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Folger Story

A New Poem by Rita Dove Invites Visitors Inside

A garden’s embroidery, its fringed pinks and reds, its humble hedges. Every day is Too Much

Written by Pulitzer Prize winner and former US poet laureate Rita Dove, a new poem inscribed in the marble edge around the west garden path will welcome visitors, families, students, teachers, researchers, and more—and shift their focus from Washington’s bustling streets to nature, the flowering plants and hedges, and the many wonders the Folger has to offer.

Read | Rita Dove’s poem of welcome for the Folger


Last summer, a small but vital piece of the renovation project was put into place: a poem written by Rita Dove for the Folger’s west entrance, inscribed in the marble beside the sloping garden’s path. When the poem is written on paper or on a screen, it is 15 lines long. On the marble, it forms a single line, starting at the upper part of the path around the garden and descending to the entrance below.

The poem is one of three major commissions from contemporary artists for the renovation project, which also include a light sculpture by Anke Neumann and an installation by Fred Wilson in the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall. It is the only one that is part of the landscape. The gardens that lead to the Folger offer a different environment than the Washington streetscape—“more informal and more relaxed,” says Folger Director Michael Witmore. “It felt like we needed to greet the visitor with a certain kind of voice. I immediately thought of Rita Dove.” A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, former US poet laureate, and University of Virginia professor of creative writing, Dove has “a long and rich association with the Folger,” he says. “She delivered a poem that is magnificent.”

“Read the beginning,” he says. “‘Clear your calendars, pocket your notes. / Look up into the blue amplitudes.’ It has an arresting first line that makes you wake up, set aside your daily concerns, and look up into the sky. It’s kind of an instruction manual on how to open your mind and your heart and soul to something new. Only a poet can do that.”

Seeking the Sössenbinder

For Dove, inscription “has a totally different feeling,” she says. “A dash is gigantic when it’s inscribed.” In writing the poem, however, “the challenge was knowing that someone who might be coming into the gardens may not notice those words at first—so they might slide into the poem at any point,” she says. “That helped keep the poem, for me, as balanced as possible. No line, no image has center stage.”

The scale, setting, and design of the garden edge also determined how long the poem would be: 600 characters. “Doing it in 600 characters was terrifying,” Dove says, “but not because of the length.” Like most poets, she values brevity. “It was the specificity: not 500, not 700, but 600.” She learned about the planned garden, too; she wanted to know “if I could say ‘fringed pinks’ or how ‘humble’ the ‘hedges’ were.”

Rita Dove
Rita Dove. Photo by Fred Viebahn.

I have such a deep love for the Folger Shakespeare Library. Not only because I’ve read poems and other things there, but just walking into the space, what it did to my sensibility and how it helped to refresh my soul. I wanted to recreate that feeling that I had every time I walked into the Folger, so that if someone were to be reading any portion of the poem as they walked in, it would help to guide them.

In addition to many poetry readings for the Folger’s O.B. Hardison Poetry Series, Dove also wrote a new poem for a Folger book published in connection with the 2012 exhibition Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500–1700. She read that poem at the Folger, too.

As Dove worked on the commissioned poem in 2020, she says, the COVID-19 pandemic created a feeling of “isolation pressing all around us.” She and Witmore exchanged emails as the project progressed. Over time, she assembled the “ingredients”—the lines and the images, including “blue amplitudes”—but she wrote that she still needed a Sössenbinder, a German cooking term for “sauce binder,” to bring them together to form one sauce. In September 2020, she wrote to him: “Rest assured that those 600 characters will SOON be reporting for duty.” The poem followed not much later.

Writing in Stone

Given the poem’s brevity, Dove says, “in honor of Shakespeare, I wanted to get the poem as close to sonnet length as possible.” Shakespeare’s Sonnets are 14 lines long. “But I had 600 characters. To make it 14 would have made for very long lines”—too long for the purpose. The poem became 15 lines long instead.

Its use of direct address, Witmore says, suggests another Shakespearean element, too. It’s “like a soliloquy, which can address an audience.” In effect, he says, the Folger building is greeting the visitor with a poem, a notion Dove agrees with. “The feeling of the poem for me as I was working on it, was that it wasn’t me—it wasn’t the poet—saying ‘clear your calendars and pocket your notes,’” she says. “It was the entire space, the building and the gardens, addressing the passerby.”

Workers inscribing the poem
Inscribing the poem. Photo by David Whitney.

But while the poem now seemed complete, one small change was still to come. In December 2021, Witmore sent an email to Dove asking for “some guidance on the design for your poem,” attaching meticulously detailed plans from designer Abbott Miller of Pentagram, who was laying out the stone inscription. Each one showed a slightly different way in which the text could go around the edge’s 90-degree corners, as well as between the seams of the marble segments.

Dove replied enthusiastically to these “beautifully thought-out designs,” noting that one option “aligns most closely with the poem’s verbal cadence,” with a “breathtaking” turn at one corner. Another had perfectly placed seams at the end. To bring together both solutions, she offered another idea, which she joked might be “radical”: slightly editing the text. She suggested deleting a single word: “all” (it had appeared in the phrase “all the jumbled perfumes”). With it gone, the rest of the words fell satisfyingly into place, forming the final version of the poem. “That was so much fun to do,” she recalls today. “It was torturous, but it was fun. I’m a fan of jigsaw puzzles and crossword puzzles, so this is probably adjacent to that.”

 Listen | Rita Dove on writing a poem of welcome for the Folger

Inspired by Shakespeare

That phrase occurs in a passage near the end of the poem, as visitors approach the Folger entrance, which urges them to “step into a house where / the jumbled perfumes of our human potpourri / waft up from a single page.” The meaning of the “single page” is “intensely personal,” says Dove, meaning that it varies by person. For her, Shakespeare can be that single page.

“I grew up on Shakespeare. We had this huge Complete Works that I’m sure my dad got at a used bookstore.  I remember pulling it down at age 10 or 11, because it was the biggest book, and just starting to read. And no one said, ‘Oh no, you can’t understand that.’ The soliloquies seemed to be speaking out of my soul.

“He has remained for me an example of how to make innermost thoughts become public. I count myself incredibly lucky that I grew up with that big book, and that he has remained with me all these days. He has something for every occasion. He’s also, for me as a writer, the best example of and guide for the idea that there is no topic too ‘small’ or ‘ordinary.’ And in the plays, every soliloquy, whether it’s spoken by a king or a fool, is in and of itself a beauty. And it reveals something about the human spirit.

“Shakespeare does that in a way that can help you not feel ashamed and not feel abashed, but instead feel recognition. And that is one of the things that as a poet, I’ve always aspired to do,” she says. “Writing this, being asked to lead people to that incredible inner garden that the library is, was such a privilege and an honor. I just wanted to make sure that I did Shakespeare justice.”

listen as your heart starts up again. Rita Dove 2020
The end of Rita Dove's poem. Photo by Lloyd Wolf.