On Edwin Denby

Edwin Denby is well known as an impressive dance critic. By the time he was sixty, the two volumes of his collected notices from the Forties and Fifties were taken as basic theatrical history. Although his particular attention referred to performances no longer visible, moral and aesthetic judgment illuminated current parallels. His analyses were superbly constructed, usually constructive, and warmly glowing with an absolute love of the art. They also had a scalpel’s delicate, sanitary edge when detecting a spot as false. His prose was didactic, schooling fractions of audience more than lightly amused. He taught three generations to see more than they had first suspected, and inspired more than one young English literature major to think with care about writing on dancing.

Edwin was a great dance critic primarily because he was a fine poet. His poems, while collected and well presented in 1975, through the enthusiasm of close friends, are available today for readers who prize good verse as much as good dancing. He is not anthologized. Modern literature courses don’t take much account of him, nor is he treated as an important lyricist by many beyond a band of admirers, too often discounted as a coterie. But some poets, now far more fully published, appreciate such poetry; this was the only fame he liked. He accepted the nomination of journalist, but craft and insight lifted him to the level of professional artist. In his elegy, “Snoring in New York,” he presents himself:

Summer New York, friends tonight at cottages
I lie motionless, a single retired man
White-haired, ferrety, feminine, religious
I look like a priest, a detective, a con
Nervously I step among the city crowd
My private life of no interest and allowed

Brutality or invisibility
We have for one another and to ourselves
Gossamer-like lifts the transparent city
Its levitating and ephemeral shelves
So shining, so bridged, so demol- ished a woof
Towers and holes we sit in that gale put to proof

It is hardly by chance that the most thorough writers concerned with dance were prime poets—Théophile Gautier, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry. Other verse makers who observed dancing with some attention, but are rarely read for it, are Federico García Lorca and Hart Crane. It is to these master choreographers of words that Denby is most akin.

When his verse is read with the care it deserves and commands, he may be recognized as the clearest lyric voice of Manhattan since Crane’s epopeia of the Brooklyn Bridge. He shares Crane’s quirkiness in implosive short circuits of dense, awkwardly precise rhetoric, odd broken rhymes, reckless rhythm, sharpness of physical imagery and incandescent metaphor. There is a sense of place, of American loneliness, which could serve a geography of candor by Edward Hopper. Crane was a hysteric, his hysteria increasing tragically from self-inflamed euphoria. Compulsive self-indulgence did him in early on. Denby was a survivor, who put an end to himself only when old, when he could no …

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