On Wednesday, February 11, the Poetry Project at St. Marks in New York will host “Dancers, Buildings, and People: A Reading for Edwin Denby,” a tribute for Edwin Denby (1903-1983), the poet and dance critic who was such an important figure for the New York School. As usual, the Poetry Project has assembled an all-star cast of readers for the event:
With Jacob Burckhardt, Bill Berkson, Vincent Katz, Anne Waldman, Yvonne Jacquette Burckhardt, Anselm Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Mimi Gross, Eileen Myles, Yoshiko Chuma, Claudia La Rocco & Emmanuel Iduma. We’ll screen Rudy Burckhardt’s film “Remembering Edwin Denby” after the readings.
The event’s title is taken from a collection of Denby’s writings on dance, which includes a brief, appreciative, and incisive introduction by Frank O’Hara, who was very close with Denby for many years.
At the conclusion of his preface, O’Hara offers Denby some of his highest praise: “Somehow, he gives an equation in which attention equals Life, or is its only evidence, and this is turn gives each essay, whatever the occasional nature of its subject, a larger applicability we seldom find elsewhere in contemporary criticism.”
(I like this passage so much that I’ve swiped O’Hara’s phrase “attention equals Life” for the title of my next book).
Although Denby frequently appears in discussions of the New York School, scholars have provided few extended treatments of his poetry or his role as a pivotal figure in this coterie. One exception to this general neglect can be found in the opening section of the new book New York School Painters and Poets, written by Jenni Quilter and edited by Allison Power, which (as I recently noted) makes the case that Denby, alongside Rudy Burckhardt and Willem de Kooning, “really set the proverbial stage for the first and second generations and remained steady figures in the New York School circles.”
Another exception is “Edwin Denby’s New York School,” an excellent and thorough essay by Mary Maxwell that appeared in the Yale Review in 2007. Maxwell traces Denby’s large but under-recognized role as a foundational New York School figure, his collaborations with Rudy Burckhardt, his inventive sonnets, his influence on poets like O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Ron Padgett, and Jim Carroll, and much more. Maxwell writes:
“In his lifelong engagement with the subject of the city, he, like O’Hara, is a true New York poet. Not only is In Public, in Private the first volume of poems published by a poet of the New York School, there is an argument to be made that with more complete documentation of Denby’s relations with O’Hara’s circle, in addition to his position as a point of reference in the New York art world before, during, and after the heyday of the New York School of painting, the whole idea of ‘‘New York School Poet’’ (of any vintage) is meaningful only relative to the vocation of Edwin Denby.
You can find a copy of Maxwell’s essay here. For more on the Poetry Project event in honor of Denby, see here.