Thursday, October 09, 2014

Edwin Denby’s Pleasure

Rudy Burckhardt, “Edwin Denby on West 21st Street,” 1937

“Neon in daylight is a / great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would / write . . .” Thus O’Hara writes in “A Step Away from Them”—a poem dated 16 August, 1956. A line so etched in memory that I go looking for the Denby line, somehow convinced of its existence in one of the sonnets, right there next to “The shoulder of a man is shaped like a baby pig.” Nothing. There’s only Denby in “The Thirties: An Essay”—written “in the late fifties” according to a note in the Robert Cornfield-edited Dance Writings and Poetry (1998)—recalling walking with Willem de Kooning “at night in Chelsea” during the Depression, with de Kooning “pointing out to me on the pavement the dispersed compositions—spots and cracks and bits of wrappers and reflections of neon-light—neon-signs were few then—and I remember the scale of the compositions was too big for me to see it.” And how Denby’d put what de Kooning made him see into a poem called “The Silence at Night,” found in the 1948 In Public, In Private. It begins:
The sidewalk cracks, gumspots, the water, the bits of refuse,
They reach out and bloom under arclight, neonlight—
Luck has uncovered this bloom as a by-produce
Having flowered too out behind the frightful stars of night.
(Dispersal and its ever-expanding scale caught in the reiterating: “reach out and bloom,” “bloom,” and “flowered . . . out.”) No daylight, little neon. Is, I wonder, the Denbyism O’Hara wants to capture not daylight-inflected neon, but the idiolect “great pleasure,” a way Denby had of speaking (writing)? (The pause O’Hara’s line break exerts before “great pleasure” adds some intensity and prominence to the phrase.) Out of Denby’s Dance Writings and Poetry:
There is nothing everyday about art. There is nothing everyday about dancing as an art. And that is the extraordinary pleasure of seeing it. I think that is enough for today.
      —“Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets” (1954)
To recognize poetic suggestion through dancing one has to be susceptible to poetic values and susceptible to dance values as well. But I find that a number of people are and that several dancers . . . are quite often able to give them the sense of an amplitude in meaning which is the token of emotion in art. I myself go to dancing looking for this pleasure, which is the pleasure of the grand style, and find a moment or two of satisfaction in the work of a dozen dancers or more.
      —“How to Judge a Dancer” (1943)
      A number of people have asked me the reason for the present wave of balletomania that is sweeping from coast to coast . . . My personal opinion is that ballet—when it is well danced—is the least provoking of our theatrical forms. Nobody on the stage says a word all evening. Nobody bothers much about sexiness or self-importance. The performers are bright, tender, agile, well mannered, they are serious and perfectly civilized. It is good for one’s morale, because it appeals to the higher instincts. You feel sociable and friendly and at the same time wide awake. I think that’s why so many people are delighted. Civilization is really a great pleasure.
      —“Markova’s Dance Rhythm; Tudor’s Romeo and Juliet” (1943)
Standing among the ruins of the Palatine toward sunset late in October, I saw a flock of migrant birds keeping close like a swarm, beating their small wings almost in unison, forming—the swarm of them—a single revolving vibrating shape which kept changing in the air—a shape that distended, that divided like an hourglass, that streamed out like a spiral nebula and then condensed again into a close sphere, a series of choreographic figures which rose and fell above the city as the flock drifted upstream and out of sight. A social celebration and a prehistoric pleasure.
      —“Forms in Motion and in Thought” (1954, printed 1965)
The plan of a choreography is a great pleasure.
      —“Balanchine and Tchaikovsky: Ballet Imperial” (1943)
. . . if ballet is a way of entertaining the audience by showing them animal grace, why is its way of moving so very unanimal-like and artificial? For the same reason that music has evolved so very artificial a way of organizing its pleasing noises. Art takes what in life is an accidental pleasure and tries to repeat and prolong it. It organizes, diversifies, characterizes, through an artifice that men evolve by trial and error. Ballet nowadays is as different from an accidental product as a symphony at Carnegie Hall is different from the noises Junior makes on his trumpet upstairs or Mary Ann with comb and tissue paper, sitting on the roof, the little monkey.
      —“Against Meaning in Ballet” (1949)
It was a great pleasure to see the new Monte Carlo; it was a pleasure too that it was such a success.
      —“Massine and the New Monte Carlo” (1938)
      What is a “stylized movement”? It is a movement that looks a little like dancing but more like nondancing. It is a movement derived from what people do when they are not dancing. It is a gesture from life deformed to suit music (music heard or imagined). The pleasure of watching it lies in guessing the action it was derived from, in guessing what it originally looked like, and then in savoring the “good taste” of the deformation.
      Stylized movement has always been a perfectly legitimate pleasure in the theater. Sometimes it’s merely a little quiz game thrown in for variety.
      —“On Meaning in Dance” (1943)
If not an idiolect, a creed, the measure of an aesthetic. I think that is enough for today.