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Poet Rita Dove Tells Of Beethoven's Return


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a fish out of water story, sort of. We'll hear how a swim instructor found her calling with kids who, on the surface are very different from her. And we'll also hear about how she's hoping to change some alarming facts about African-Americans and swimming. But first, throughout April, TELL ME MORE is recognizing National Poetry Month. We are hearing from a number of poets, both newcomers and the critically acclaimed. Today we bring you Pulitzer Prize winning poet and former American poet laureate Rita Dove. Dove currently teaches English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she recently read to us one of her latest works.

Ms. RITA DOVE (Poet, Pulitzer Prize winner): This poem is taken from my new book "Sonata Mulatica." It tells the story of a Mulatto violinist during Beethoven's time, who met Beethoven and in fact Beethoven did compose a sonata for him. But in this poem that I'm going to read we have Ludwig Von Beethoven himself contemplating a return to Vienna. He's been ordered into the countryside to treat his deafness which is just beginning. He has not told anybody socially that he is going deaf. And so he is in real crisis of the spirit. From this village which was Heidegenschtodt(ph), he wrote a wonderful letter to his brother in which he talks about his deafness and we see the gentler side of his nature. And he writes Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me.

The poem is called "Ludwig Von Beethoven's Return to Vienna." Three miles from my adopted city, lies a village where I came to peace. The world there was a calm place, even the great Danube no more than a pale ribbon tossed onto the landscape by a girl's careless hand.

Into this stillness, I had been ordered to recover. The hills were gold with late summer, my rooms were two, plus a small kitchen, situated upstairs in the back of a cottage, at the end of the Herrengasse. From my window I could see onto the courtyard, where a linden tree twined skyward, leafy umbilicus canted toward light, warped in the very act of yearning. And I would feed on the sun as if that alone would dismantle the silence around me. At first I raged. Then music raged in me, rising so swiftly I could not write quickly enough to ease the roiling.

I would stop to light a lamp, and whatever I'd missed, larks flying to nest, church bells, the shepherd's home-toward-evening song, rushed in and I would rage again. I am by nature a conflagration. I would rather leap than sit and be looked at. So when my proud city spread her gypsy skirts, I reentered, burning toward her greater, constant light. Call me rough, ill-tempered, slovenly, I tell you, every tenderness I have ever known has been nothing but thwarted violence, an ache so permanent and deep, the lightest touch awakens it.

It is impossible to care enough. I have returned with a second Symphony and 15 Piano Variations, which I've named Prometheus, after the rogue Titan, the half-a-god who knew the worst sin is to take what cannot be given back. I smile and bow, and the world is loud. And though I dare not lean in to shout, can't you see that I'm deaf? I also cannot stop listening.

MARTIN: That was Rita Dove reading "Ludwig Von Beethoven's Return to Vienna" from her book "Sonata Mulatica." To hear another poem from Rita Dove, as well as other poems in our series, please check out our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.