Rita Dove

Rita Dove’s ‘Canary’ is a short poem that commemorates the life of Billie Holiday, an African American jazz singer.


Rita Dove

Rita Dove is an important American poet born in 1952 in Akron, Ohio.

She graduated with an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

‘Canary’ is a short poem from the US poet Laureate Rita Dove. She commemorates Billie Holiday, an African American jazz singer in this poem. Holiday’s life, although successful, was quite tumultuous and she died tragically in 1959 at the age of 44. Dove pays homage to Holiday by glorifying her persona while also depicting her hardships through effective use of diction, content, and images


‘Canary’ is a short poem that commemorates the life of Billie Holiday, an African American jazz singer. Holiday’s successful life was tumultuous, but her voice is heard through.

In this short poem, ‘Canary’ Dove evokes Holiday by describing like a canary, sings through a cage. Holiday’s “burned voice” proves that she’s a shrewd and masterful performer. At the same time, it has “as many shadows as lights” that marked her as a tragedy, a beaten woman, an addict, a criminal, a prostitute. But Dove’s poem allows the reader to see beyond these labels. The poem effectively shifts between past and the present carrying the readers through the complex web of life’s high and low to look beyond the sobber story often seen in place of Holiday’s life. In the concluding lines, she expects all the women to stand strong and “be a mystery” against others’ “inventions.”

You can read the full poem here.


Rita Dove’s ‘Canary’ in its simple sense is the poet’s respect for the popular Jazz singer Billie Holiday. Many a time, Holiday was depicted as a trapped bird by many writers and her admirers. In the poem, Dove encourages Holiday to define herself, as she pays respect to her abilities as a singer. One can understand when to read closely that the central idea extends from Holiday to all women out there. She expects all women to define a life beyond what the world sees her be capable of. In simple words, the poem is Dove’s call for women to break free from the curfews of the society imposed upon them which curbs their identity and independence.

Form and Structure

‘Canary’ like many of Dove’s poems is written in free verse. This short poem of eleven lines is divided into four stanzas of varying lengths. Each stanza speaks of different aspects of Holiday’s life. Written in first-person narrative, the deals with Holiday’s life as a singer. The concluding single line emphasis on Dove’s expectation of women to be an enigma. Its lines of varying lengths give the poem a rhythmic structure of a singer’s voice.

Poetic Devices Used

Dove has skillfully incorporated some of the impressive poetic devices into this short poem.

  • Metaphor – The poem and the title are metaphors for Billie Holiday and her life. The canaries are small yet beautiful and exotic songbirds and popular pets. Similarly, Holiday was a celebrated singer but encaged to Drugs at a very young age. She started using drugs a means to escape from her surroundings and haunting past. Dove’s use of the canary is a metaphor for Holiday’s life, yet her voice is heard despite society’s definition of her
  • Diction – Another aspect is the poet’s strong use of Diction to illustrate the life of the singer.  Holiday is known for her beautiful, strong, voice which is described as, “burned voice.” The adjective “burned” stands to testify the hard life Holiday had to go through. In turn, she resorted to drugs which have taken a toll on her voice.
  • Symbolism – Dove uses “Canary” as a symbol of Billie Holiday’s life. Similar to this Beautiful and exotic bird kept in a cage, Holiday’s life was also a success story behind the cage. Canary and Holiday share a parallel life, “Short but Meaningful.”
  • Imagery – Dove uses visual imagery in the poem when describing the voice of Billie Holiday through the title “canary” and “burned voice.” Any reader could visualize the sweet voice of Holiday as one reads the poem. Moreover, the poem gives a picture of Billie Holiday’s life rather than just describing her song.
  • Epigram – An epigram is a concise, clever, and sometimes paradoxical statement or line of verse used in Literature. The last line of the poem, “If you can’t be free, be a mystery” carries rich meaning than what meets the eye. Dove calls out women out there to be a mystery by not confining themselves to the world’s definition of them.
  • Oxymoron – Dove uses Oxymoron in the poem to contradict the life and experience of Billie Holiday. shadows” and “lights” representing light vs dark is the depiction of her life full of ups and downs, victories (leaving poverty, becoming successful), and deceptions (drugs, abuse, racism). Similarly, in line 4, “Gardenia,” the exotic sweet-smelling flowers and “ruined face” contrasts the physical and emotional states of Billie.
  • Euphemism – Euphemism is a mild or contrasting word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt. Dove uses the terms “bracelet of song” as a euphemistic expression of handcuffs indicating the time Holiday was arrested for the use of drugs. Similarly, the use of “gardenia her signature” refers to the ephemerality of life, especially the short life lived by Holiday, through the flower’s fragile and withering nature.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1 -4

Billie Holiday’s burned voice
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.

Dove begins the poem ‘Canary’ with the description of Billie Holiday’s voice. The adjective “burned voice” is a testimony to her rough life for Billie had hardships through her life. The second line “had as many shadows as lights” indicative of the extremely hard childhood of Holiday also the good things that happened to her, such a becoming a successful singer and rising out of poverty. The lines, “A mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,” paint a sad picture of a dimly lit stage on which Billie performed. In the last line, Dove alludes to Billie’s habit of wearing a gardenia in her hair, as a “signature under that ruined face” to conjure a stark contrast with her physical and emotional state, which represents her life and work.

Lines 5-8

(Now you’re cooking, drummer to bass,
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)

The second stanza of ‘Canary’ depicts a clear image of one of her biggest hardships – addictions to drugs. The words “cooking” “spoon” “needle” allude to the way heroin is used while at the outset they refer to music. In the last line, “your bracelet of song” refers to the time she was arrested because of drugs. As Billie grew older her addiction became a serious issue.

Lines 9-10

Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.

These lines illustrate how women in trouble become easy prey to people and circumstances. Especially, Billie was a vulnerable woman who had troubles paved the path for many to take advantage of her. as a young person and as an adult, she had been “under siege”. At an early age, she faced poverty, abuse and prostitution. After becoming successful, she fell prey to relationships and addiction. Still, she kept her personal problems a “myth” to “sharpen love” from her fans which were admired by many including Dove admires her strength and determination that have directed her life.

Line 11

If you can’t be free, be a mystery.

This stand-alone line is a well-planned description of Billie Holiday’s enigmatic life. Going back to the last stanza, she had never been free of “siege” for many reasons. As a result, she has decided to remain a “mystery” to the public. According to Dove, she remained brave, despite all the difficulties she encountered. “Be a mystery” is a motto by which Billie Holiday lived her life. Also, it is the way Dove wants every woman to live.

Similar Poetry

Billie Holiday’s life has inspired many writers and literary works. Some of the other notable poems are written by Frank O’Hara titled ‘The Day Lady Died’, “HOLIDAY” by Ciona Rouse, and “Billie” by Adia Victoria.

Miz Alb Poetry Expert
Miz Alb received her MA in English Literature. Her thirst for literature makes her explore through the nuances of it. She loves reading and writing poetry. She teaches English Language and Literature to the ESL students of tertiary level.

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