Rita Dove's poem "Persephone, Falling" takes mommy issues to a mythological level. But that's only fitting, because she published the poem in 1996 as part of her collection Mother Love, which is about the often messy, rarely simple relationships between mothers and daughters.
In "Persephone, Falling," Dove draws on the Greek goddesses Demeter and Persephone (lots more on those two later), a rather famous mother-daughter pair, to channel her thoughts and feelings on the sticky subject. She uses the story of this mother-daughter duo to examine every child's longing to be free, and every parent's fear of the dangers that freedom could lead to.
To be fair, one of the dangers is becoming awesome (there are others). Yep, it turns out when you're free to do what you want, you're free to write spectacular poetry, and that's definitely true of Rita Dove. In fact, she published "Persephone, Falling" during her time as Poet Laureate of the United States. Being the Poet Laureate is sort of like being the president, just without the oval office and instead of running a country, you know, you write poems. Seriously, though, it's one of the highest honors a poet can receive.
Rita Dove knows a lot about high honors; her poetry has earned her a Pulitzer Prize, among a ton of other awards. Like Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou, she's been one of the most important African-American female voices of the late twentieth century.
So listen up.
We aren't sure what vegetable it was for you when you were a kid, but for us at Shmoop, it was cooked carrots. Hated those little mushy orange devils. We would sit up in a standoff with Mom, who wouldn't let us up from the table until we'd eaten every last one. And she had a million reasons why we should: "They'll make you big and strong!" "They'll give you super eyesight!" "They'll help your brain!" Okay, how could something that looked so much like little slivers of monkey brain be good for our brains?
Where do adults come up with this stuff? A thousand ridiculous little pieces of advice. It's so easy for us to roll our eyes at them, watching them sweat when we take two stairs at a time. It's like they wish they could wrap us in bubble wrap until we're old enough and smart enough to be on our own.
That's "Persephone, Falling." Persephone, a headstrong young goddess, is abducted by Hades, the king of the underworld, because of her recklessness, because she didn't listen to her mother's advice. Rita Dove contrasts the fancypants allusion to Greek mythology with the common, intimate concerns of every parent. In the process of the poem, we get the chance to understand why parents say the things they do, why they worry in the first place.
And finally, we learn why they were so desperate for us to eat our cooked carrots (even if they still taste like feet).
The American Academy of Poets gives us the skinny on Rita Dove, plus some of her poems, prose, and other links for good measure. A good first step.
A brief bio and a ton of poems make this an excellent stop on your tour of the wonderful world of Rita.
Rita Dove is also an amateur ballroom dancer—check out her moves. And her dress.
Dove Reads at the White House
Rita Dove reads for the President and First Lady Obama. That's how you know you've made it, folks.
Persephone (the cat), Falling
A video of a kitten named Persephone who keeps falling. Not super relevant, but come on—it's a kitten.
Student Jonathan Mah reads "Persephone, Falling"
Mah adds a little dramatic flair to his reading of the poem.
Rita Dove Lectures on the Poet's Task
An audio recording of Dove's lecture at the Key West Literary Seminar
A photo of Dove receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama
This famous statue by baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini called "The Rape of Proserpina" depicts a rather muscly Hades (seriously, he could give Ahnold a run for his money) kidnapping a woeful Persephone.
Penguin's Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry
Dove, who edited the collection, explains how and why she chose poets and poems in this important anthology. By the way, her collection was way controversial.
"Persephone, Falling" appears in this book, which is all about exploring the mother-daughter divide, using Persephone and Demeter as a lens.
The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry
Rita Dove was given the honor of editing a definitive collection of poetry, and the finished product was kind of a big deal. Check out her picks here.
The United States of Poetry
The first episode of this PBS series features Rita Dove. Look Ma! She's on TV!