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Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Edwin Denby: Roaring City


Waverly Place: photo by James Jowers, 1968 (George Eastman House)

Nocturnal void lower Fifth
Stepped in that desert off the kerb
A roar spurting eighty whams by
What a pleasure, I wasn't killed
Laughed how dear the morose asphalt
Tail light at Sixth, waiting for a green
I'd recognized it, a friend's car
That like enraged had roared past me
Game unmentioned when we met, roar
Obscure he, I, have let alone
New York accommodates years more
Daily the unknown and the known
Sometimes I can't, madly gloomy
Recall that events are roomy

Edwin Denby (1903-1983): "Nocturnal void lower Fifth...", c. early 1960s, from Collected Poems (1986)

Washington Square Park: photo by James Jowers, 1968 (George Eastman Hous

[Woman and window display]: photo by James Jowers, 1968 (George Eastman House)

New York Public Library, 5th Avenue: photo by James Jowers, 1967 (George Eastman House)

[New York Public Library]: photo by James Jowers, 1967 (George Eastman House)

East River: photo by James Jowers, 1968 (George Eastman House)


ACravan said...

New York accommodates years more
Daily the unknown and the known

I'm always amazed to rediscover how good Edwin Denby is -- how skilled, subtle, enjoyable and moving. This poem actually makes me nostalgic for parts of Manhattan living that I miss, where work life and social life were intertwined because that's the way life in the big city is (you come and go from your apartment to your office, then out on the street again to somewhere else). I intend never to live in New York again. It’s far too expensive and today your chances to make it far enough up any ladder to make your daily presence there worthwhile are between slim and none. But it's probably still a good place for college students to populate their imaginations and I’d like to think some of them will rediscover Denby’s poetry during curricular or extra-curricular urban archeology. In the suburbs your meaningless occasional conversations with strangers are just that -- totally meaningless and without any feeling of potential connection. I always found life in New York the opposite of that.


Maureen said...

Marvelous selection of images and words.

Hazen said...

Good to go roaring and streeling through the mighty streets of New York. Denby today and Berrigan yesterday, and the period pics, are real joys of the season. Early one morning many years past, I was walking along Broadway when a sports car came roaring at full throttle down the near-empty street—“that desert off the kerb”—disregarding red light after red light, intersection after intersection, until . . . nothing happened, and the day got on with itself.

TC said...

Many thanks, all. It is a great privilege and pleasure always to share the work of this marvelous poet, who, exceptionally among poets, lacked the self-promotional gene which nowadays seems essential to a career in po.

Edwin was a dancer and a dance critic, a man of great generosity and dignity and modesty and wit and civilization (in the old-time sense). He never thought to pimp his poetry. Which is why the rubberneckers, mayflies, scenemakers, networkers, arts managers, consultants, committees, administrators, academic-tourist instant "experts", dutiful know-nothing MFA-industry bread-butterers, ward-heelers, slobbering grant hogs et al. seem to have mercifully passed him by. Once upon a time it was actually possible to be acknowledged as a great poet (not that there were ever more than a handful) without resort to any of that. Now, though, not so much.

Hazen, fortunate that you saw that hurtling potential murder weapon coming before it had a chance to home in on you. The one that took me out last year didn't even allow that much wiggle-room. One automatically thinks, ok, pause, green light, look both ways and... but then, it was suddenly thump, blackout, no more thoughts.

I'm therefore prone to a virtually unlimited sympathy for the nimble pedestrian survivor, and/or the non-driver poet. Edwin would have qualified in both categories.

He did, as Curtis suggests, frequently perform the feat of literary prestidigitation that transformed the streets of the big dirty city into magical alleys of transcendent beauty and grace -- one summer c. 1968 when I'd escaped from New York and was happy to be away, having already been through that welter and swelter, I had a letter from Edwin in New York, declaring his joy to be observing the ecstatic passage of "angels in the streets".

They threw away the pattern after they made Edwin, those whimsical poetry gods.

Wooden Boy said...

Daily the unknown and the known

It takes an old poetry god to catch this.

TC said...

Perhaps the old gods are still about, there for us in our hour of great need.

'Twould be pleasant to think so, in any case, on a cold dark night, here astride the never ceasing river of cars.

Annie said...

I am again reminded of the way Edwin Denby's dance reviews unlocked more meaning from the movement he described than I had previously known possible. Through his deep and delicate perception captured with an elegant yet passionate precision, he translated the elusive, teasing thrill that was ballet's magic. Denby could transport this chubby, knock-kneed acolyte from an oil town library to an imaginary seat across the aisle, as in this brief excerpt from his review of a very young Suzanne Farrell in Balanchine's "Meditation," quoted by another NY Times dance critic, Jennifer Dunning:
"You see her yield completely, fainting with a soft abandon in a supported deep back bend, and before you see the recovery, she is already standing apart, mild and free, as if in thought."

I didn't know his poetry till much later. All his work makes me wish I had known him, as it seems intrinsically true, devoid of pose or pretense. Thanks for sharing.

TC said...


Edwin's dance writings are a transcendent tribute to the endless possibilities of grace and expressiveness in the human body in motion.

It was a privilege to know him -- one felt lifted above oneself. He had an amazing way of making one feel better than one was.