Introducing Rita Dove’s Lyric Life Writing

In considerations of biography and the telling of lives, the history of helplessness and risk represented by the chorus is often overshadowed, especially in more modern contexts of literary criticism by considerations of its dramatic counterparts, the heroic parts, those of will, decision-making, and action. The poet Rita Dove, however, aims with new forms of lyric poetry to redirect our focus and favour historically more ambiguous and anti-heroic perspectives of biography and life writing.

The chorus is often considered the voice of inaction, even disregard: it is a ‘perspective’ offered finally of a group that plays it safe. Traditionally resistant to both risk and change, the chorus thus generically does not make a name for itself, as it coaxes and perpetuates self-protection. The contemporary lyric poems of Dove update the complex work of perspective often associated with the dramatic chorus and its historic role of anonymity and marginality through new work in life writing and biography. Epitomized by but not exclusive to the breakthrough in Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove’s lyrics offer a fundamental reconsideration of form and history through the very elements of our common helplessness, anonymity, and interdependency.

Keywords: lyric—biography—chorus—life writing


This essay will focus especially on the poetics of Rita Dove, as she updates the dramatic chorus and along with it the work of biography. The figure of the chorus has a longstanding literary representation of communal song, voice, and marginalisation. Compared with later developments of prose, we know, the mode of chorus does normally not favour the rise and negotiations of the individual or heroic voice. Indeed, in the history of prosody in English, strict ties to the single voice or the single fortunes of a life or life story are formally resisted. How can such longstanding practices lend themselves so crucially to new forms of biography, and in particular to the historical telling of a subject’s individual life in lyric, a form historically associated with autobiography, if tied with life writing at all? In this brief introduction, the complex perspective associated with the dramatic chorus, along with its historic role of helplessness, fear and marginality, appears anew through an emerging lens of lyric and biography in Rita Dove’s work.

Biography traditionally concerns the arc of someone’s life: ‘to see the world as a single person saw it’, as Eric Homeberger and John Charmley put it (1988: xi), or, as Barbara W Tuchman says, to follow the ‘fortunes of the individual’ (1985: 134). As in the novel, biography seems to be tied specifically to character. The lifeline for the telling is recording events as they happened. Homeberger and Charmley say it succinctly: ‘Biographers share with novelists (and autobiographers) a love affair with narrative’ (1988: xiii). The genre has been that way, it is believed, since its emergence in the late seventeenth century.1 For the most part, to state a common truism, the exemplary character’s actions and achievements have organized the core of biography. They are, write Kevin Sharpe and Steven N Zwicker, ‘at the heart of early modern lives and early modern life writing’ (2008: 4). The exemplary character can represent, for instance, the individual as a ‘prism of history’ (Tuchman 1985: 134) or, instead, the ‘singular story’ that can ‘touch a major chord’ (Wolff 1985: 72).

From this prism, the focus is on the individual, personality, and even on the pulse of the collaborator. The biographer and the subject bring each other to life, as Marc Pachter explains: ‘What sustains him [the biographer] is the near-missionary drive to save, if not a soul, then a personality for the company of future generations’ (1985: 4, emphasis added). To understand this construction of an individual’s life, biographers often find narrative models of detection conducive: clues, selected evidence, revelations of pattern, or transgressions of privacy. The modern biographer, for example, offers the ‘intuitive ability to create out of clues he uncovers a convincing vision of a life’, as Pachter says and ‘wrestles now with its [a life’s] private meaning’ (1985: 14-15); or, for Tuchman, discovers the ‘universal in the particular’ (1985: 134); or, according to Wolff, ‘brings news’ (1985: 60)—where ‘news is the kinsman of novel’.

 In this sketch of biography’s longstanding link to narrative, we see that character and the exemplary remain rooted in narrative. Still, there has slowly been a turn around, or new directions of biography explored. In a definitive volume on The Troubled Face of Biography, Robert Skidelsky explains a historically updated blueprint for biography on the move: ‘As biographers we are once more in the business of writing exemplary lives. But now the example is the life itself, not what the life enabled the person to achieve. Or, more precisely, the life is the achievement’ (1988: 13, italics added). In Skidelsky’s projection, ‘we have entered new biographical territory, still largely unexplored’.

Rita Dove’s work of lyric biography, including the Pulitzer prize winning collection Thomas and Beulah (1986), focuses on the life itself, notably the historically sidelined life, and namely in this collection the lives of her grandparents. Dove’s lyric work of biography lies tentatively and powerfully inside this largely unexplored territory. Other forms of life writing in modern lyric have undergone more testing. For instance, under the widening umbrella of autobiography in life writing, the modern lyric has found more footing: whether through the historical legacy of the monologic, for example (broadened and historicized in Derek Walcott’s Another Life); through ‘confessional’ poetry gaining speed in midcentury; or through contemporary collections that historicise and make particular the inherited anonymous lyric ‘I’ through living and social context (as in Sharon Olds’ The Father, for example).

The modern lyric is not, of course, commonplace for biography. Compared with the later generic development of narrative, the mode of lyric does not find its roots in telling the fortunes of the personality or the individual. Indeed, in the history of the prosody going back to Old English, strict ties to the individual voice or fortunes are formally resisted. Seth Lerer describes lyrics as ‘depersonalized forms that seek not the recovery of individuated voices but the verities of social statement and the ventriloquizings of the bardic’ (1997: 130). Even early Middle English irruptions of ‘I’, he argues, still present ‘communities and cultures shored up against alien invasion or encroaching wilderness’, along with social interests in displacement, preservation, and control of the vernacular (1997: 147-49). And with the revival of classical drama in Europe and England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the association of the lyric with the communal song ripened. The union of music and poetry was an artistic ideal that dominated that period. The ‘mutual attachment is traceable, in a large degree in the field of drama, to a curiosity about the music of the Greeks and the performances of Greek drama’ (Lenson 1975: 8) and in particular to the chorus: ‘for the use of music and the use of chorus were very closely related’ (Finney 1943: 653).

Different from narrative, then, the lyric has the traditional song and chorus (its models include Senecan and Greek)2 and all the complexities of witness, dancer, and singer as longstanding bedfellows. Here, in a useful thumbnail sketch, David Lenson explains these modal histories of the individual and choral in terms of what he calls ‘Achilles’ choice’: ‘Should one live briefly as a completely defined individual?’ he asks of the heroic model of the individual. ‘Or should one only endure in the timeless anonymity’ of choric impulse, ‘in which life, love, and death are passed as burdens from generation to generation?’ (Lenson 1975: 8). Now, in widening contemporary possibilities of biography, we hear an increasing distrust in life writing rooted ‘in the heroic sense’ to individual action and accomplishment (Homeberger & Charmley 1988: xi). The modern lyric’s rich possibilities, tied to the history of the chorus rather than to the hero and individual, have for biographical telling remained unexplored.

With a communal history rooted in the chorus, the lyric therefore offers especially interesting new openings for mapping this call in life writing of the ‘ordinary’ life: as Sharpe and Zwicker note, ‘On canvas as in the novel, even the life of greatness has begun to be written as the ordinary life’ (2008: 22-23). In this vein, they argue, biographical studies increasingly try to include lives as ‘fragmentary and episodic as well as ... exemplar[y]’ (Sharpe & Zwicker 2008: 25), impelling further questions on the ‘master’ narrative of a life. Here too, the lyric is rooted in new ‘historically minded understanding of the fragments [of lyric] as fragments’ (Lerer 1997: 151); and the traditional chorus can paradoxically offer new ways to ‘tell’ or construct a life: for example, life-telling organised by alienation and the accidental as much as the developmental; a life whereby an individual speaks beyond individuality; life writing rooted in the marginal and fragmentary as much as in the teleological. Even early narrative biography is itself already distinguished from one of its counterparts, narrative fiction: Stella Tillyard, for instance, identifies as specific to the genre of biography the ‘fable’ of individual success, including especially the landscape of ‘consolation’ for the trials of modernity (2008: 34). A new form of life writing may thus find both new and sound footing in the historical and lyric emphasis on consolation, grief, a ‘sense of loss’ (Lerer 1997: 139) and endurance.3 Moreover, the history of biography considered in terms of a fable, as consolation for what is lost as well as for what is gained, once more points to biography’s balance of fact and fiction, history and narrative, outward and inward experience. It may only be a matter of time, note Homeberger and Charmley, ‘before biography, loosened from its roots in fact and document and ‘truth’ ... makes its appearance’. They ask, ‘Will such books be biographical in the traditional sense?’ (1988: xv).

We hear the ambiguous yes and no in response: the poet Rita Dove addresses these emerging questions especially in Thomas and Beulah. Asked about biography organised through lyric during an interview, she says that she ‘broke through’ form, seeing history anew through the lens of lyric: she ‘didn’t have to be absolutely faithful according to biographical truth’ (Cavalieri and Dove: 2003: 139). In lyric biography, she could in particular approach history through another angle: she could ‘go after an inner truth’. Dove’s mother, concurring, said of Dove’s biographical depictions of her own parents: ‘that’s what it was like’ (Cavalieri and Dove 2003: 139). Therefore, though what I will call for now lyric biography is a subject for a much longer work, it is possible to elaborate on some important crosscurrents of form in Rita Dove’s lyric biography.4

Thomas and Beulah (1986), as Dove herself suggests, is a literary double biography of her grandparents, while another book of her poems, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), also takes important new directions in life telling through lyric. Both books concern, through the lyric lens of the chorus, a focus on history and the ‘ordinary’ citizen, and especially on life as achievement. Further, rather than the pervading arc of narrative life writing, in which ‘nearly all biographies still start with ancestors, move on to birth and through birth to leading events, and so on to death, in much the same way as of old, and about as funereal a pace’ (Skidelsky 1988: 8), this lyric life writing offers a multitudinous voice, a historical expansion of the lyric and choral voice, which sees a thing simultaneously from plural sides. Finally, in her lyric life writing there is a new situating and updating of choral risk. As we will see shortly, Dove’s lyric subjects, who occupy history from the perspective of accident and endurance, refashion important boundaries of social and political responsibility.

Thus, while concurrent in spirit with the increasingly modern focus in life writing on life-as-achievement, Rita Dove’s telling of lives through lyric draws in practice not from heroic models and a base of individual fortune and character, but from the traditional chorus.5 Inasmuch as short attention is often given to the chorus, compared to its heroic counterparts in literature, it would be useful here, briefly, to review its characteristics. The traditional chorus, and its classic detachment from (the hero’s) action, is nonetheless inextricably tied to the towering hero, whom David Lenson calls the ‘completely defined individual’ in a world pantheon (Lenson 1975: 8). In Euripides’s Hippolytus, for example, the chorus promises the protagonist’s success from such eager words of recognition, ‘Lo, it is he! The bright young head / Yet upright there!’ to an underscoring of the eponymous hero’s individual immortality, ‘A mighty name and a bitter cry / Rise up from a nation calling’ (Euripides 1909: 361, 367 respectively). Yet Lenson’s precise, interdependent portrait of the hero and chorus is different. Its main characters are aware equally of the impulse in a single individual toward both action and inaction, risk and safety—the choice between acquiring a famous name and taking on the ‘choric impulse’ of endurance and anonymity. Felix Budelmann expands on this idea of chorus:

The model [of communal response] is particularly pronounced in tragedy, where the named characters are set against choruses formed by anonymous choreutai. These anonymous choruses are present during most of the action of the plays, watching, and to a degree interacting with, the individual characters. With few exceptions they speak and sing with one voice. (2000: 195)

At the same time, the life of the traditional chorus is itself difficult to pin down because of its multiple voices and stances, according to Albert Weiner, not only as a ‘failure ... to be dramatic’, but frequently downright ‘insipid’ and ‘anti-dramatic’ as well (1980: 208).6 Thus, while clearly resisting selection of her subjects by heroic or dramatic action, for example, an Oedipus or Antigone or Phaedre, Rita Dove, like many of the modern biographers, develops this anti-dramatic aspect—or what Weiner calls ‘practical element’ (1980: 209)—here of the chorus. Even Rosa Parks’ heroic protest in On the Bus with Rosa Parks is rendered typically choral by Dove in what Weiner calls the chorus’ ‘lyric interruption’, in which the focus of a choral member (Rosa Parks, for example, among her peers) is on how one performs rather than that one performs (1980: 211). Achievement—if at all possible—is practical, chancy, and transitory: ‘I tried to end up / anyplace but here’, says Rosa Parks. ‘Who am I kidding? Here I am’ (1999: 88).7 The ‘ordinary life’, drawing from choral uncertainties rather than heroic decisions, is turned politically active in Dove’s historical and lyric life writing, and transformed into a subject with urgent new risks.

To capture those risks fully in Dove’s biographical lyric voicing is far from easy. Her subjects of lyric biography consistently and paradoxically exploit what Sharon Cameron calls the nameless lyric’s ‘departure ... from the finite constrictions of identity’ (1979: 208) or more simply the lyric ‘voice living beyond itself’ (1979: 209)—kin to Lenson’s notion of choral and collective endurance. This new lyric and historical voice also occupies that choral state of anonymity and coexistence combined with others’ voices. For example (Dove 1999: 69-70), Rosa Parks:

having assumed the thick skin of this town
its gritted exhaust its sunscorch and blear
she rests in her weathered plumage
bigboned resolute

don’t think you can ever forget her
don’t even try
she’s not going to budge

... for she is one of the many
and she is each of us.

In this simultaneity, Rosa Parks both occupies (‘she’s not going to budge’) and is occupied (‘having assumed the thick skin of this town’); this points to formal and lyric histories of possession8 as well as to the difficulty of getting a bead on Dove’s voice of lyric biography. Though it may appear somewhat roundabout, a recent discussion may help to illuminate what I see as this emerging voice in Dove’s lyric biographies. In a recent talk on Barack Obama and his multilingual heritage, Zadie Smith attempts to define the ‘certain type’ of what she calls ‘wonderful voice’. She links it to Thomas Macaulay’s ‘philosophic historian’: a flexible voice speaking in tongues that, if marked by genius, ‘relinquishes ownership of itself’ (2008: 44).

This voice, Smith argues, originates as plural, a voice of multiple voices. Preferring ‘we’, it refuses the ‘too straight and singular’ straitjacket of the letter ‘I’. It offers an invocation to ‘our collective human messiness’ (2008: 42). At risk of being attacked for imprecision, including the absence of a ‘clear and unified voice’ (Obama, for example, has been quizzed in questions such as ‘Who is he?’ 2008: 42), this voice sacrifices ideological heroism for the purpose of occupying what Zadie Smith calls the ‘dream’. This dream is a way of inhabiting simultaneously, and she draws this from Obama’s own words: ‘Even as that spell was broken, and the worlds that they [my parents] thought they’d left behind reclaimed each of them, I occupied the place where their dreams had been’ (Obama, cited Smith 2008: 42).

Smith suggests that the flexibility of this occupying voice may prove to be Obama’s legacy. What I also hear in her words, however, is a development of the lyric subject as in Dove’s work. Considering that lyric has been considered, for example, at different intersections the voice of the overheard, nameless, or even nonexistent self,9 her lyric biography situates itself as part of this ‘wonderful voice’ that is still under construction. Smith’s story of the occupying ‘I’ is itself, of course, situated a long history in drama, poetics, and again the chorus. The traditional chorus, as we have seen, is often associated with inaction, or reaction, witnessing, anonymity, self-protection and safety: a sense or ‘perspective’ offered to the spectators finally of ‘a group that is safe’ (Budelmann 2000: 272). Stanley Fish explains, for example, about Milton’s work: ‘What the chorus most wants in Samson Agonistes is that things once more be as they were’ (1989: 556), while also acknowledging that chorus members ‘cannot indefinitely avert their gaze from the disturbing features of the present landscape’ (1989: 559). Dove’s work fuses such choral features and voices in the formal paradox of an effective anonymity, presenting a subject that is both occupied and occupying, irresponsible and responsible, and inadvertently taken up by history before being put back on the enduring indistinct landscape. For example, in a poem entitled simply ‘Rosa’, Rosa Parks makes a name for herself in history in spite of herself: ‘How she sat there, the time right inside a place / so wrong it was ready’ (Dove 1999: 83). And choral non-achievement, interruption, and the ultimately practical inhabit the formidable and revisionary history of life writing, under the pressure of lyric and choral history: ‘Doing nothing was the doing’ (1999: 83). Dove’s choral position for telling Rosa Parks’ life makes every moment a defining moment of the ‘I’ as ‘you’: ‘but where you sit is where you’ll be / when the fire hits’ (1999: 77, emphasis added).

But there is more. Here, instead of a focus on, for instance, the unnamed endurance of choral voices, passive and finally bypassed by life—‘And here at home we tarry, fain / Our feeble footsteps to sustain, / Each on his staff—so strength doth wane, / And turns to childishness again’ (Aeschylus 1909: 10)—Dove presents a presumed plurality of voices simultaneously inhabiting one another, foregoing claims of ownership but not interdependent responsibility for one another:

Sometimes I wait until
it’s dark enough for my body to disappear;

then I know it’s time to start out for work ...
I help those who can’t help themselves
I do what needs to be done ...
and I sleep
whenever sleep comes down to me’ (1999: 79-80)

This voices Claudette Colvin, a woman who, less than a year before Rosa Parks became known for her act of refusal, refused to give up her seat (and historical voice) on the bus. This revisited anonymity through lyric neither asks nor denies to participate in the politics of race and history. It neither claims voice, nor refuses it. This voice does makes much of occupying, marking it with a responsible irruption of self at the continuing intersections. Obama, comparably, describes such a potent pause of occupying: ‘Even as that spell was broken and the worlds that they thought they’d left behind reclaimed each of them, I occupied the place where their dreams had been’ (cited Smith 2008: 42). Smith clarifies: ‘To occupy a dream ... is surely quite different from simply inheriting a dream. It’s more interesting’ (2008: 42).

Dove’s ‘The Fish in the Stone’ (1993: 69) encapsulates many patterns of her complex lyric biographies, and it would be useful to look at it:


             The fish in the stone
                        would like to fall
                        back into the sea.

                        He is weary
             of analysis, the small [5]
                        predictable truths.
                        He is weary of waiting
                        in the open,
                        his profile stamped
                        by a white light. [10]

                        In the ocean the silence
                        moves and moves
                        and so much is unnecessary!

                        Patient, he drifts
                        until the moment comes [15]
                        to cast his
                        skeletal blossom.

                        The fish in the stone
                        knows to fail is
                        to do the living [20]
                        a favor.

                        He knows why the ant
                        engineers a gangster’s
                        funeral, garish
                        and perfectly amber.   [25]
                        He knows why the scientist
                        in secret delight
                        strokes the fern’s
                        voluptuous braille.

The title of this poem, ‘The Fish in the Stone’, points to a usual hierarchy of heroic stasis: fixed and completed, the fish is fossilized in the stone. The preposition ‘in’ at first directly suggests the heroic frame for the fish; it is cast, forever uniquely defined. But the poem itself presents something else: occupying the stone, the fish has already been preoccupied by it. That is, the fish anticipates the scientist’s heroic perspective—‘He knows why the scientist / in secret delight / strokes the fern’s / voluptuous braille’ (lines 26-29). The fish’s anticipation, moreover, specifically suggests the scientist’s objection, that is, a return of the fish at sea, and his own demise: to be examined and classified and killed under the scientist’s ‘white light’ (line 10) for the ‘predictable truths’ (line 6).

But the lyric ‘biography’ of this fish instead emphasises the importance associated with the preposition ‘in’: that is, the fish in the stone is already of the stone, ready to resist heroic definition, the ‘white light’ of ‘analysis’ (line 5). The poem shifts attention from the early word ‘in’ to the word ‘drifts’ (line 14): the fish’s drifting and occupying of the sea, along with its preoccupation of it, before he is turned into a ‘skeletal blossom’ (line 17), encased in the very name of preservation. Resisting assumptions of heroic possession and focusing on what imminently will happen to it, the fish chorally listens to what is not usually heard: ‘the silence’ (line 11) in the ocean. Taken up, it prefers to stay as he was, fall back to his home-sea, and let go again: ‘In the ocean the silence / moves and moves / and so much is unnecessary’ (lines 11-13); it will be taken by the moment, as a ‘favor’ (line 21) to the living and to history.

Such occupying is at the center of Dove’s lyric biography. Just in having one’s skin presumes literal preoccupation: that is, being in two places at once. In his own skin, the fish, beginning with conception, is therefore already in another’s. The fetus, for Dove, literally begins with no trace, no will, ‘helplessly growing’ in another’s skin (see Grace Notes 1989: 37-38). The plurality is dramatised in the fish’s occupying voice, both its own and more than just its own (it is that of silence too; the silence is not silent to the fish). In Dove’s poem, the subject’s effective anonymity leaves little trace of its self except for a passing favour in the white light of history, traceable, yes, but narrowed (at too great a cost and not necessarily effective expense) to the profile of the ‘I’. Again, the subject of lyric biography takes shape from the historical and choral ‘we’ already presumed to occupy, not just (to use Smith’s word) bequeath, an ‘I’.

There are many other connections between the poem and the lyric biographies, such as the fish’s letting go. Like Rosa Parks, the fish ‘drifts / until the moment comes’ (lines 14-15). Her books begin with an immediate recognition of the helplessness and intertwined lives of her subjects. In Thomas and Beulah, Dove’s grandfather Thomas and his friend Lem begin the journey north together under historic conditions of the Great Migration: ‘Ever since they’d left the Tennessee ridge / with nothing to boast of / but good looks and a mandolin, // the two Negroes leaning / on the rail of a riverboat / were inseparable’ (1986: 11). In this double biography of her grandparents, Thomas’s life constitutes the first half of the book, and Beulah’s the second. A birth-to-death chronology for both relatives is included at the back of the book. There seems to be a comparable forward moving sketch of events by leaps and bounds throughout the poems: marriage, children, death; but more pointed are the pauses of physical occupying: memory (‘ ... What / was his name, that / silly boy at the fair with / the rifle booth? And his kiss and / the clear bowl with one bright / fish, rippling wound!” [1986: 52]); and smell (‘The girls fragrant in their beds’ [1986: 28]); and—what seems to be eternal—‘waiting for something to happen’ or even for what can no longer happen (‘And now he can’t even touch her [Beulah’s] feet’ [1986: 74]). So the beginning of the book, the very first poem, Thomas’s own beginning, contextualised inside a nation’s racial prejudice, is neither planned, nor singular. Thomas’ ‘life’ or biography opens clearly by a breach not of will, but of intersection, an occasion of accident severing two co-occupying lives. It begins with a turn of the Wheel of Fortune, rotating through national churnings of race, with Thomas awakening as a witness to his friend’s accidental drowning: ‘At his feet / a stinking circle of rags, / the half-shell mandolin. / Where the wheel turned the water / gently shirred’ (1986: 11-12). The name of the first poem, ‘The Event’, refers not as much to Lem’s death, but Thomas’s irruption to responsibility for his continuously interdependent, occupying life with his friend, his enemies of race, and his inextricable kinship with others. Forged by accident, as is ever the case, his lyric biography is witnessing, grief, music, consolation, and interdependence: ‘He lay on his bunk, mandolin / In his arms. Two strings / For each note ...’ (1986: 13). Thomas’s wife to come, Beulah, is also like the chorus which, Fish explains, wants ‘things once more as they were’ (Fish 1989: 556); she will ‘open her eyes / and think of the place that was hers / for an hour—where she was nothing, pure nothing, in the middle of the day’ (1986: 61). That choral strain of ‘nothingness’ is revisited by a now stronger emphasis on the chorus’s interdependent drift; we hear it in Rosa Parks’ or Beulah’s own risks and imminent, if passing, responsibilities of having a skin in the first place (rather than determined sacrifice of one): ‘like sailing in air, / things happened / to her’ (1986: 48-49; emphasis original). As Dove writes, extrapolating from readings of Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘The world is inside us while we are in the world’ (and vice versa: ‘We are in the world because the world is inside us’ [Dove 1995: 53]).

Like the fish, Thomas and Beulah in Dove’s lyric life telling forego any exemplary status even in the heroic dreams of ‘I’. Just as the fish has skins as well as a skin, Dove’s biographical subjects in her lyric emphasis take up the focus of having already been born into and with another body and so her subjects are always occupying, plural as well as singular. Additionally, like the fish, who fights being ‘stamped by a bright light’ (lines 9-10), the subjects selected by Dove, occupying each other’s predicaments and occupied by the history passing through them, must resist abuse and oppression (‘Why do you push us around?’ [Dove 1999: 81]) but also not resist responsibility when it comes, though they are weary from oppression, or from the act of choral watching and waiting.

Thus, what Dove recognises as the reimaginings of narrative biography in lyric life writing depend upon the renewal of lyric and choral elements of occupying, which includes what Fish calls, for instance, the ability to look and not to look at the same time (1989: 559); this enables rotating positions of listening and reaction, grief and consolation. Dove’s transformations in lyric biography lie in responses to these elements, along with a resistance to following acts of willfulness, linear development, or any dream of a unified ‘I’. Thus, rather than engaging the lineage of a biographical subject who dreams of self or personal triumph, she writes of the choral listener who hears, and listens to, and by being alive cannot but displace, replace, and occupy multiple voices simultaneously, at best empathetically and responsibly—this voice takes centre stage. As Dove writes, ‘what matters ... is simply our being in the world’ (1995: 67), a fragile and lyric strong point of reference for beginning choral biography.

Dove’s approach to telling lives, as I noted, involves being ‘in two places at once and yet, curiously, not there at all’ (1995: 24). Although being ‘not there at all’ has longstanding resonance with displacement in poetry, the possessed and Socratic voice (in which one is ‘beside one’s self’, as Susan Stewart explains [1995: 35]), or the dramatic chorus’s long associations with fear and deliverance (‘Fainting for fear, I quiver in suspense ... O ye Three, / Shine on us, and deliver us from ill!’ Oedipus the King, (Sophocles 1909: 214), Dove especially revisits the risks of the ordinary, burdened, and socially-designated ‘helpless’ individual, relegated to the margin by economics or race, interlocked with narrative history’s claim to progress. Conventionally, risk of transgression or action can be refused by the chorus (‘Yea, come, ye Gods, for sorrows numberless / Press on my soul; / And all the host is smitten, and our thoughts / Lack weapons to resist’ (Sophocles 1909: 241), but accepted by the hero who, in full swing of action, can say to the chorus, ‘Words fright not him who, doing, knows no fear’ (218). Dove’s figuration resituates this choral risk. Present in the chorus before risk can even be chosen, it precedes action. In Dove’s book Museum (1983), the choral dedication elliptically is ‘for nobody who made us possible’. For Rosa Parks, silence or inaction is no longer entirely an option (Dove 1999: 81-82):

And she’s got to know
when the moment’s right.
... Then all she’s got to do is
sit there, quiet, till
the next moment finds her—and only then
can she open her mouth to ask
Why do you push us around?
... She must sit there, and not smile
as they enter to carry her off

In other words, she cannot not risk. There is no immediate focus on self-preservation, but there is one on anticipated listening. Rosa Parks challenges risk, not that of the earlier heroic ‘I’ and partiality, nor of choral anonymity, but the risk of disappearance or, worse, abuse.

Because Dove’s subjects are in and out (both) of their skins always, always occupying another’s skin, there is the risk of disappearance: ‘I go to meet it, stepping / out of my body / word for word, until I am // everything at once: the perfume of the world in which / I go under, a skindiver / remembering air’ (1989: 32, emphasis added). Dove’s approach to lyric biography, thus, importantly refuses earlier lyric and choral conceits of self-protection, captured here in the restraint (sometimes a choral refrain) by the anonymous men, for example, who upon being called by their master Sir Patrick Spens, ‘Mak hast, mak haste, my mirry men all, / Our guid schip sails the morne:’ reply: ‘O say na sae, my master deir, / For I feir a deadlie storme. / ‘Late late yestreen I saw the new moone, / Wi the auld moone in hir arme, / And I feir, I feir, my deir master, /That we will cum to harme’ (Childe 1992: 58). Entering through what she calls the ‘back door’ (Dove 1995: 27-28), Dove’s biographical approach through lyric reconfigures the occupying voice potentially dangerous to oneself and others: ‘It’s not like it’s the end of the world—just the world as you think / you know it’ (Dove 1999: 31). From the listener’s position, the risks are of having a skin (social, racial, gendered) rather than having its potential sacrifice. Dove’s new risk, therefore, suggests helplessness as a form of preoccupation that does not abuse, epitomised in her poem ‘The Wake’ from Grace Notes: ‘When I lay down between the sheets / I lay down in the cool waters / of my own womb / and became the child / inside, innocuous / as a button, helplessly growing’ (1989: 33).

Organised by quiet expectancy, this voice suggests that for helplessness there is a crucial distinction between self-protection and self-preservation, between anonymity and responsibility: ‘like the history she [Rosa Parks] made for us sitting there, / waiting for the moment to take her’ (87; emphasis added). Thomas and Beulah and Rosa Parks, each in a different way, reinvents the premise of anonymity. Initially helpless, Dove’s subjects, protecting themselves, take on the responsibilities of being others who are equally helpless. Away from the responsibilities of family and friends, Beulah, for example, barely resists the selfish heroic temptation of ‘pure nothingness / in the middle of the day’ (Dove 1986: 61). Protecting herself from exploitation in this lyric rendering of history, she yields, finally, to her occupying voice, and ultimately to Ohio’s and history’s; in acts of protest and humility, her self is already occupying and being occupied.

Dove’s biographical subject, therefore, extends and creates new and important boundaries of social and political responsibilities. In the tradition of lyric visionaries such as Henry Vaughan, William Blake, WB Yeats and Robert Penn Warren, Dove develops a biographical third-person subject from the lyric ‘I’ built on the anticipated ‘you’, constituting a new choral ‘we’. Her vivid depictions extend the nature of a voice to occupying multitudinousness as a choice inhabited even before it is encountered, firm affirmations of co-occupying that deny aggression or responsibility as unilateral or single minded. Dove’s lyric life writing marks a theoretical and fragile seesaw of reciprocity between selflessness and survival. Her subjects resist lyric and choral displacements, but also hold an aversion to a risk that presumes there is ever anything else. In books so quiet and ambiguous as biographies that they can be overlooked in the growing history of life writing (but should not be), Dove tells of lives with a bold new choral voice.


End notes

  • 1. Stella Tillyard explains, ‘English biography then has been a genre centrally concerned with origin and character since its emergence in the late seventeenth century’ (Tillyard 2008: 32).
  • 2. This study primarily focuses on the traditional chorus, though a longer work would include, for instance, the migration of the chorus across time and genre in relation to telling lives in the lyric; it would also encompass additional models of the choral, from the dithyramb to oratorio, the pastoral, or melodrama. See, for example, Armand D’Angour (1997), Jane Melbourne (1993).
  • 3. One of the most enduring examples is the grieved ‘Pearl’ poet who experiences a loss for words: ‘the point is not that the speaker fails, though the speaker does, but that any tongue fails’ (Watts 1894: 27). See also Anne Howland Schotter (1984). 4. There are of course other links to the history and practice of poetic biography; to name just two, see the epic mix of legend and hero in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’; or a modern and influential work on Dove’s own writing, Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1977).
  • 4. There are of course other links to the history and practice of poetic biography; to name just two, see the epic mix of legend and hero in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’; or a modern and influential work on Dove’s own writing, Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1977).
  • 5. The question by Homeberger and Charmley, ‘Will such books [loosened from roots in document] be biographical in the traditional sense?’ (xv) is a central question for exploring Dove’s work in biography. Arguing for licence to go after the inner truth of her grandparents’ lives, Dove goes so far as to change her grandmother’s name from Georgianna to the more Biblical Beulah: ‘it’s a long name, and a very difficult name to fit on a line’ (Cavalieri and Dove 1995: 139). Yet the ‘traditional’ sense has already been challenged for risks of the ‘truth’ or ‘master’ narrative of the single achiever at the cost of fragmentary or non-teleological approaches to biography. We thereby bring back to light, paradoxically, the possibilities of an even more ‘traditional’ look at lives through the choral and lyric lens of performance, interruption, fragmentation, and simultaneity—and even consolation (a major intersection for lyric and choral) where, Tillyard argues, biography in England may itself break formally from other forms of narrative as a ‘distinct and recognizable gesture’ (2008: 33). The study of life writing in poems is just beginning.
  • 6. The major shift in argument for Weiner, therefore, occurs in understanding the function of chorus in terms of the ‘theory of production’ rather than a ‘theory of tragedy’ (1980: 210). Weiner includes telling examples of his argument for ‘anti-dramatic behavior’, including, for example, an analysis of ‘the heated quarrel between Creon and his son Haemn in the Antigone’ in which the chorus offers ‘insipid remarks’, and does so at the cost of ‘interruption in the action’ (1980: 208).
  • 7. The imaginative or truthtelling gesture of Rosa’s thought again falls formally under the continuing constructions of license in contemporary biography, in which truthtelling is under continuous review, in terms both of truth and of new forms of telling. Dove, for one, is not, as she says, ‘absolutely’ faithful, while still aiming to get it ‘absolutely right’ in the telling of her grandparents’ lives (Cavalieri and Dove 1995: 139). The history of the lyric, as I am arguing, and especially its links to the chorus, pertain to how we may consider judging forms of telling lives in the future, including lives told through poems. 8. See especially Susan Stewart (1995); looking back to Plato and Socrates, Stewart outlines how a distinction is made in Socrates ‘between having and knowledge’ (1995: 36, emphasis added). She mentions in particular the power of paradox from Plato: what she notes as ‘willed possession’, emerging when the poet is simultaneously active and passive, ‘is both agent and vessel’, both helpless and ‘contagious’ (1995: 36), picking up the power of possession and history from a muse as well as occupying the local moment. See also Susan Eilenberg (1988); and for possession as it relates to gender and power, see Susan K Silver (2005).
  • 8. See especially Susan Stewart (1995); looking back to Plato and Socrates, Stewart outlines how a distinction is made in Socrates ‘between having and knowledge’ (1995: 36, emphasis added). She mentions in particular the power of paradox from Plato: what she notes as ‘willed possession’, emerging when the poet is simultaneously active and passive, ‘is both agent and vessel’, both helpless and ‘contagious’ (1995: 36), picking up the power of possession and history from a muse as well as occupying the local moment. See also Susan Eilenberg (1988); and for possession as it relates to gender and power, see Susan K Silver (2005).
  • 9. There have been lively and ongoing theoretical discussions by contemporary critics, such as Jane Hedley, William Waters, Susan Stewart, Charles Altieri, Helen Vendler, Michael Riffaterre, Margaret Dickie, Virginia Jackson, Helen Vendler, and Jonathan Culler, not to mention continuing interest in core works, such as TS Eliot’s ‘The three voices of poetry’ (1954) or Charles Martin’s 2004 update, ‘The three voices of contemporary poetry’.
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