Neon in Daylight Is a Great Pleasure: Edwin Denby
Edwin Denby, like the other poets I considered writing about here—Tom Clark, Alan Dugan, Margo Lockwood—possesses a precision and clarity all the more attractive for seeming off-hand, almost unintentional. It’s anything but, of course. You get to this manner by burning off the undergrowth, the affectations of language—the rhetorical excesses of vocalese—but you have to avoid taking the lyric forest down with it.
Why Denby’s poetry isn’t as widely read as it should be is, in some ways, easy to explain. His reputation as the greatest American dance critic of the 20th century so far eclipses his life as a poet as to render it near invisible. Plus, the bulk of his poetry was written in one narrow form: the sonnet. And then there’s the way in which these sonnets hover (sometimes awkwardly) between an allegiance to the tradition and an experimentation more natural to the improvisations of the mid-century avant-garde (the New York School, Beats, Black Mountain). And he seems by nature to have been a shy man. Several books of his poetry appeared in his lifetime; but Ron Padgett, his eventual editor, describes him as increasingly “skittish” about these. His Complete Poems came out in 1986 from Random House, not long after his death. Like his other books, it is out of print (but available from used booksellers on the web).
Denby ranges in tone from the bracingly severe to the exultant and playful to the elegiac—often all in a single poem. One of my favorite pieces will give the flavor of his work overall:
New York dark in August, seaward
Creeping breeze, building to building
Old poems by Frank O’Hara
At 3 a.m. I sit reading
Like a blue-black surf rider, shark
Nipping at my Charvet tie, toe-tied
Heart in my mouth—or my New York
At dawn smiling I turn out the light
Inside out like a room in gritty
Gale, features moving fierce or void
Intimate, the lunch hour city
One’s own heart eating undestroyed
Complicities of New York speech
Embrace me as I fall asleep
This style of notational color has affinities with other poets (Gary Snyder, James Schuyler, Ted Berrigan come quickly to mind); the juxtapositions and shiftings in the scale of perception that are produced by collaging are quintessentially modernist. The wit that connects the solitary older man reading late at night to the surfer feels more a part of the traditional logic of the sonnet form. An elegiac undercurrent tempers the pleasure. As with many other Denby poems, the feeling is intimate, wry, lonely, clear-eyed in its observations. It has a bit of the quality of homemade cosmic lament I associate with Tu Fu or Li Po—as if New York were just another sleeping village late at night in summer somewhere near the river of heaven. Which of course it is. A place where one of the “dignified culture Joes” might have worn a tie sewn by a couture tailor.