie to say that, but it is true. If we don’t have a language to describe an experience, it is almost as if we cannot really experience it.

So, we have no real words of communicating helplessness among people who are relatively well-off. When we hear “helpless,” we think of people who are destitute or a child who is orphaned. But, many of us are feeling helpless right now. The poet’s mission might be to articulate how unusual and unique this is feeling right now. I’m not saying that the poet must be political. Each of us are many different beings. I can speak out as a citizen, and then write something about flowers. Poets, however, are sensitive to their surroundings in the world where they live. So, speaking out is almost unavoidable. That can sustain people, because if someone reads a poet’s description of an experience for which they had no words before, it again offers the reassurance of telling them that they are not alone.

Can we bridge the gap? If someone reading this interview feels alone, helpless, and desperate, can reading a poem about flowers help alleviate those feelings?

Yes, it can, actually. In the midst of any kind of horror — no matter the scale — to be reminded that we are alive, breathing, on this earth, and capable of seeing that beauty, that the flower exists on this earth with me, can help with the loneliness.

What do you think when we read rumors that the Trump administration is going to reduce or even eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and Corporation for Public Broadcasting?

Oh, gosh. Like many people, I feel sickened. I feel furious. I feel frightened. I also feel like it is time to do something. The first thing that goes when a government becomes a tyranny are words. You take the power for people to communicate, because then it becomes easier to manipulate them. If it gets to the point where there is no more funding for the arts or humanities, we are headed to a dark place. I never thought that I would see this country that I really love turn so rapidly into a frightening place.

You say that America is a country you love. Your patriotism is something that shines through many of your poems. In your early books, the writing about the scenes surrounding your youth is quite beautiful. The emphasis in your language — for example, your poem on dance is called “American Smooth.” What is it about this country that provokes such love, and is it something now under threat?

It definitely is under threat right now. It is embattled. What it is that I love about this country is that it is a very strange democracy. This country, for better or worse, has managed to subsume many different cultures, and make something uniquely America. In “American Smooth,” I tried to bring forth how so many different music trends have resulted in American music – music from the ’40s and ’50s, blues, jazz, the African, the British. Everything comes together to give us a remarkable, vibrant, malleable form of expression, and it is truly unique. That opportunity has always been present.

When I was a child there were limitations. I’m a black woman. Yet, I still thought there was a way to be me. There was hope. There was a way to make it. It sounds silly to call it the pioneer spirit, but in a way it is: “Let’s just go out there, and see if we can make a new town.” The history of immigrants coming into this country, and their hopes being made part of the American fabric. It takes time, but these things are eventually considered American. Driving from Virginia to Chicago recently, I thought about how all these geographically diverse, disparate climates and terrains could maintain togetherness as a country. Despite all the bloodshed, up until recently, this story was very successful. Now, I’m not so sure.

You remind me of Walt Whitman in "Leaves of Grass," who writes that he feels home on a fleet of iceboats, on a Texan ranch, in the hills of Maine -- just a beautiful stanza about the geographical variety of America. That promise of harmony and enlargement of liberty and opportunity and unity was always America, and now it feels fragile.

Yes, yes. It is amazing that there are certain loopholes in our government that have permitted us to get this far. Much of our government seems based on trust, the assumption that people will behave like decent human beings. Yes, the founders implemented checks and balances and limits on power, but there are these loopholes that betray a belief that people will be decent. That optimism on human ethics is also something I love about this country. Now, it threatens to harm us.

Is poetry an optimistic enterprise?

Interesting question . . . I think that ultimately it is. I know that when I write, even if I’m writing about a massacre — something horrific and sad — whenever I write and I get to the point that I feel it is working, I am deliriously happy. When I read poems that are about something horrific, sometimes something in me lifts, because if we, as human beings, can take that which is most ugly and find creative ways to describe it, that tells us that we have a power to manage the chaos.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters," and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" and the forthcoming, "Exurbia Now: Notes from the Battleground of American Democracy." He lives in Indiana. 

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