‘American Smooth’ is characteristic of Rita Dove’s smooth and rhythmic style of writing, something that helps reemphasize the content in the lines. In this particular piece, as Dove depicts her speaker’s concentration during a dance, she focuses on everything this woman has to remember and some of the things she forgets at the same time.
Explore American Smooth
Summary of American Smooth
In the first part of the poem, the speaker describes the concentration it requires to get the steps of a “romantic” but restrained dance correct. She’s looking back on one specific experience and recalling what it was like when she focused so intently that she lost track of her dance partner. The two were suddenly elevated, metaphorically, out of their lives and into a briefly enhanced state, then brought back to earth. It was a moment of perfection that lasted only a short time.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘American Smooth,’ the poet engages with themes of dance and transcendence. The latter can be described physically, as the poet does in the last lines of the poem, or mentally, as an elevated state that’s usually achieved through intense concentration and practice. In the speaker’s case, this transcendent moment came out of nowhere, surprising her when she noticed the two had “taken flight.” It was through the format of dance that this happened, but readers might question how much the “dance” really had to do with it. Was there something else that brought them to that state?
Structure and Form
‘American Smooth’ by Rita Dove is a thirty-one line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but close readers will be able to find examples of half-rhyme within the text. For example, “restraint” and “but” in lines three and four, as well as “stride” and “smile” in lines ten and eleven. Dove also chose not the use a metrical pattern to unify the lines of ‘American Smooth’ despite this, the lines are all around the same length, between five and eight syllables per line.
Dove makes use of several literary devices in ‘American Smooth.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, caesura, and alliteration. The first of these, enjambment, is a common formal device that is quite prominent in ‘American Smooth.’ It occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as five and six. These are far from the only examples. In fact, more lines are enjambed in this piece than are end-stopped.
Alliteration is a type of repetition that occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. These words should appear close to one another in the poem. For example, “requiring restraint” the only two words in line four as well as “swift” and “serene” in line twenty-seven.
Caesurae are pauses in the middle of lines that occur either due to the use of punctuation or a natural pause in the meter. For example, line one, which reads: “We were dancing—it must have” or line twenty-six, which reads: “four?)—achieved flight.”
Analysis of American Smooth
Lines 1- 14
We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
rise and fall, precise
being the sine qua non
of American Smooth.
In the first lines of ‘American Smooth,’ the speaker begins by making a clear statement about what “We” were doing— “dancing.” This happened sometime in the past, and she’s trying to put together all her memories of the moment and what exactly it was like. She isn’t sure what kind of dance they were doing, something “romantic but / requiring restraint,” she suggests. This might’ve been a foxtrot or a waltz, but she isn’t sure. As she describes the movements in the next lines, the “chests heaving” and the “rise and fall” of their bodies, the enjambed lines help create a rhythm, suggesting the pace of their movements.
Dove’s speaker’s focus on this moment continues. She describes how the dance was “perfect agony,” something she goes on to describe as a performance, an “ecstatic mimicry” that’s the “sine qua non / of American Smooth.” It’s a difficult job learning a complicated and skilled dance and then pulling it off as it’s “smooth” and easy. The phrase “sine qua non” is in Latin and means an essential condition, something that is absolutely necessary.
And because I was distracted
by the effort of
keeping my frame
that swift and serene
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down.
In the following lines of the poem, the speaker describes being completely absorbed in the movements and what she needed to do to pull them off correctly. She was “distracted / by the effort” of keeping her body in the right position and making sure she continued smiling. This intense focus distracted her from her partner until she didn’t notice how “still” that person had become.
The next lines are quite lovely, imbuing the piece with a bit of magic realism that taps into what should be the beauty of dance, rather than its restrictions and rules. She depicts the two taking flight, reaching some pinnacle in their skill together, and then finally coming back to earth when it remembered: “who we were.” They briefly transcended their own existences.
Readers who enjoyed ‘American Smooth’ should also consider reading some of Rita Dove’s other best-known poems. For example:
- ‘Parsley’ – is certainly one of Dove’s best poems. In it, she depicts the true story of a mass killing in the Dominican Republic in 1937, carried out by Rafael Trujillo.
- ‘Demeter’s Prayer’ – one of several poem Rita Dove wrote based on mythology, this one focuses on the consequences that Hades is going to face, no matter how powerful he is.
- ‘Cozy Apologia’ – discusses a narrator’s relationship and how important usefulness becomes.