I had forgotten how funny the footnotes are in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. For example, a corn-god is a “deity promoting the growth of crops and sharing the growth, decay, and rebirth of vegetable life” in a Susan Musgrave poem or how “the sombre bell at dark” in a Dylan Thomas poem is “the bell that signals the closing of the park at dark.” Thanks.

I had to pull it off of the shelf in order to bone up on Rita Dove, whose poem, “The Bridgetower” appears in the November 24, 2008, issue of the New Yorker.

During my undergraduate days, I suppose I fell victim to the influence of jaded, white, male professors who dismissed Dove’s rapid ascent to poetry royalty as a thirtysomething with the publication and Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Thomas and Buleah in the late ’80s as an overly-generous response to the lack of color and ovaries in the milky white poetic tradition. And it was all too easy to follow their lead because, you know, thinking for one’s self is sooooo hard.

Thus the busting out of the Norton Anthology. Of course this only gives a highly-processed McDeath nugget to the wholesome, pastoral, free-ranging chickens found in each collection but in this case all calories are created equal (though we all know some calories are more equal than others).

But I’ve learned in this distillate, anthologized reading that Dove is largely concerned with resurrecting the lives of the marginal and the forgotten through dramatic monologues or verse histories such as that found in this week’s poem. In this case it’s George Bridgetower, the Afro-Polish violin virtuoso who met Beethoven, became his fast friend and then insulted one of Beethoven’s women friends and Ludwig van went apeshit and rededicated his famously difficult sonata to the Kreutzer Sonata after Rudolphe Kreutzer, the French violinst who claimed it was too difficult to play. Bridgetower slipped into obscurity and ended up living in abject poverty in south London until his death in 1860.

Dove’s poem, essentially, is an if-then statement and as such, doesn’t really work. The central tenet suggests that if Bridgetower didn’t dis Beethoven’s girl and Ludwig van was level-headed then black kids all over the world would be clamoring for violin lessons. Does it work that way? Maybe. What do I know? But I do know that one of the ifs, “if he hadn’t been dark” would nullify the then, “rafts of black kids scratching out their scales…”. Unless, of course, Dove is speaking of Bridgetower’s mood.

The poem is also incredibly encyclopedic and tedious in the amount of detail. Dove, if I could level a general criticism based on the pathetically little I’ve read to date, tends to overexplain things. She wants to make sure her reader understands but in doing so she often does a disservice to her poems. We don’t see this so much in “The Bridgetower” but we do get a lot of probably unnecessary detail about Bridgetower’s lineage, the date of the sonata’s premeire, Beethoven’s work habits. 

I’m working on a series of versified portraits too so this is a challenge and a concern. Which details convey meaning and which should be left on the cutting-room floor? It’s probably subjective. I really like some of the details about Beethoven, especially the lines “a real aristocrat / von instead of the unexceptional van / from some Dutch farmer” and “if he hadn’t drunk his wine from lead cups.” But much of the poem could be condensed and Dove needs to rely on the reader to do some of the lifting like she does in the her superlative poem “The Secret Garden” and many of the poems in Thomas and Beulah.

Further Reading

All you need to know about Ms. Dove.

The Poetry Foundation bio.

The New York Times reviews American Smooth.

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