Poetry, Music and the Underside of History : An Evening with Rita Dove
‘When we are touched by something, it is as if we’re being brushed by angel’s wings.’ – Rita Dove
As a former U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner and all-round wonderful poet, Rita Dove is a powerhouse of creativity. Her work not only brings history to life, but does so with a kind of lyrical beauty that haunts the imagination. With words alone, she immerses us in a moment: perhaps a surge of emotion, a bittersweet memory, or even a passing thought. She makes the transient into the unforgettable, and resurrects the past with all the splendour of a phoenix rising from its ashes. It is no wonder then, that her visit attracted a hall full of avid admirers – myself included – all waiting to meet the woman behind the words.
Rita spoke largely of her latest work, Sonata Mulattica, a lyrical dramatisation of the friendship between Beethoven and the almost-forgotten musical protégé, George Bridgetower. The work foregrounds a figure who was – until now – thought of as little more than a historical footnote. Rita’s fascination with Bridgetower began with a Beethoven biopic, in which – among a crowd of other musicians trying to curry Beethoven’s favour – she caught her first fleeting glimpse of a man of apparently African heritage clutching a violin. The sighting lead her on what she described as ‘a five year odyssey,’ a project driven by a ‘desire to feel what it was like to live in his skin at this time in history.’
Bridgtower’s story began in Poland, 1780, where he was born to a white European woman and a self-styled ‘African Prince.’ As a talented virtuoso violinist, he caught the attention of Haydn, and was later brought to England to entertain the Prince of Wales. Bridgetower first met Beethoven in 1803, during a visit to Vienna. His talent soon won him the respect and admiration of the German composer, who then dedicated his Violin Sonata No.9 to the young musician, entitling it ‘Sonata Mulattica.’ However, the friendship soured soon afterwards; after allegedly making a ‘saucy remark’ about one of Beethoven’s female friends, Bridgetower’s dedication was retracted. The piece is now known as the ‘Kreutzer Sonanta,’ after violinist Rudolpho Kreutzer who, deterred by its difficulty, never performed it.
In her collection, Rita pieces together Bridgetower’s life and times, endeavouring to illuminate what she sees as ‘a shadow, nearly extinguished.’ Sonata Mulattica, she explained, is not a novel in verse, but rather ‘a succession of sung texts,’ eighty-four fragments of a fascinating story. She attributed her choice of form to her love of ‘the efficacy of poetry’ in a world consumed by information, a world forever greedy for fact. Poetry is the antithesis to such gluttony; it’s something that gives us an emotional experience, the form that comes closest to saying what cannot be said. Accordingly, Rita’s verse often seems to stop time, to freeze us in a feeling. Beethoven’s soliloquy, for example, lets us into the tragedy of his deafness; it demands that we feel the frustration of a man for whom music is growing fainter, a man whose compositions will soon be confined to his memory.
‘The Wardrobe Lesson’, offers a sharp change in tone, taking the form of a lively and comical monologue spoken in the voice of George’s father. Himself projecting an ‘African prince’ persona, he teaches his ten-year-old son to dress to impress, to enlarge their peers’ ‘romantic notions of exoticism’ with outlandish clothing. Here, George’s father is presented as a man who knows that others don’t see him for who he is, and has apparently accepted this. Therefore, he chooses to manipulate their preconceptions to his advantage – and does so with style.
A later poem, however shows the flipside of such a pretense, and articulates the disillusionment that comes with this feigned exterior. In this rather more sombre monologue, it becomes apparent that George’s father feels more like a representation of a continent, a curiosity, rather than a man. This disenchantment shifts to George himself towards the end of the collection, expressed through his own soliloquy. He finds emptiness in various aspects of existence, commenting, ‘love is cumbersome.’ Such a lament allows us to bear witness to the human condition, and to bear the burden of disappointment and prejudice which George seemed to have carried so heavily.
Rita touched on her earlier, more autobiographical work through a series of childhood anecdotes, demonstrating how experience helped shape her art. Growing up, she related, she saw the other side of the American dream: the dirt; the grittiness; the noise; the towering prejudices. And, as a young girl, Rita took it all in; she stated: ‘I absorbed my history with my oatmeal.’ Her readings of ‘Quaker Oats’ and ‘Silos’ – taken from Grace Notes, her fourth poetry collection – clearly showcased the effect of her early surroundings, and therefore might be considered two of her most naturalistic poems. Both reflect industrial America as she saw it, a landscape of towers which stood like ‘a fresh packet of chalk, dreading math work.’
Listening to her stories, it seemed that Rita’s love of words was always an inevitability. She fondly reminisced over her earliest experience of reading: repeatedly poring over a picture book about a family of mice who take a trip to the beach, a simple but idyllic tale which finished with, ‘it was the best day ever.’ She soon moved on to developing her own creations, aided, it seemed, by her chronic shyness. Rita explained how, as an introvert, she was used to being ignored. In fact, this even suited her; she made shyness into a gift by becoming a silent but diligent observer of detail, and then ‘spinning stories out of details to entertain oneself.’ As an avid reader, she added constantly to her creative armada; Rita related: ‘when I was curled up with a book, I was ferocious. I could be anyone, I could do anything.’ It seems to be a universal truth that, when given enough fuel, the imagination can make anyone feel invincible.
A seemingly precocious admirer of the literary greats, Rita told of how she found her love of Shakespeare at the age of just ten. As someone who clearly shared her love of language, he had her instantly captivated; each syllable became ‘a glistening bead,’ and every narrative an enticing thread that had to be followed. Since then, she has observed the precious nature of words; ‘poets use them sparingly,’ she mused, ‘the better to hear the silences…the unworded dance we tread on this Earth.’ For Rita, and for almost all lovers of the form, ‘poetry is life distilled’; it’s something captures the unnoticed, saying as much with its spaces as with its words.
Towards the end of the evening, the floor was opened to the questions of eager fans. When asked about her use of the voice in relation to something that is voiceless – that is, the way in which she sheds light on the flickering shadows of history through her art – Rita answered with a beautiful analogy. She revealed that, when writing Sonata Mulattica, she thought of George’s violin producing the melody, and herself – as a cellist – playing underneath this, commenting on the piece. Accordingly, she wrote with two voices, mixing two kinds of English: that is, how George would have spoken, and how we speak today. However, she explained how she also remained conscious of the silence in the poems, a silence that seemed to mirror the gaps in his past. History, she reflected, is ‘something that happens all around us…but we can’t always reach it.’
Rita Dove is a poet in love with the imagination, a poet whose passion – and wisdom – consistently permeates her work. As such, she is perhaps one of the only poets capable of making ‘a shadow shine’: that is, one of the few who can take people who’ve fallen through the cracks of history and revive them, holding them up as a mirror to humanity. After all, in the words of Rita, ‘even in a stranger, we can recognize ourselves.’ And, in her verse, we find a sense of truth and beauty impossible to replicate.