Commencement Remarks
by Ms. Rita Dove

Ms. Rita Dove
Commonwealth Professor of English
University of Virginia &
United States Poet Laureate Emerita

See Also...
 • Biography


PRESIDENT SWYGERT: 
Trustee Elizabeth Early, please present Mrs. Rita Dove.

TRUSTEE EARLY: 
Mr. President, I have the honor to present Mrs. Rita Dove to receive at your hand the honorary degree, Doctor of Letters.

PRESIDENT SWYGERT: 
Rita Dove, United States Poet Laureate Emerita, Commonwealth Professor of English, you are a phenomenal artist of broad horizons, an extraordinary and gifted writer of both poetry and fiction, and author of 10 books, including Thomas and Beulah. You won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987. In 1993, you were appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, and consultant to poetry at the Library of Congress, making you the youngest person and the first African American to receive this highest official honor in American letters.

Your highly acclaimed work integrates the African-American experience into a larger picture of Western cultures in the United States and Europe. Your writing reflects a broad social awareness, evokes U.S. history, African-American culture, and memories of your beloved family. Your admiring literary critics have called your poems rich with elegant phrasing and southern spice that blast tradition.

Yours is one of our great minds, a mind that seeks for itself the widest possible play in your poetry, using an ever-expanding range of reference, the most acute distinctions, and the most subtle shadings of meaning.

Currently the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, you are the recipient of innumerable literary and academic honors. A literary scholar and leader personified, you chaired the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Panel in 1985, and the Pulitzer Prize Jury in Poetry in 1997, and recently edited the anthology, Best American Poetry 2000.

Since January 2000, you have been a weekly columnist for the "Poet's Choice," which appears in The Washington Post. Your critically acclaimed poetry, which showcases your extraordinary gift of imagination, sensitivity, and creativity, have earned you fellowships with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Humanities Center, among many, many others.

Rita Dove, a superb, gifted, imaginative, and engaged writer, your outstanding literary works contain a synthesis of striking imagery, imagination, fable, humor, political comment, and an absolute and sure knowledge of history.

Howard University honors you on this historic occasion of its 133rd Commencement Convocation. We are indeed proud to confer upon you the degree, Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, and admit you to all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. I direct that you now be invested with the hood appropriate to this high degree, and present you with this diploma.

Ladies and gentlemen, one of the great voices in America today, Dr. Rita Dove.


DR. RITA DOVE

Mr. President, Officers and Trustees of the University, honored faculty, guests, and the graduating class of 2001, I stand here before you thinking back, I won't tell you how many years, when I was in the same position, wondering what the world had to offer, what the world could offer, and what I could offer the world.

You are entering an infinitely more difficult world, one as Dr. Belafonte has said, "is characterized by greed and avarice." I look out today and I see open hearts and smiles, and I know that we're going to be okay in your hands. It will be hard work, but I would like to leave with you a poem, since that's what I do best.

Whenever you think back and wonder where the future is going to lead you, remember that others have stood at this position and wondered, too. What you should do is take a step, one step at the time. We are all here together in this moment. We are gathered together in a moment of celebration. You should carry this incredible pride and celebration with you as you go out into the world.

  
TESTIMONIAL
by Rita Dove

Back when the earth was new
and heaven just a whisper,
back when the names of things
hadn't had time to stick;

back when the smallest breezes
melted summer into autumn,
when all the poplars quivered
sweetly in rank and file . . .

the world called, and I answered.
Each glance ignited to a gaze.
I caught my breath and called that life, 
swooned between spoonfuls of lemon sorbet.

I was pirouette and flourish,
I was filigree and flame.
How could I count my blessings
when I didn't know their names?

Back when everything was still to come,
luck leaked out everywhere.
I gave my promise to the world,
and the world followed me here.

  

Back when the earth was new and heaven just a whisper, back when the names of things hadn't had time to stick, back when the smallest breezes melted summer into autumn, when all the poplars quivered sweetly in rank and file, the world called and I answered. Each glance ignited to a gaze. I caught my breath and called that life, swooned between spoonfuls of lemon sorbet. I was pure wet and flourish. I was filigree and flame. How could I count my blessings, when I didn't know their names? Back when everything was still to come, luck leaked out everywhere. I gave my promise to the world, and the world followed me here.

Thank you.

Special permission:
May be quoted in its entirety in Howard University publications with the following acknowledgment: 
"Read by the author upon receiving the honorary Doctor of Letters degree at
Howard University’s Commencement on May 12, 2001.
Reprinted by permission of the author from Rita Dove, On the Bus with Rosa Parks,
W.W. Norton & Co., New York. ©1999 by Rita Dove. All rights reserved."

Please send 2 copies of reprints to Rita Dove.