News & Politics

How the Folger Shakespeare Library Got a New Rita Dove Poem

It will be etched in marble as part of a big renovation.

West entry Plaza of Folger Shakespeare Library. Renderings courtesy of KieranTimberlake/OLIN.

When the Folger Shakespeare Library began planning its $72 million renovation—set to be completed next year—one goal was to “help visitors transition from the official world of Capitol Hill to something more intimate,” says Michael Witmore, who runs the library. One of the solutions they hit upon: a poem. Witmore envisioned words etched into marble along a path next to the library’s new west entrance—something magnetic that would stimulate visitors’ imaginations as they walked in. But what kind of verse could actually do that?

Well, there was always Shakespeare. But Witmore thought the Bard already had plenty of quotes displayed around the building. (One memorable inscription is a clear jab at the surrounding neighborhood: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”) Instead, he hoped to find a contemporary poet who could embody Shakespeare “as a living tradition in which poets are in ongoing dialogue with him and the many other writers that came before,” he says.

Witmore had recently read a collection by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Rita Dove, and it occurred to him that she would be a perfect choice. Dove, who teaches at the University of Virginia, had read at the Folger several times and been entranced by Shakespeare since she was a child. “I wrote to Rita and said, ‘Look, we had this idea. I just felt like you have the right sensibility.’ She got it completely—she understood what we needed.”

For Dove, the allure of the assignment was obvious. “The notion of putting poetry out into the streets of Washington—having it sneak up on people as they walk by—immediately appealed to me,” she says. “Washington is such a city of monuments, but it’s also a city of inscriptions. And I think more than any other city in the United States, it’s a city where people actually read the inscriptions.”

To come up with hers, Dove imagined who might be walking by the library and why. Then she tried to write something that would grab their attention. “If you can catch them with a three- or four-word phrase,” she says, “they might read on to see what the heck is going on.”

The poem, which is about the length of a sonnet, took more than a year to write. Dove wanted each line to stand on its own so a passerby could read just a short bit and still get something out of it. And the unusual medium presented challenges. “There’s a difference between what looks good on a page and what looks good in marble where shadows might fall,” says Dove, who carefully considered character count and punctuation so the poem would flow correctly when visitors arrive at a corner of the walkway.

The Folger Shakespeare Library is undergoing a big renovation. Photograph by Lloyd Wolf.

If you’ve made it this far in this story, you’re probably curious to read some of the poem. Sorry, you’ll have to wait—it won’t be unveiled until next fall. But Witmore promises it will be worth it. “There’s a special kind of physics to the world of the imagination, and Rita is really aware of that,” he says. “This poem is the equivalent of an outstretched hand. It says, ‘Come down the garden path with me. We’re going to go somewhere.’ ”

This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor