IN BRITAIN, THE-POET LAUREATE, Like the Queen, has lifetime tenure but also some rather onerous duties—most notably the expectation that he or she will crank out forgettable couplets for every royal birth, marriage and death. In America, by contrast, the seven-year-old laureate job is relatively duty free, and the presidential appointees, who generally serve for one year, come and go with democratic vigor. Still, the very latest, Rita Dove, is quite different from her five predecessors. For one thing, she is an African-American, the first to occupy the post. And, at 40, she is by far the youngest.
“My appointment,” says Dove, who will replace Mona Van Duyn, 72, on Oct. 1, “sends a message that the laureate is in the true American tradition and there are many kinds of that tradition.” Breaking racial barriers is a tradition in her own family. Her father, Ray, became, she says, the first black research chemist hired by a major tire manufacturer. Growing up in Akron, says Dove, “I knew he had done something remarkable. He was a real role model.” She inherited something else from Ray and her home-maker mother, Elvira: a love of reading. “There were always books in the house,” she says. “I always felt that books were my companions.”
Eventually a love of literature overtook her parents’ hopes that she would be a doctor or a lawyer. At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, says Dove, “I decided that I would have a go at writing. That I would try to be the best writer I could.” Since then, sustained by university teaching jobs, she has produced one novel, a collection of short stories and four volumes of poetry, one of which, Thomas and Beulah—in which she evoked the lives of her grandparents—won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987.
A member of the University of Virginia faculty since 1989, Dove will commute to Washington from the home on four wooded acres outside Charlottesville, Va., that she shares with her husband, German novelist Fred Viebahn, and their 10-year-old daugher, Aviva. “I want to break down the ivory tower,” she says. “I want to reduce the anxiety that people have about poetry.”