Date of Award

Winter 1999

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Charles Simic


This dissertation focuses on the first five books of poetry published by the American poet Rita Dove: The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Museum (1983), Thomas and Beulah (1986; awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1987), Grace Notes (1989), and Mother Love (1995). It situates her work within the whole field of American poetic discourse. Dove's relationship to myriad strands of American ars poetica traditions arises out of patterns of amplification and negotiation worked out in Dove's poetry in relation to a wide range of such traditions. Thus, the study's methodology proceeds from the poet T. S. Eliot's dictum that poets' writing on poetry---their ars poetica statement in prose---have "a special and permanent value for readers" of poetry. The primary sources of the study, beyond Dove's work itself and her interviews and prose writings on poetry, are the poetry and ars poetica prose writings of other American poets (past and present) as well as other poets, such as Eliot, and the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. Because Dove is black and female, much has been made of her position within African American and American women's poetic traditions. Attention is paid to this phenomenon, and to the scholarship done in those fields, as well as in American poetry generally. More attention is paid the formal poetic practices enacted in the poems of this poet who proclaims, "Language is everything," and says that it is the "bliss of unfolding" in and through language that engages her most as poet. This study also explores how Dove's following the bliss of unfolding enacts exploration of three central themes present throughout all of her books---history, autobiography, and myth. The inextricable enmeshment of questions of poetry's proper functions and imperatives socially and culturally, and of its aesthetic and formal properties, in Dove's poetry, is a time-honored, solidly American ars poetica, first expressed in the early American poets Bradstreet and Whitman. The conclusion of the dissertation is that Rita Dove---who herself proclaims time and again her resistance to categorization as other than poet in her relationship to her work---is a quintessential American poet.