With the 1986 publication of her third volume of verse, Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove was elevated into that most exclusive sphere of American poets: those singled out for distinction with the honor of a Pulitzer Prize. Thomas and Beulah is a self-contained book-length series of poems that each contribute to building a deeply layered portrait of the titular duo who are themselves based on her own grandparents.
Somewhat similar in structure is her 1999 collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks in which the various poems are unified by their focus of a specific moment in time. Dove’s fascination with history informs much of her poetry which has successfully managed to facilitate her escape from being stereotyped. Moving beyond notions of everything necessarily being viewed through the prism of race has created a body of work more accurately described as a career-long examination of oppression from the perspective of various outsider groups: women in men’s world; blacks in a white world and the working class in a world owned by the rich.
In addition to her recognition by the Pulitzer committee, Dove’s legitimacy as a major voice in American poetry was confirmed with her appointment as the nation’s Poet Laureate in the early 1990’s that saw her lay claim to the dual distinctions of being not just the first African American to do so, but the youngest poet ever so honored. Part of the appeal for many of Dove may be that her verse tends to be short narratives which make them immediately accessible to some who might be scared away from pages and pages of poetic stanzas.
Her lasting power and academic standing have been assured, however due to that initial accessibility being somewhat deceptive. While Dove’s verse construction may look enticing on the page even to those who “don’t get poetry,” it has become worthy of serious critical consideration because penetration into the layer of meaning require familiarity with historical and literary allusions and occasionally perplexing imagery.