Background to the poem
Named after the Swedish word for ‘island’ Dove’s stately, unhurried, free verse poem dramatises the potential of language to transform the world. Here just a single foreign word is enough to change a “whole neighbourhood”. How exactly can that happen?
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”. It follows from this that if you expand your language you expand your world. Notice how Dove’s acquistion of new language expands and enriches her perceptions. So much so that a house becomes a “galleon stranded in flowers”.
A word from a different culture refreshes the poet’s imagination and the ordinary is defamiliarised into the marvellous, “nothing’s like it used to be…” For some critics this is also the function of art. By defamiliarising what has become invisible to us, art recovers our sense of wonder at the world. Such a change, Dove suggests, can permanently alter perceptions and shape “even the future”.
About Rita Dove
Rita Dove studied English at Miami University and won a prestigous Fulbright Scholarship to study Literature in Europe. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her verse-novel, Thomas and Beulah, in 1993 she became the youngest ever American Poet Laureate and the first Black American to be elected to this post. Currently the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, Rita Dove is an inspirational, celebrated American poet and critic.
A sensual, lyrical poet who believes “that language sings”, in her poetry Dove often examines female black experience and social history. Her intimate style is said to be capable of dissolving the barriers between the present and the past. Featuring famous Black American women, such as Rosa Parks and Billie Holiday, as well as more anonymous, every day characters, her poems explore what Dove calls the ‘underside of history’.
As editor of The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry (published in 2011) Dove faced controversy when she was criticised for excluding famous poets in favour of minor ones. Characteristically, it seems, Dove came out fighting.
Listen to the poet reading her own work