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Vol. LXV, No. 8
April 12, 2013
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Any ‘Discovery…a Little Bit of Poetry’
Pulitzer-Winning Poet Dove Gives Rall Cultural Lecture

On the front page...

Poet Rita Dove responds to audience questions at the 2013 Rall Cultural Lecture in Masur Auditorium, as NIH director Dr. Francis Collins observes.

Poet Rita Dove responds to audience questions at the 2013 Rall Cultural Lecture in Masur Auditorium, as NIH director Dr. Francis Collins observes.

A mixed-race violin prodigy, a self-proclaimed “African prince” and Beethoven (yes, the Beethoven). That unlikely trio provides much of the fascinating storyline in poet Rita Dove’s latest book, Sonata Mulattica. The Pulitzer-winning former U.S. poet laureate offered NIH’ers tantalizing tidbits from her work on Mar. 13 at the 2013 J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture.

“We need—all of us—to be pushed out of our comfort zones every once in a while,” said Dove, beginning her talk after having lunch with postdocs and touring the Children’s Inn and a pediatric unit of the Clinical Center. “That’s why I send my poetry students to science and math—kicking and screaming—and they come back enriched. I think we’re all perpetual students. It’s when our minds are open to something new—and sometimes a little frightening—that the old-and-familiar gets refreshed and energized.”

Continued...

Common Ground

Introducing Dove as his “friend for more than a decade,” NIH director Dr. Francis Collins said she has “poetry in her heart and mind, but science in her DNA.” Dove’s father Ray broke the color barrier in the tire industry as the first black research chemist at Goodyear.

CC director Dr. John Gallin (r) and Dr. Deborah Merke (l), chief of the CC pediatric consult service, talk with Dove and her husband, author Fred Viebahn, about the Clinical Research Center.

CC director Dr. John Gallin (r) and Dr. Deborah Merke (l), chief of the CC pediatric consult service, talk with Dove and her husband, author Fred Viebahn, about the Clinical Research Center.

Musing aloud about the confluence of art and science, Dove, Commonwealth professor of English at the University of Virginia, said, “I’ve often felt that at the very edges of any kind of discovery—be it historical or scientific—there’s always a little bit of poetry and imagination involved.”

If was at the beginning…’

Dove’s Sonata Mulattica, which tells the “story of someone who has been forgotten,” is not easily pigeonholed in the literary world. Reviewers, she said, have alternately called the work a poetic sequence (although it has a play in the middle), a verse novel (although all the people and facts in it are true) or a long poem (although the book contains 84 separate poems).

The main character, George Augustus Bridgetower, was born in 1780 to a white Polish mom and a black African dad, a lothario who claimed to have royal blood. In early childhood, young Bridgetower’s extraordinary talent as a violinist was discovered (by Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, no less), leading his father to take him on the road for performances.

“‘If was at the beginning,’” said Dove, reading from The Bridgetower, the book’s first poem. In that one word, “if,” she seemed to impart all the possibilities of the young phenom’s improbable life. In that one poem she offered all the facts of his life while still leaving the audience hungry for more. Masur Auditorium was silent, spellbound.

Intrigue Remains

Dove accepts a certificate of appreciation recognizing her lectureship from Collins.

Dove accepts a certificate of appreciation recognizing her lectureship from Collins.

Photos: Ernie Branson

Over the course of the next 50 minutes or so, Dove read several more poems—What Doesn’t Happen, The Wardrobe Lesson, Black Billy Waters at His Pitch, The Undressing, Ludwig von Beethoven’s Return to Vienna, The Performer—disclosing details of Bridgetower’s life, weaving his fascinating story but cleverly leaving its central mysteries intact. Her audience was compelled then to learn how, in 1803, the gifted musician against all odds becomes a friend of musical mastermind Beethoven. And why does Beethoven stop work on the famed Third Symphony to compose Violin sonata No. 9 in A major (The Kreutzer sonata), which he first dedicated to Bridgetower? And then how, just as suddenly in a single encounter, does Bridgetower manage to offend the genius and die decades later in virtual obscurity and poverty?

Dove’s book, which she researched exhaustively using personal journals and diaries of the time, covers the violinist’s lifespan until he dies at age 80.

Science, Poetry Both Intimidate

During Q&As, Collins asked Dove if the two cultures of science and art are getting any better at communicating and gaining from each other’s strengths.

“I think our society is both in love with science and a little afraid of science because of its technological edge, its sense of impersonality, its sense, perhaps, of diminishing rather than enhancing humanity—those anxieties are out there,” he said. “Certainly the folks in this room, having come to hear you, greatly value both the opportunity to study nature with its rules of science, but also to enhance our own experience through art, through language, through music…and yet there’s the opinion that we’re not as good at bringing those together as we once were a few centuries ago.”

Dove talks with Dr. Roland Owens, assistant director of NIH’s Office of Intramural Research.

Dove talks with Dr. Roland Owens, assistant director of NIH’s Office of Intramural Research.

“I think we’re getting better,” Dove replied, offering an anecdote about a chance encounter with a stranger during a train ride. After some initial mutual wariness—probably because of the perceptions Collins had mentioned—the two finally disclosed their livelihoods: the stranger happened to be a molecular biologist. The poet and the scientist ended up sharing a2-hour conversation about common elements in their respective professions.

“People are afraid of poetry in the same ways they are afraid of sciences,” she said. “I thought, here we are hiding inside our own little cages of fear…But I think social media is helping. More of the world is open to you, day or night…That’s superficial knowledge, but I’ll take that at first and then we’ll work from there.”

The 2013 Rall Cultural Lecture is archived online at http://videocast.nih.gov/launch.asp?17851.


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