17 pages 34 minutes read

Rita Dove

Fifth Grade Autobiography

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1989

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Former poet laureate Rita Dove’s “Fifth Grade Autobiography” is a lyrical recollection of a memory from early childhood. The presence of a family photograph inspires the memory, and the imagined school assignment of the title frames the poem as an autobiography of the speaker.

The poem first appeared in Dove’s fourth collection, 1989’s Grace Notes. Though not as well-known as other poems such as “Thomas and Beulah” and “Adolescence I,” “Adolescence II,” and “Adolescence III,” “Fifth Grade Autobiography” contains similar themes of family and remembrance. The poem plays with notions of time as the speaker presents the poem as a recollection from fifth grade, while also relating the emotions in the poem to a time period beyond the photograph. In particular, “Fifth Grade Autobiography” crystallizes a memory of the speaker’s grandfather, who has died.

Poet Biography

Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952. An avid reader even as a child, she credits her parents with instilling in her the desire to read books of all kinds. In high school, she was one of 100 top students named as U.S. Presidential Scholars, and she went on to study at Miami University of Ohio, where she graduated summa cum laude. After Dove won a Fulbright scholarship, she studied German at the University of Tubingen in Germany, before returning to the U.S. to complete an MFA in poetry from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.

Her first collection of poems, Yellow House on the Corner, was published in 1980, which she followed with more than ten more collections in the years since. Most notably, her verse novel Thomas and Beulah won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and was staged as an opera in 2001. A later collection, On the Bus with Rosa Parks, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999. In addition to poetry, Dove has written a wide range of fiction and plays, and she has served as a lyricist for a number of composers. She edited the Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry, which appeared in 2011, and her Collected Poems: 1974-2004 was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2016.

Dove was named America’s seventh poet laureate in 1993. At the time, she was the youngest laureate, as well as being the first African American poet named to the post. She served as poet laureate until 1995. Many of Dove’s accolades reflect her ability to blend personal and familial themes with events in African American history and the Civil Rights Movement. Dove is currently the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Poem Text

Dove, Rita. “Fifth Grade Autobiography.” 1989. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

“Fifth Grade Autobiography” begins as the speaker situates the reader within a specific moment in the speaker’s life. The first line of the poem draws the reader’s attention to a photograph of the speaker when they were four. At this time, they were fishing with their grandparents and brother, who “squats in the poison ivy” (line 3) in the photo. They describe their brother’s “Davy Crockett cap” (Line 4), a boy’s accessory that resembles the raccoon-skin hat said to have been worn by the nineteenth-century frontiersman who bears its name.

The second stanza introduces the speaker’s grandparents individually, beginning with their grandfather, “in a folding chair” (Line 8). The speaker notes that “his left hand is on / the tobacco in his pants pocket” (Lines 9-10). They know this detail because “I used to wrap it for him / every Christmas” (Lines 11-12), but the speaker does not actually see their grandfather’s hand in this location. They then concentrate on their grandmother for the last four and one-half lines of the stanza. In particular, the speaker notes the “sun through the trees / printing her dress with soft / luminous paws” (Lines 14-16).

In the third stanza, the speaker turns their attention to their brother, asserting how they are “staring jealously” (Line 17) at their brother because “the day before he rode his first horse, alone” (Line 18), while the four-year-old speaker “was strapped in a basket / behind my grandfather” (Lines 19-20). After remembering the older man’s lemony smell, the speaker notes that by the time they write the poem, their grandfather has died. The death of the speaker’s grandfather inspires their memory of him, and the poem concludes with the line: “but I remember his hands” (Line 22).

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