Part I: Scansion and Analysis
In Rita Dove’s poem, ‘Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less’, she fails to describe herself in three words or less; however, she succeeds in describing herself in three stanzas or less. Dove uses repeated symbolism of the number three in subversive ways. There are three stanzas, but not three words! Dove uses the word ‘kind’ three times, however in describing herself as this kind of person or that. The fact that she employs the word ‘kind’ three times, indicates that the kind of person she is, is a kind person. However, she tells us what she is by what she is not: ‘I’m not the kind of person who praises” (1). This poem uses juxtaposition to show that she is a kind of person by the kind that she is not. However, in the second stanza, Dove reveals that she isn’t any kind of person at all aside from the type who dreams just like anyone else. When facing reality, trying to put together a succinct image of oneself, in three words or less, is like docking the boats of the subconscious.
The metered rhyme is one that is free, just as the speaker. The reason that there are three stanzas is that each stanza is symbolic for one of the words that she is being asked to use to describe herself. This shows that the speaker is not limited to any definition that can be had in three words or less. One interesting aspect is the second stanza that is literally sandwiched in between two other stanzas, but speaks of being free. The imagery of having set her boats out, is like having set your thoughts free, but then being reminded that they are contained in a neat little package. The punctuation is reliable, not deterring from convention, showing that conventional structure can work, even with an unconventional speaker. Dove’s voice is independent, but also, she is speaking of all people, groups of independent people.
Part II: Explication
The poem’s main idea is that we are all alike, even as different as we are, and that no one can be described in three words or less. When Dove describes the ‘twice-dunked culler’ (16), she is creating a metaphor for talking about the false sweets of life as compared to her interactions with nature that follow. She interacts with singing birds, and a manicured spider. These images are ones that suggest that Dove feels that nature is perfect, whereas social conventions are not; because, if a bird can sing, and a spider can be manicured, then what need is there for social constraints? She is probably saying something like the culler is society, and the three words’ expectation, but that reality is the natural song that she sings, till she forgets she is singing it, and she forgets the ‘you’ who asked her to confine herself to three measly words. Dove speaks of sending her boats to sea, in the second stanza, as though her thoughts are boats and her dreams are waves.
This is a beautiful depiction of how the subconscious works. She is saying that we all dream, and we all have to reign in our dreams in order to function within a society that is confining. The second stanza is contained between two other stanzas also making for a literal confinement. The ending line suggests that the reader is dismissing the original question that the title suggest, that she was supposed to describe herself in three words or less, but that was impossible and she has dismissed the person (you) who asked in the first place.
- Dove, Rita. ‘Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less’. American Smooth. W.W. Norton: New York, 2004.