In his 1965 essay “Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets,” the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby writes about how hard it is to actually look at anything. He says we are motivated by needs, and rarely turn our attention outwards. “What use is there in looking at the momentary look of the street, of 106th and Broadway. No use at all,” he answers. Looking at art or dance is easier because the meaning is already there and the unity is already provided. He indicates, “and certainly it is a great deal less exhausting than looking at the disjointed fragments of impression that one can see in traffic.” “Use” and “exhaustion” must not have concerned Denby, as he does just this in an untitled sonnet that appears toward the end of Collected Poems, an edition published in 1975 by Full Court Press.
Because of the ebbs and flows of COVID, live performances have become harder to come by and attend with certainty, but there are dances going on all the time. Someone is struggling with a coffee machine, or trying to get through a revolving door, or ordering a green drink at a new bistro, or crossing the street. I recently found myself entranced with these quotidian choreographies and thinking of this particular traffic sonnet by Denby. It has sharp verbs as well as nouns, and offers an analysis of a complicated aleatory street dance with trucks and pedestrians.
Cool June day, up the avenue
An oldster in a boater steps
Jaunty, at the cross-street, light green
Steps out, truck turns in on him, he stops
Truck halts, the driver don’t crowd him
Midwest highschool kids of his own
He’s spotted the gait, gives pop time
Lets them honk, soberly waves him on
Old man couldn’t move; a PR
Touched the arm, smiled, walked him across
He took up a stride like before
Traffic regained momentum lost
Irish like the President’s dad
We watched him swallowed by the crowd
Very often the interactions between the Irish and the Puerto Ricans play a role in Denby’s poems (the PR in the poem is a Puerto Rican and the president at the time was Kennedy). More important than the characters in the scene, however, are all the verbs: steps, stops, turns, halts, crowd, spotted, waves, honk, touched, took up, regained momentum, walked, watched, swallowed, etc. It’s an ordinary incident, but it could only happen in New York City in June before it’s too hot. Trucks and pedestrians vie for right-of-way, but without the rage that is always very close in July and August’s heat. As summer now turns to fall, traffic dances will take on a rhythm of renewed focus and return, perhaps more solemnly, to this forgiving temperament.
The older pedestrian in the poem is swallowed by the crowds surrounding him after briefly holding up traffic. He is not from New York City, and doesn’t understand the rhythm. He is helped along by a Puerto Rican and given time to pass by a truck driver who is also a veteran member of Manhattan’s war between trucks and pedestrians (think of the children’s novel from 1964 The Pushcart Wars by Jean Merrill for a sense of the combat between the two). It’s a cool day for June. The truck driver waits for the man to pass, and endures the honking behind him, as he spots this individual’s interrupted progress. The Puerto Rican steps in and guides the older man to sidewalk safety.
Denby was a dancer, and later, the dance critic for the New York Herald Tribune. The poem about the Midwestern man is indeed a kind of dance sequence. Denby is attentive to gait, stride, walking, race, fashion, and how groups of people move together. He describes the man as “jaunty” and wearing a “boater.” The poem highlights the man’s sporty step with affection, in spite of how he has to be helped along by much younger people, and given a break in tight traffic by a truck driver identifying with him. This is always difficult in the tight streets of Manhattan, where pedestrians predominate and can hold up vehicles through the change of lights.
“There are no ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams. But in Denby’s poems, everything is in motion, and it is the verbs that animate the poetry rather than the nouns. In another of Denby’s essays, “Against Meaning in Ballet,” he argues that looking at how something is danced is more important than what it might mean, and states, “Art takes what in life is an accidental pleasure and tries to repeat and prolong it.” Denby also cautions in “A Forum on Dance Criticism” that the job of a dance critic is “not to teach,” but to “put down a sort of portrait of what went on.” We can expect the same in his poetry: that he is capturing what happened rather than reaching for big ideas.
Denby is a poet of modesty and good manners, but he opens the static assessment of the imagists to mobility, and writes wonderfully of movement on the stage and off. He writes of a cat, that “Her shape in walking bulges up and down.” If you think of the shoulders of a cougar you can see a similar phenomenon on a larger scale, which makes it easier to see what Denby has noticed in his own feline. Such an analysis of motion is everywhere in the poems.
Denby cautions that “nobody can always pay attention,” but he says that students of dance (and perhaps all artistically minded people) should be observant, and see “right in this city, boys and girls, Negro and white, Puerto Rican and Western American and Eastern, foreigners, professors, and dancers, mechanics and businessmen, ladies entering a theater with half a drink too much, and shoppers at Macy’s.” NYC is impressively various in spite of its grid, Denby writes, noting the way buildings surround and “pile up together in perspective. And under them the drive of traffic, those brilliantly colored trucks with their fanciful lettering, the violent paint on cars, signs, houses, as well as lips … And after you have seen Manhattan, you can discover other grandeurs out in Queens, in Brooklyn, and in those stinking marshes in New Jersey.”
Perhaps drama is necessary to looking. While the act of crossing the street in midtown Manhattan may be ordinary to some, to tourists and newcomers it can be a terrifying event as skyscrapers and traffic loom large. Not all pedestrians are created equal, but this one caught Denby’s practiced eye. He writes in “A Note on Dance Intelligence” that among other things to note, “There are the shifts in the pacing of a sequence, the points where the dancer hurries or delays.” While the traffic poem appears to be aleatory, it has a beginning, middle, and an end. This structure, along with the sonnet framework that contains the moment, lends the untitled work significance in form. Everyone in the traffic sonnet is on their best behavior. Denby always seemed to be, too. By all accounts, he was a fun person to know and he remains a fun and illuminating person to read.
- Edwin Denby, Collected Poems with an afterword by Frank O’Hara. (New York: Full Court Press, 1975).
- Edwin Denby, Dance Writings and Poetry, ed. Robert Cornfield. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).