‘Rosa’ is one of several works that Rita Dove dedicated to Civil Rights activists. In this case, this poem is about Rosa Parks. The poem contains several allusions to segregation in the United States during the mid-fifties. On the first of December 1955, Rosa Parks sat in the front of a bus and refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. This resulted in her arrest and is now known as one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement.
Summary of Rosa
The poem speaks about Parks without mentioning her by name (except for in the title). Dove refers to the act that Rosa Parks is best known for, sitting at the front of a bus in the “white” section. She “stood up” against segregation, oppression, and racism by sitting down and doing “nothing”.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Rosa
‘Rosa’ by Rita Dove is a four stanza poem that is divided into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These quatrains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, meaning that they are written in free verse. But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t examples of rhyme, rhythm, and poetic techniques within the text.
Literary Devices in Rosa
Dove makes use of several literary devices in ‘Rosa’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and allusion. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Doing” and “doing” in line one of the third stanza and “flame” and “flash” in lines two and three of the same stanza.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. This is one of the most important techniques at work in ‘Rosa’. Without allusion, the poem’s meaning would be lost, or nonexistent. Throughout, the poet refers to the history of Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks. See the body of this analysis for more information.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza as well as lines two and three of the third stanza. This technique is quite effective in ‘Rosa’ as it helps establish a rhythm between the lines and moves a reader smoothly from stanza to stanza.
Analysis of Rosa
How she sat there,
so wrong it was ready.
In the first three lines of ‘Rosa,’ the speaker alludes to the main character of the poem, Rosa Parks. Her identity is clear through the title, but also through references to the “bench / to rest on” in the second stanza and that of standing up and sitting down in the final stanza. Parks’ simple yet brave actions have resonated throughout the centuries and are outlined in this poem.
The speaker describes how Rosa “sat there” at the right time in the wrong place. She was sitting somewhere that society said that she should not. It was that moment she helped spark and inspire the Civil Rights Movement, making it the “right” time to be there. The place (Montgomery, Alabama), or at least parts of it, was “ready” for things to change.
That trim name with
In the second stanza of ‘Rosa,’ she goes on to refer to the bench on the bus and Rosa Parks’ “trim name”. This is an interesting way to describe a name and one that was short and modest in nature. She is a representative of the larger African American popular who had a “dream” of things changing. This is an example of synecdoche, using one thing to represent a larger whole.
The stanza ends with a sentence fragment, “Her sensible coat”. This short sentence is related to the first in this stanza about the “trim name”. She is a small and simple woman who makes a very large impact.
Doing nothing was the doing:
carved by a camera flash.
The third tercet references the “nothing” that Parks had to do in order to do something. She was not moving and therefore “doing” what needed to be done. The cameras or paparazzi come into the poem in the next lines. Her face is “carved by a camera flash” and everyone in the United States will eventually know her name. The poet also references her “gaze”. It is powerful, juxtaposed against the simple name and coat she possesses.
How she stood up
her purse. That courtesy.
In the final stanza of ‘Rosa,’ the speaker refers to the moment that Parks was arrested for staying in the front of the bus. She stood up, with strength and dignity, and then they “bent to retrieve / her purse”. The use of “courtesy” is sarcastic. That is the bare minimum that someone could do for her. A reader should also consider how the first line of this stanza relates to the story of Rosa Parks in general. She is famous for not standing up so the words “stood up” take on multiple meanings. Parks “stood up,” perhaps when she was arrested but she also metaphorically stood up against the practices of segregation.