Edwin Denby

George Schneeman, Edwin Denby, 1977, fresco on cinder block. Private Collection, New York

Once when we were having lunch at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, I complained to Edwin about hearing myself on a tape of some recent poetry reading. “Yes,” Edwin said matter-of-factly in his customarily soft, slightly gravelly voice, “that resentment tone.” Thinking back on it over the years, I may not have understood the intriguingly commiserating aspect of Edwin’s remark. Another time I wondered aloud to Alex Katz about how few, if any, new poems by Edwin were appearing. As Ron Padgett put it later, “He kept revising his new pieces out of existence.” I had seen Edwin’s notebook open on a table in his Chelsea loft—two pages of lines in black ink, almost all crossed out. “He’s conceited,” Alex said. “He thinks he’s better than we are.” What Alex meant, I think, is that Edwin’s standards wouldn’t allow him to write the sometimes awful stuff that most poets need to write to get to the good things, the poems, anyway, that one can bear.

Encouraged by his heroes de Kooning and Balanchine, and by continuously re-reading the poetry of Whitman and Dante, Edwin set himself very high standards, indeed. In de Kooning’s paintings he found himself reacting to “the beauty that instinctive behavior in a complex situation can have—mutual actions one has noticed that do not make one ashamed of oneself, or others, or of one’s surroundings either,” then commented, “I am assuming that one knows what it is to be ashamed.”

After Joe Ceravolo and I read together at the NYU Loeb Center, Edwin remarked how curious it was, “two young poets interested in history.” Edwin is one reason why we need a better general history of New York’s artistic and intellectual climate during the 1930s and 40s. You can see segments of it in his friend Rudy Burckhardt’s earliest films, in which people as diverse of Aaron Copland, Elaine de Kooning, John Latouche, and Edwin himself appear. And then there was Edwin’s connection with Orson Welles, John Houseman and Virgil Thomson at the Federal Theater and the rise of George Balanchine and his various companies. Picture a party at George Gershwin’s with all the above, plus Vincente Minnelli, Oscar Levant, Yip Harburg, Martha Graham, Paul Robeson, Willem de Kooning, Gypsy Rose Lee, and perhaps a French Surrealist or two for good measure. Or at the San Remo in the 1950s with Tennessee Williams, Judith Malina, Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Auden, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Paul Goodman, O’Hara, Ashbery, Jane and Paul Bowles, and the like.

All the same, I remember being horrified at a party at Virgil Thomson’s Hotel Chelsea apartment by Virgil’s dismissive attitude toward his old friend—as if Edwin hadn’t panned out in the big world, had failed to fulfill the mission to become great or at least famous, as Virgil and others felt that they themselves had done. Like Rudy Burckhardt, Edwin was, in John Ashbery’s phrase, “a subterranean monument.”

The “Chelsea Ethos”—the manners of that other Chelsea, of lofts and cafeterias, further west—assumed that if your work was strong enough, “they” (the publishers, producers, and gallerists) would seek it out; there was no point in pushing it. That was the attitude—a well-bred and respectable one, as far as I’m concerned, although tempered it should be, too, by a sense of obligation to the work itself, that it have its place in the world. Of course then Edwin was the one who stood at Frank O’Hara’s grave and spoke of how O’Hara would be “appreciated more and more” as time went by—so he was in no way oblivious to that aspect of a poet’s value in the scheme of things.

Edwin’s poems are full of rhymes going every which way—end rhymes, internal, slant, false, and so on—along with a wealth of other recombinant syllables and unique Latinate inversions mixed with New York street slang phrasings. (“Disorder mental strikes me; I/ Slip from my pocket Dante to/Chance hit a word . . .” His sonnets are at once highly compressed and large in scope and scale. The sometimes halting rhythms in them find release in a sudden declarative sweep. In San Francisco in the 1980s, after I read city poems by Edwin, Jimmy Schuyler and John Godfrey to a small group, one of the poets present expressed his interest in Edwin’s poems but “Oh,” he said, “those rhymes!” I said, “Yes, Rodgers and Hart.” The poet, only a few years younger than I, drew a blank. He had never heard of Rodgers and Hart; never mind that, whatever the circumstances of his upbringing, songs by Rodgers and Hart were part of the common culture from the 1920s onward. The difference between nose-to-the-grindstone A-students and people of general culture thereby became much clearer.

Incidentally, the present-tense narration of some of Edwin’s sonnets (as in “I stroll on Madison in expensive clothes, sour”) is a likely source for Frank O’Hara’s “I do this I do that poems,” the first of which, “A Step Away from Them,” not only mentions Edwin but also was written about the time Frank wrote his review of Edwin’s second book, Mediterranean Cities.

In an essay for Modern Music about writing opera libretti, Edwin wrote: “Meaning is a peculiar thing in poetry—as peculiar as meaning in politics or loving. In writing poetry a poet can hardly say that he knows what he means. In writing he is more intimately concerned with holding together a poem, and that is for him its meaning.”

I remember Edwin breaking off from getting dressed for an evening out and suddenly going into one of his German dance theater routines, twisting dramatically between bits of furniture in his underwear. As in his dance criticism, he seemed fascinated by whatever transformation any type of movement might make for oneself. In his sixties, he was photographed demonstrating the postures of tai chi chuan in Edward Maisel’s book Tai Chi for Health. The practice itself he referred to as “my Chinese dance class.”

As Edwin found, and generously let his friends in on the secret, the best sightlines for watching dance at City Center were in row L. Starting from row L, you had the advantage of seeing the dancers’ feet above the orchestra pit. “Row L” was the title Frank O’Hara and I gave to the piece we wrote together when Edwin asked for something to include in the set of poems for the souvenir New York City Ballet program Lincoln Kirstein had asked him to edit for the company’s 1961 season. Among the other poets Edwin invited were W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Kenneth Koch, James Merrill, and Diane Di Prima. (With typical excess modesty, Edwin left himself off the roster.) Although all the poems made it into the publication, not one of them pleased Balanchine, who considered any commentary on his ballets an intrusion.

Edwin was introduced by Richard Buckle to an elderly balletomane, English probably, who went on about having once seen Nijinsky perform and how he leaped and stayed poised momentarily in the air “just like a bird.” Edwin said, “But birds don’t fly with their feet.”

The talk in the City Center lobby during intermissions in the early 60s was, like that at many New York art parties then, both extroverted and tense. Edwin’s own manner in these settings was reserved; rush up to him, as one might, to hear how he had seen what had just happened on stage, he would deflect, asking instead how you had seen it, smiling patiently as you tried (perhaps too hard) to communicate both the thing seen and the right, bright words for it. Everyone knew that Edwin’s looking was so acute. Catching him at the rear of the orchestra seats during one break, I saw that he had opened a little tin of NoDoz caffeine tablets: “I was looking so hard at the last one,” Edwin said. “Now I have to stay awake for the next.”

In Edwin’s late years, aside from his generous attentiveness to what young poets were doing, he concentrated primarily on reading Dante’s Paradiso. He killed himself in Maine on July 12, 1983, a short while after Ted Berrigan died. Unwilling to put up with the onslaughts of senility, he took sleeping pills and alcohol in the house he shared with Rudy and Yvonne Burckhardt.  Edwin seems to have made up his mind well in advance about how to end it, so that when he heard from mutual friends of Ted Berrigan’s dying just a week or so before, on July 4, he surprised them: flinging his arms open wide, he exclaimed, “That’s marvelous!”

Another side of Edwin in action (overheard): sensing an impasse in conversation with a younger writer, he said firmly, “I see that now we are beginning to embarrass each other” and turned his attention elsewhere.