Rooms of Their Own

Both were born in Ohio to African-American parents who had migrated from the South. Both became writers. Last week Rita Dove began her term as the U.S. poet laureate. And novelist Toni Morrison won th

Two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson expressed the view that blacks were innately incapable of writing poetry because "their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination." He dismissed the work of Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American female poet, as "below the dignity of criticism." There is no evidence that the sage of Monticello had actually read Wheatley's poems before issuing his put-down. In fact, he misspelled her name.

How fitting, then, that America's new poet laureate is Rita Dove, a black woman who calls herself a spiritual heir of Wheatley's, and whose verses appeal not only to...

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