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Rita Dove's 'Playlist for the Apocalypse' is her plea for unity, collective well-being


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Judy Woodruff: Now a prominent poet confronts private pains and public strains, home and history.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: More than 20 years ago, the poet Rita Dove and her husband, Fred Viebahn, took up ballroom dancing. It was originally an escape, a bit of joy after a fire had damaged their Charlottesville, Virginia, home.

Soon, though, it gained new importance, after Dove was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997.

Rita Dove, "Playlist For the Apocalypse": I so basically had to regain my balance. I lost feeling in my fingers and my toes.

Luckily, my husband and I do ballroom dancing. And that helped me, because I learned a different way of feeling pressure on the floor. It's trite to say, when life hands you a lemon, you will make lemonade, but that's what I was doing, making a lot of lemonade.

Man: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Rita Dove.

Jeffrey Brown: Dove is one of the nation's best known poets, former poet laureate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, professor at the University of Virginia, editor of an anthology of American poetry.

But she kept her condition private until now in a new volume that explores both her personal health and our collective well-being. It's called "Playlist For the Apocalypse."

Rita Dove: It's an idea of how to live with a group of poems, have them accompany you through life.

So, when I was putting together this book, I thought, what are we all doing in this pandemic? We are trying to find ways to live through it. And so these poems were meant in a way as a kind of an accompaniment.

Jeffrey Brown: I get the idea of the playlist, but for the apocalypse. So you mean the pandemic? You mean our political situation? What do you mean?

Rita Dove: All of the above. But, also, I would say that the word apocalypse can mean the end of the days, but it also can mean a revelation or some -- a resurrection.

So there's a little bit of hope in there, too.

Jeffrey Brown: The pandemic helped slow her down, she says, to hear this playlist of the everyday and of the nation's history.

Rita Dove: "Surely, there must be something beautiful to smile upon, the umbered blue edge of sky as it fades into evening, the brusque green heave of the sea."

Jeffrey Brown: The poem "Beside the Golden Door" begins a section titled "A Standing Witness" of verses on key figures and moments from the last decades of American history, up to the present.

It ends this way:

Rita Dove: "Truth would say these are arrogant times. Believers slaughter their doubters, while the greedy oil their lips with excuses and the righteous turn merciless, the merciful mad."

The poem itself is a lament, in a way, but it's also a kind of plea. It's a plea for, come -- let's come together. I still believe that we listen more closely to a whisper than to a shout.

But in the middle of everything that's happened in the past five, six, seven years and the pandemic, and this kind of rage was bubbling up in me, at such a point, I decided I had -- it was unhealthy to hold it in. I'd better let it out.

Jeffrey Brown: Tell me how you think of history, as a poet, and what you can -- how you speak to it.

Rita Dove: I believe that poets, as I think all artists, you are really connected to the world and to life.

And, as a Black woman, from a very early age, I understood that there was a history and there was history. In fact, that mainstream history did not include me or did not look at me as I thought of myself.

Jeffrey Brown: Also there now, the effects of an illness that has prevented Dove from playing her viola da gamba and cello. She's a great lover of classical music.

It also forced her to relearn to write by hand. That's how she'd always written her poems. Now she uses a computer much of the time.

Rita Dove: "No reason for it: I just find myself on pause, paused for longer than is proper. If I were more seasoned, I'd ignore it."

Jeffrey Brown: In the poem "Blues, Straight," Dove addresses head-on some of the pains of daily life.

Rita Dove: "The cup of plenty runneth over, ruins my hands. I have scrubbed them, but they won't come clean. Strange, I know, to wish for nothing, a day to live through, a scream."

Jeffrey Brown: Dove says she's learned to manage her illness, and feels incredibly lucky. And her love of language and its music abides.

She writes in one poem of loving every minute spent jostling syllables and then each word caught right.

Rita Dove: I wish I could explain the mystery of that moment where everything sparks and starts to come together.

But what I love to do is to wrestle with the language, because language is what a writer has. It's our tool. It's our clay. And it sounds terrifically nerdy, but I will sit there and debate comma or dash? And -- but it has something to do with the music of the words too.

Jeffrey Brown: You have spent a life as a very public poet, really making a case for poetry out in the world.

I wonder what you're thinking about for the future. How important is it for you still to be out there in the public, talking to people about poetry, reading poetry for them?

Rita Dove: It's really important for me, because what we still don't have in this world, at least in this country particularly, is a sense of true communication.

When you sit down and read a poem, what you feel inside is all yours, and yet you can feel that everyone around you is also feeling it. What an incredible feeling., yes, I'm committed to it. I'm ready to come out again.

Jeffrey Brown: A feeling we all share.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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