Listen to Rita Dove read “American Smooth” at the 2010 Dodge Poetry Festival.
It’s widely known that poet Rita Dove is the youngest person, and the first African-American, to be appointed United States Poet Laureate. Her biographies inevitably offer some sampling of her long list of honors, including the Pulitzer Prize. Probably less widely known is what is made evident by “American Smooth:” she is a trained competitive ballroom dancer. Her devotion to this other art offers some insight into her approach to poetry.
Paul Valery once wrote that “Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking.” This is often paraphrased and oversimplified into “prose is about getting somewhere while poetry is about the journey.” The implication is that prose is utilitarian, practical and efficient, while poetry disregards these qualities for the sake of the pleasure of movement for its own sake.
Poetry is at least as utilitarian, practical and efficient as prose. The difference between the two is that prose is the preferred medium when we know what we want to say: it is the language of the already known. (Try to imagine an instruction manual written in verse.) We use poetry to approach the unknown, the unsayable. (As soon as prose attempts this, we inevitably describe it as poetic or creative because it must use the qualities of poetry to do so.)
Dance, like poetry, is also efficient and trying very hard to get somewhere, but it is attempting to reach an unreachable place. (How does one “walk” toward accepting the death of a great love?) Dance and poetry use sound, shape, movement and rhythm to express the inexpressible.
But a dancer or choreographer who uses superfluous, merely decorative movement to display technique limits the range of response and engagement with the audience. If we are more consciously attentive to a dancer’s technique than we are immersed in the dance itself, we have been pulled up into our analytical minds and cut off from a deeper connection, even if only for an instant.
For Rita Dove, the dance, like the poem, must be intimate and personal. Yet, the Tango, one of the most intimate and passionate of all dances, is also an intricate form that requires years of disciplined practice to master. The novice dancer learns by counting the steps in her head until they become part of her muscle memory. The novice poet, too, must awkwardly count out her steps, whether writing formal or free-verse, until they can be executed with apparent effortlessness.
The dancers Dove admires, like Gregory Hines and Fred Astaire, are those who make it look easy. “Which is what we want to do in poetry, too,” she says. “This is what we slave over.” The result is that Dove’s poems move fluidly into the lives and narratives of others. Her poetry is marked by a deep empathy for those too often forgotten by history. It is as if the discipline of mastering poetic form allows for a letting go of the self, and the technical challenge surmounts any self-consciousness regarding one’s capacity to enter into another’s experience.
In this sense, the demands of the poetic form, like those of a complex dance, can be tremendously liberating. Writing sonnets, villanelles and free-verse, Dove can take on multiple personas in a single volume, including one who seems to speak from the poet’s own experiences, and move apparently effortlessly among them. This adaptability is evident in all her collections, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Thomas and Beulah, On the Bus with Rosa Parks, American Smooth and, most recently, Sonata Mulattica.
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