Pulitzer Prize-Winner Rita Dove: Thoughts on the Great Books

March 10, 2023

Rita Dove with students, President Roosevelt, Dean Sterling, and Assistant Dean Maggie McGuinness before her Santa Fe lecture.

What did Pulitzer Prize-winner Rita Dove—the only author to speak at the College whose work was also selected for All College Seminar—have to say about the Great Books during her February lecture in Santa Fe? A lot actually—and here are a few selections from her recent reading at the college:

“I have been looking forward to this for many reasons. As I told some of you yesterday, my parents had invested in the great books of the Western world. So I grew up with these books, and I argued with these books, and I moved beyond those books too, into the 20th and the 21st century. So it feels like a second home to be coming here... And as I was growing up, I loved those great books, but I was also mad at them, angry at them. But my feeling is that, if you’re angry at something, you do not cut it off, and shutter yourself. Just build on it and go. And so my feeling is ‘Oh, I’m gonna do The Iliad.’ But my way, you know...

And then I write about it. You know, because I think that—I try not to categorize myself, I try not to think about myself, I’ll let other people do that. But I do recognize that I am absolutely committed to writing about what I call the underside of history, of all the forgotten voices, of all the things that we don’t know. And so, yes, I will get angry. And I think a lot of us get angry at things that have been omitted....

So many great books have been reviled in their time...

And I think that every great piece of literature contains something of poetry: be that a play, be that a novel, or a short story... To me, it’s just a matter of scale; it’s a matter of length and time; it’s the attention to the language; it’s the way that language can intimate something that you cannot say. That happens in Toni Morrison’s Sula, in Song of Solomon. It happens in August Wilson’s plays, because in plays, everybody talks all the time. So the silences are really important, right? And he does that so well. So I think that poetry is always there.

What makes a great book, I think, is the attention to the craft, so that you think it could not have been written any other way; and also it opens you up to possibility. Yes, it opens you up to possibility. And who knows what those books are gonna be. But I have a little list already, in my mind.“

Hear Dove—former US Poet Laureate and the only poet to receive both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts—read from her poetry collection Museum, which was the seminar selection for Santa Fe’s recent All College Seminar. All College Seminar is a Santa Fe tradition in which classes are suspended for the day so that students, staff, and faculty can convene in small seminar groups for reading and discussion of one selected work. Ms. Dove’s reading was part of the Annual Steiner Memorial Lecture Series.

You can watch the lecture HERE.