Literary Idols

For much of my junior year of high school, I carried around a small scrap of paper tucked into my phone case. On it I had written the following lines:

why is the rose

how is the sun

where is first

when is last

who will

love us

what

will

save

us

They are part of a set of poems by Rita Dove called “Twelve Chairs,” in which each short poem is given the number of a juror. This one is the “Twelfth Juror.”  These short, impeccably structured lines (the words of each poem seem to form the shape of a vase on the page) affected me so deeply the first time I read them the summer before junior year, but I found myself unable to explain them. People would say, “I don’t get it” or “What do they mean?”, and I’d have no answer for them. Just read the words and you’ll understand, I’d think.

Fast forward through months of meticulously color-marking and explicating many of Dove’s poems in high school to this past summer, when I learned that Rita Dove was coming to campus in November after having been awarded the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement. My mom was actually the one who gave me the news, as she is much more up-to-date on the Kenyon College Twitter account than I am. Nevertheless, I couldn’t wait until I’d get to hear from the poet who I felt had taught me so much about truth and beauty, not to mention history, race, motherhood, and mythology.

Notes on Dove’s poetry from high school

In October, I got my copy of Rita Dove’s collected poems the day it was available for free in the bookstore, courtesy of the Kenyon Review. Over the next month, I spent the few free moments I had re-reading some of my favorite poems of hers. One is “Parsley,” a haunting villanelle about the 1937 Parsley Massacre, in which Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, ordered the execution of blacks who could not pronounce the Spanish word for parsley. The form of the poem, with its systematic repetition, has permanently lodged certain lines in my brain. Others include the sonnets in her book Mother Love, which retell the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter. Dove has a way with language that is so beautiful—accessible yet profound. Sometimes I tried to share the poems with my friends (some more receptive to my efforts than others) because I wanted everyone to read these words that I loved so much. Sometimes I wanted to keep the poems all to myself as my little secret. I read not only the words on the page but the memories in between the lines of what it was like to fall in love with poetry for the first time.

The night that Dove delivered her keynote address was a night at the end of a long, hard week, and I was ready to sit down in Rosse and soak up everything Dove had to say. She wove together a reading of several of her poems with commentary on her childhood, which she spent primarily in the public library, her writing process, and the power of poetry. She noted that to be a poet is to inhabit a paradox: one must be quiet and introspective at the beginning of the writing process yet bold enough to speak the finished words aloud. She gave some practical advice about writing as well, saying that it’s important to find the time of day when you are most alert and able to write and the genre of writing that suits you the best.

At the end of her address, Dove sat onstage to sign books. As I stood in line, I fretted over what exactly I should say when I approached her. What do you say to someone who’s had such a profound impact on you but who is probably used to people gushing over her work all the time?  What she means to me does not ultimately matter to her, but it does matter to me. I ended up stuttering and stumbling over my words as I stood in front of her, thanking her profusely for speaking and trying to articulate that when we studied her poems in English class was when I really found myself liking poetry and wanting to read poetry. She was so kind and gracious, and even though I know that she dedicated her book to me (with the words “these poems from the heart”) the same way she did everyone else’s, it still felt special.

One of the things that struck me about Dove’s many insightful comments was her observation that sometimes a poem takes all the words away from a reader. The reader is left speechless and unable to explain, not because they don’t understand, but because there are no words left to use. It was as though she were speaking to the very tension that I feel between loving a poem so deeply and being unable to articulate what it means or even why it means so much to me. As I walked north on Middle Path, clutching my newly-signed book and smiling at nothing in particular, I thought about my 16-year-old self who read “Twelve Chairs” for the first time. What I would say to her is that if you read about that twelfth juror and you feel something, that is enough. There is nothing to explain.

 

Image Credits: Feature, Meredith Sauer, 2