By Rachel Hess
A heavily decorated and esteemed poet, essayist, playwright, and ballroom dancer, Rita Dove (ΦBK, Miami University) has been announced as the 36th recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This lifetime achievement National Book Award is well-deserved, and Dove will be standing among the likes of Isabel Allende, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Toni Morrison, who are all past recipients of the honor. The National Book Award ceremony to recognize Dove and her literary excellence will be held on November 15 in New York City and will feature remarks from special guest Oprah Winfrey.
Dove is living proof that literature has the power to change lives by inspiring action, fostering connection, and encouraging discussion. Her notable publications include 11 books of poetry, among them Thomas and Beulah (1986), a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection inspired by her grandparents; Museum (1983); Grace Notes (1989); Mother Love (1995); On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999); American Smooth (2004); Sonata Mulattica (2009); and most recently published during the pandemic, Playlist for the Apocalypse (2021). Her works are diverse and expansive, capturing vivid emotions in a variety of settings. Dove’s technical skills and range dazzle, from her wit and boldness to her sensitivity and tact in her plays, musical compositions, novels, and poetry. Her works are deeply personal and political, from depicting the struggles of Black Americans and the nature of racism to symbolic and expressive comments on death, survival, motherhood, gender, and activism.
During her career Dove has received numerous awards and honors. From 1993 to 1995, she was the first African American to serve as Poet Laureate of the United States. She received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton in 1996 and the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2011. Dove’s list of accomplishments is extraordinary—she has been celebrated with a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, named a “Trailblazer” by the U.S. Department of State, served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, received the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work as well as the U.S. Presidential Scholars Award, and many more. Her works Ozone and A Standing Witness have been performed as musical and multi-disciplinary collaborations. She continues influencing generation after generation and championing storytelling in her roles as a professor of creative writing at the University of Virginia and as a member in and advisor to various literary and cultural programs, organizations, and panels. Aside from serving these organizations, Dove also wrote for The Washington Post and edited poetry for The New York Times Magazine.
Dove is a proud member of Phi Beta Kappa and served as a senator for the national organization from 1994-2000. In her life and her work, she has emphasized the importance of the love of learning that is central to Phi Beta Kappa’s philosophy and has celebrated the significance of poetry’s ability to creatively express and reflect. In an AP News article, she is quoted as saying, “people seem frightened of poetry, and somehow separate it from their lives, when, in fact, poetry is the essence of life,” as she explains that her journey as an artist is never ending and is a recursive process of growth attained from “still observing, questioning, exploring.”
Rita Dove graduated summa cum laude from Miami University in 1973 and received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa in 1977. As a Fulbright scholar, she studied German poetry at Universität Tübingen. Dove is married to German writer Fred Viebahn, and together they have one daughter, Aviva Dove-Viebahn, who is a professor at Arizona State University.
Rachel Hess is a recent graduate of Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, with a degree in political science and Spanish and four certificates in human rights; international studies; peace, religion, and conflict; and political entrepreneurship. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa there in April 2022. Arizona State University is home to the Beta of Arizona chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.