This Old Poem #46:
The Poets Laureate Special Edition #6:
Rita Dove’s Lost Brilliance
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/25/03

  There has probably never been a TOP poem I’ve criticized that has had a more apropos title. Rita Dove was Poet Laureate from 1993-1995, & won a 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her 1986 book Thomas and Beulah. It was 1 of the rare instances in the last 50 years where a major poetry prize was given to a good book of poems. Not only was it a good book, but it was the height of RD’s poetic powers, & augured that her great potential was on its way to being fulfilled. But, after that, & the subsequent fame, RD nosedove like few other poets of quality ever have. Her early good phrasing & interesting approaches to topics, as well as her insistence on avoiding banal racial clichés (RD is black), almost instantaneously- in her subsequent books- gave way to lax, poorly constructed, & trite pieces of doggerel. In short, RD became poetry’s Sidney Poitier- afraid to cross any taboo territories.
  What made it all the more galling was that she seemed to be 1 of the few Academics that was not incestuously bound to the filthy tit of the NEA’s grant-giving gravy train. Her c.v.:

Ms. Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952. A 1970 Presidential Scholar, she received her B.A. summa cum laude from Miami University of Ohio and her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa.  She also held a Fulbright scholarship at the Universität Tübingen in Germany.  She has published the poetry collections The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Museum (1983), Thomas and Beulah (1986), Grace Notes (1989), Selected Poems (1993), Mother Love (1995), On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), a book of short stories, Fifth Sunday (1985), the novel Through the Ivory Gate (1992), essays under the title The Poet's World (1995), and the play The Darker Face of the Earth, which had its world premiere in 1996 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was subsequently produced at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Royal National Theatre in London, and other theatres.  Seven for Luck, a song cycle for soprano and orchestra with music by John Williams, was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1998.  For "America's Millennium", the White House's 1999/2000 New Year's celebration, Ms. Dove contributed -- in a live reading at the Lincoln Memorial, accompanied by John Williams's music -- a poem to Steven Spielberg's documentary The Unfinished Journey.  She is the editor of Best American Poetry 2000, and from January 2000 to January 2002 she wrote a weekly column, "Poet's Choice", for The Washington Post. Rita Dove is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she lives with her husband and daughter. 


  The titular poem was published after her Selected Poems came out. Is it any wonder that most older poets waited until they were, at least, sexagenarians before producing a Selected? I mean, it’s the kiss of death artistically. You should be past your prime before you ever release your Greatest Hits. Here’s the poem:


Lost Brilliance


I miss that corridor drenched in shadow,
sweat of centuries steeped into stone.
After the plunge, after my shrieks
diminished and his oars sighed
up to the smoking shore,
the bulwark's gray pallor soothed me.
Even the columns seemed kind, their murky sheen
like the lustrous skin of a roving eye.

I used to stand at the top of the stair
where the carpet flung down
its extravagant heart. Flames
teased the lake into glimmering licks.
I could pretend to be above the earth
rather than underground: a Venetian
palazzo or misty chalet tucked into
an Alp, that mixture of comfort
and gloom . . . nothing was simpler


to imagine. But it was more difficult
each evening to descend: all that marble
flayed with the red plush of privilege
I traveled on, slow nautilus
unwinding in terrified splendor
to where he knew to meet me--
my consort, my match,
though much older and sadder.


In time, I lost the capacity
for resolve. It was as if
I had been traveling all these years
without a body,
until his hands found me--
and then there was just
the two of us forever:
one who wounded,
and one who served.

  There really is not much to this poem. The title is a cliché. I underlined a few of the clichés, but let me examine some of the spots where RD could have undermined these clichés, but did not. Let’s go with the biggest cliché- that of the whole poetic theme of a Gothic lost love. Had RD made better use of the clichés the poem could have been a sly satire on such over-the-top efforts by poets from the Brontë sisters through the refuse of MFA workshop poetessasters. Then there is the opportunity afforded by the play of the 2 clichés of ‘lustrous skin’ & ‘roving eye’. But look where it’s placed: Even the columns seemed kind, their murky sheen/like the lustrous skin of a roving eye.’ The rumination of this lost thing is described in a Gone With The Wind-like fashion; only to have nothing come of it- no humor, no wink-wink. Immediately we go back to just flat, prose description- & not even well-written prose: ‘I used to stand at the top of the stair/where the carpet flung down/its extravagant heart’. The last stanza is especially noxious- I mean, is this not something you would see in a 13 year old puppy lover’s letter? Let’s dump the whole tired theme & drop the ‘lost’ from the title:


That mixture of comfort
was simpler to imagine. But it was more
difficult to descend. In time,
all these years found me-
and then there was just

  Instead of the cliché of the original, we have a mere term which can be taken in any # of ways. Is it visual luster? Is it intellectual chops? Is it reflected glory? With these ideas in mind we get the 1st line, which throws us a curve- how is brilliance related to comfort? By line 2 we are panned out- this is something imagined, not real. We then are told all this is more than what we’ve just gotten. In 2 lines of the rewrite we’ve already been given more potentialities than the whole of the original.
  By line 3 we find a difficulty in leaving- brilliance? So, by this point in the poem we’ve gotten hints that the title could be luster, intellect, or now- possibly- glory. Then we get what’s almost a non-sequitured turn of the narrative. There seems to be resignation- to brilliance? The reader does not know. By the last line we get an exhalation that  has no real ending- nether punctually, nor narratively. This makes the title all the more intriguing. Just what is it referring to? To the brilliance of leading the reader to that question? Perhaps that’s too much. The poem that was picked apart simply did not have that much to work with. But it had enough.
  The original was an odorless fart. The rewrite is- well- an odd hiccup- but at least it makes you wonder. Sometimes that’s enough- at least for beginning a poem that augurs better things. Sort of like someone we know’s career- eh?

Final Score: (1-100):

Rita Dove’s Lost Brilliance: 55
TOP’s Brilliance: 75

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