Last Friday night at Rosse Hall, a voice echoed: “It is indeed — November.” Those were among the first words the poet Rita Dove spoke to a captivated audience. The statement was just a simple observation on the weather — but the lyricism and grace of Dove’s diction would make it seem she was prophesying, speaking on something greater. The audience sat in awe.
Indeed, it was Nov. 9 that Pulitzer Prize winner and former United States Poet Laureate Rita Dove visited Kenyon to give the keynote Denham Sutcliffe Memorial Lecture as a part of the Kenyon Review Literary Festival. The only poet to have received both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts, Dove has yet another prize to include in her trophy collection: the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement.
The award, which she received in New York on Nov. 7, honors “writers whose influence and importance have shaped the American literary landscape.”
Dove’s poetry fuses the lyrical with the historical. It focuses on the beauty of words, how they’re pronounced, the way they fall from our mouths — and she frames this beautiful lyricism in a sort of personal and historical context. She has an acute eye for exact detail, bringing into attention the elegance of words.
For example, one of the poems she read on Friday, “Singsong,” depicts her childhood with a fine sense of language: “When I was young, the moon spoke in riddles / and the stars rhymed … I was narrowly sweet, infinitely cruel, / tongued in honey and coddled in milk.” She took pauses between commas, her voice reverberating throughout Rosse.
Dove grew up in Akron, Ohio — just an hour away from Kenyon. In her lecture, she described herself as a shy child whose fascination with libraries, books and wisdom opened up the world to her with imagination. As a child, she often dreamed that someone like her could appear on the shelves. She cited Harold and the Purple Crayon as one of her favorite books because it demonstrated that she could build her own world using one simple crayon.
Throughout her lecture, Dove shared her creative process: the craft of writing, why she favors specific poetic forms and even the exact time when she prefers to write (from midnight to 4 a.m. — “I am vampirish in that way,” she admitted). She referenced a writing exercise inspired by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, how to get rid of self-consciousness while writing, and the allegorical meaning to the classic fable The Sword in the Stone that she applies to writing (“Greed and strength do not write a good poem; elegance and kindness do”). Dove is a poet intensely committed to her craft.
During contentious political times, Dove offered a sense of warmth and sanctuary Friday. She didn’t talk about the midterm elections, the president or current events; instead, she offered her advice, her love for writing and her compassion for the quiet moments. When Dove was done with her speech, the crowd let out a cacophony of applause. It was a night of poetry. Most of all, it was a very November night.