Edwin Orr Denby

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Edwin Orr Denby

Birthdate: (80)
Birthplace: Tientsin, China
Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of Charles Harvey Denby, Jr. and Martha Dalzell Denby
Brother of James Orr Denby and Charles Denby, Jr.

Managed by: Private User
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About Edwin Orr Denby

Maine Sonnets by Edwin Denby

Edwin Denby (1903-1983) was Rudy Burckhardt’s lifelong friend and collaborator. Denby’s first book of poems, In Public, In Private (Prairie City: Decker Press, 1948) contained photographs by Burckhardt. In 1956, they published what may be considered one of the finest examples of poet/artist collaborative books. Mediterranean Cities (New York: George Wittenborn) contains Denby’s sonnets, each titled by the name of a Mediterranean place, and Burckhardt’s photographs of similar locations. Denby, who was one of the most acclaimed dance critics of his time, devoted much of his poetic effort towards revivifying the sonnet form. The sonnets he wrote later in life, in Maine, where he spent summers with Burckhardt’s family, show his characteristic compression and opacity taken to new extremes. He had a precise ear for and an appreciation of plain, spoken diction. He liked to combine colloquial bluntness with imagery that, so dense, is often rendered abstract, perhaps influenced by the painters he admired — de Kooning, who was a neighbor in the 1930s, Gorky, and others. Denby’s poems should be read aloud, slowly, and re-read, as their surprising shifts are entirely intentional and, in his best work, unaffected. By his attention, and his intensity, he brings words into unexpected focus.

A fall night, September, black, cold

Sheen on branches from lit windows

Thin fog; before sunset not a cloud

Surveyed the lake from its marsh end

Water, many leaves shone silver

A breeze blew, whitish brilliant sky

Dark hills, dark the landscape appeared

Minutely stereoscopic

Spongy dusk was more comforting

A door slammed, cooking, greasy pots

Night has me now, by itself from

Forever, go to bed a coward

Swum supine in brightness, raised my head

Immortal shone afloat in trunks


Leaves between trunks spreading far up

A green spray smong high needle boughs

Darker than before the forest

Down here seems when I look back down

Dark boughs and trunks, myriad scribbly twigs

Recesses flecked with shine, with color glows

Silence crunched underfoot, detritus

Mushroom, a root-claw, mosses, underwood

Squatting, the floor’s hummocky rot

Dead needle and leaf rug, each’s edge, tiny

Dry, bacterial like my mind’s clot

Ground-light dun but distinct down here hugs

Munificence I eye fearfully

Forest disorder dear to Rudy


Cold dew, forest trees silenced

Disused field in a corpse-faced dusk

Shack black, low full moon, go inside

Like exhausted remain awake

Wrapped in blankets, hear throb a jet

New York friends sleep in the nightscape

Under trees their cars, August yet

Arboreal shadows, moon-cast

Moon-drawn Maine hills, roads, lit window

Child’s cry, wife’s laugh, the continent

At peace, darkness don’t walk into

Evil expects wit I haven’t

It’s reached me; puff my candle’s light

Unnoticed globe, unnoticed night


The meadow rolls slanting like the

Heave of a midocean wave; woods

Ensecret a mossgrown road, path

To our lake, the land a neighbor’s

Shoes on grass, I slow in noon’s silence

Step by step reach the water blindly

The torments of weakness disgust

They’re so unreal, everyone kind

Greedy my soul upsidedown leaps

Into the deep sky under me

A more brilliant autumn it swims up

Rising inside the lake’s mirror

It leaps back, ribbons of color

Impenetrably beautiful



August heat; night hail; mute freshness

Moon stormclouds, purple, Turneresque

Delight Rudy; done in, still dressed

Sleeps Yvonne, in bed sleeps Jacob

Time passes; white moon-soaked mist

Solitary outdoors, book indoors

Dear careless moonlight, dear dead words

I know them near, feebly I drowse

Ghost from inside of me, peevish

My mouth hardens at your approach

Figure incomprehensible

Of happiness not reached and reached

Sleeping hunched upstairs, Tom-baby

Year old, when he despairs, rages


Grey blue ridge, grey green leafage

Lucid Maine, a Laborday hush

High goldenrod, slope dun, spongy

Field that alder and pine-bush broach

I watch glitter the woods, watch budge

The underfaces of branches

Forest holes on which my eyes bed

Obscure voids that my heart munches

Against nightsky black nature humps

Below the edge makes a dense mess

Fern, fox’s bark and my bed lumps

To inches joint of namelessness

Sentiment shot, sleep I will trust

In pre-shadow dawn-light adjust


Cold pink glowing above wakes me

Sky-light, ok, it’s dawn, cat wants out

Outdoors I see skysea of pink

Blue pine bush, lightbrown goldenrod

Dazzle like baby cheek and hair

For acres, for miles of country

Each exposed brute so pure, so clear

Coolly on earth as in thought’s joy

Me too, old man who pees adoze

Then dressed rereads Dante’s Eden

One of dignified culture Joes

Lots of them takes walks in Sweden

A me, free of himself at dawn

Sleeps, this me reads in noonday Maine


Heavy bus slows, New York my ride

Speeds up, on the hill Rudy waves

Then faster seize me, pivot, evade

A mien, step, store, lawn sliced from lives

A nap at dusk; entering night

Landscape threatens, no matter which

Caveman’s faith, artifical light

A shack in the woods, the turned switch

One a.m. stop; drunk or sly strangers

Turnpike, the bus wheezes, slows, drives

And so Bronx, known Manhattan kerbs

Turned key in my lock, the door gives

Miserably weak, pour some shots

Don’t look, make the bed, it’s day out


The Complete Poems, edited with an introduction by Ron Padgett, essays by Frank O'Hara and Lincoln Kirstein, photographs by Rudy Burckhardt, Random House, 1986

Dance Writings & Poetry, edited by Robert Cornfield,Yale University Press,1998

Looking at the Dance, introduction by B. H. Haggin, Horizon Press, originally 1936, reprinted 1968

Edwin Denby feature in Jacket 21 (2003)


Collected Poems, Full Court Press, 1975

In Public, In Private," poems by Edwin Denby, with photographs by Rudy Burckhardt

Dancers, Buildings, & People In the Streets," introduction by Frank O'Hara, Horizon Press, 1965

Mrs. W's Last Sandwich: A Romance, Horizon Press, 1972

Snoring in New York, Angel Hair Press, 1974

Miltie is a Hackie, a libretto, movie stills by Rudy Burckhardt, Z Press, 1973

Mag City 14 -- Edwin Denby Issue" introduction by Mark Hillringhouse, 1982

Mediterranean Cities: sonnets by Edwin Denby, photographs by Rudy Burckhardt, George Wittenborn, Inc., 1961

Edwin's Tao, a translation of Lao Tze's 'Tao Teh Ching, Crumbling Empire Press, 1993

Two Conversations With Edwin Denby, Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds Publications, for the occasion of the presentatin of "the Life and Times of Joseph Stalin" at BAM, 1973

The Second Hurricane, vocal score, libretto by Edwin Denby, music by Aaron Copeland, Bossey & Hawkes, NYC, 1937

Ballet Review: "Edwin Denby Remembered," I, II, III -- Spring, Summer, Fall, 1984

From The New York Times:

November 8, 1998


The Man Who Understood Balanchine


n the 1970's I used to run into Edwin Denby during intermissions of the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. I was reminded of him and everything he stood for in New York cultural life by Dance Writings & Poetry, a new selection of his work edited by Robert Cornfield and published in both hardcover and paperback by Yale University Press.

I was introduced to Denby at least 10 times, though he never remembered me from one time to another. He would always be accompanied by much younger gay men connected to the art or dance world. He was small, old, handsome, pale as an ivory crucifix, with a full head of white hair and a kindly smile; he almost never spoke, but when he did he whispered. As Robert Cornfield explains in his excellent but all too brief introduction, After some years of devastating illness and deteriorating memory, Denby died by his own hand in the summer of 1983. He was born in 1903, in China; his father was an American diplomat.

Although by the time I met him Denby had neither written nor spoken publicly for several years (the last item in this collection, which covers 30 years of work, is a 1966 Dance Magazine Award acceptance speech), nevertheless his sepulchral presence, his dignity and beauty and his attendance at almost every performance of Balanchine's company symbolized the role that that particular organization had played in New York's intellectual and cultural life since the 1950's. The lobby of the State Theater was the one place where you could see, night after night, literary intellectuals like Susan Sontag, the poetry critic David Kalstone, the essayist Richard Poirier, the cartoonist Edward Gorey, the music and dance critic Dale Harris, the editor of Knopf, Robert Gottlieb -- and dozens of others. Kalstone used to joke that only an entirely nonverbal art could possibly appeal to so many contentious people. He also recognized that we were all enjoying a rare privilege -- the unfolding of genius. Balanchine had started out in imperial Russia, reached his first apogee under Diaghilev in France and, in the 1930's, moved to the United States, where he led dance to summits it had never known before. He was arguably the only genius of this range and force at work in New York in those years -- the only one, in fact, comparable to two other Russians who flowered in the States: Nabokov and Stravinsky.

If Denby could understand Balanchine, it was partly because he himself had trained as a gymnast and had danced professionally. In his reviews for The New York Herald Tribune and Dance magazine, among other places, he comments on the way a dancer carries her neck, spine, elbows, hands; he employs delicious adjectives (the beautifully effaced shoulders . . . the arrowy ankles and feet). Just as important as Denby's dance training, however, was the fact that he was a civilized man who had accumulated an international sense of culture. This allowed him to understand the exact degree of silken seriousness Balanchine intended when he said he believed art should be entertainment. Because he had seen so much dance, because he had studied the deadpan cartoon style of Alex Katz's paintings (an enduring enthusiasm), because he had anticipated in his own poems, reprinted in this new collection, the urban insouciance of Frank O'Hara, Denby was uniquely placed for capturing the exact mood of a Balanchine masterpiece like Four Temperaments: It is full of Beckmesserish dance jokes, classic steps turned inside out and upside down, retimed, reproportioned, rerouted, girls dancing hard and boys soft, every kind of oddity of device or accent, but never losing the connective 'logic' of classicism, never dropping its impetus, and developing a ferocity of drive that seems to image the subject matter of its title: internal secretions.

Denby's critical faculties were attuned to Balanchine, and in that last acceptance speech he said, Of course there's one man who has taught me to see and hear more than anyone else, and you can guess who I mean -- Mr. Balanchine. The reference to hearing might at first seem curious, but Denby was always aware of Balanchine's sensitivity to music (Balanchine had been trained first as a composer). In a 1945 review of Concerto Barocco, set to Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, Denby writes, In its vigorous dance rhythm, its long-linked phrases, its consistent drive and sovereign articulation, 'Concerto Barocco' corresponds brilliantly to this masterpiece of Baroque music. Gifted with a rare ability to describe dance moments in nontechnical language, Denby says of the couple dancing the adagio: Then at the culminating phrase, from her greatest height he very slowly lowers her. You watch her body slowly descend, her foot and leg pointing stiffly downward, till her toe reaches the floor and she rests her full weight at last on this single sharp point and pauses. It is the effect at that moment of a deliberate and powerful plunge into a wound, and the emotion of it answers strangely to the musical stress.

Over the years Denby reviewed the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in its various stages of disarray. He took on the dancer-choreographer Massine, whom he never liked. Here is his description of a bad Massine ballet: The Dark Lover was less conventional. He turned out to be Mr. Petroff without a toupee, dressed in an old-fashioned black bathing suit several sizes too small, so that he could get it up over one shoulder only. For propriety's sake, he also was wearing long black stockings. He looked as if he were employed at the local bathing establishment, though the program billed him as a figment of fancy. Fancy or no, he made persistent advances to Miss Toumanova and finally succeeded in lifting her so that she faced the audience in the air with -- oddly enough -- his backside on view just below her. Cupid came back and cleared up matters.

I quote that review at length to show that Denby could be irreverent, even harsh, certainly funny when he wasn't pleased (he was also, curiously, one of the first people to use the word camp in its modern sense, in a 1949 review of a new Frederick Ashton ballet). His admiration for Balanchine must be read against an acerbic background; his take on Martha Graham, for instance, while always respectful, especially of her own performances (she herself never loses the ladylike elegance, the womanly look that makes formal tragedy communicative), doesn't conceal his doubts about her esthetic: I find she uses the stage space the way the realistic theater does, as an accidental segment of a place, not the way the poetic theater uses the stage, as a space complete in itself.

Earlier I used the word civilized to describe Denby; certainly that was the word that most perfectly characterized his own understanding of dance. As he put it in a review of Balanchine's Danses Concertantes: The dance is like a conversation in Henry James, as surprising, as sensitive, as forbearing, as full of slyness and fancy. The joyousness of it is the pleasure of being civilized, of being what we really are, born into a millennial urban civilization. This is where we are and this is what the mind makes beautiful.

Fiction, with its automatic ironies, and poetry, with its predictable Romantic individualism, and contemporary film, with its alternation between violence and soap-opera melodrama, are seldom inclined toward celebrating the beauty of city people living together. All too often these other narrative arts see only intimacy as desirable and nature as restorative and complacently agree that civilization is immoral, corrupting, deadening. What dance brings into the world is a utopian vision of the expressive, healing power of the couple received into a coherent society -- a vision that Shakespeare's comedies had defined so many centuries earlier. Edwin Denby understood better than anyone else this dimension of Balanchine's art; he merits being described in the terms Oscar Wilde invented to emphasize the true critic's independence and artistry: The critic occupies the same relation to the work of art that he criticizes as the artist does to the visible world of form and color, or the unseen world of passion and of thought.

Of course Denby doesn't exist outside a tradition. Arlene Croce followed him and in her appreciation of Balanchine became even more adept at describing formal and technical innovation. Theophile Gautier (1811-72) preceded Denby, but Gautier appreciated ballerinas first and foremost as torrid or spiritual women, knew little about dance technique and often failed to mention even the name of a choreographer or scenarist (in the 19th century, one person thought up the plot and another worked out the movements). Denby admired Gautier's nonprofessional stance as a man of the world and a Parisian; he said of him, He illustrates the advantages the sensual approach to ballet can have for an intelligence of exceptional sensual susceptibility and for a man of large sensual complacency -- a rather ambiguous compliment, I'd hazard.

Denby was not indifferent to ballerinas -- his generic pronoun for a dancer is never he but always she -- and he wrote great hymns to his favorite ballerina, Alicia Markova. But he could also appreciate male dancers like Andre Eglevsky, Anton Dolin and Arthur Mitchell, and above all he saw ballet as art, not as acrobatics or storytelling. His definition of art is worth repeating: Art takes what in life is an accidental pleasure and tries to repeat and prolong it. Denby's criticism prolongs for us the ghostly images of past performances and traces out the half-century of Balanchine's extraordinary trajectory.


Edmund White's most recent novel is The Farewell Symphony. His short life of Proust will be published in January. He teaches at Princeton University.


Edwin Orr Denby (February 4, 1903 – July 12, 1983) was one of the most important and influential American dance critics of the 20th century, as well as a poet and novelist. His dance reviews and essays were collected in Looking at the Dance (1949, reprinted 1968), Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets (1965) and Dance Writings (1986). His works of poetry include In Public, In Private (1948), Mediterranean Cities (1956), Snoring in New York (1974), Collected Poems (1975) and The Complete Poems (1986). His English translation of Lao Tze's Tao Teh Ching from a German edition was published as Edwin's Tao in 1993. Denby's only novel, Mrs. W’s Last Sandwich (also released as Scream in a Cave) was published in 1972.


The son of Charles Denby, Jr. and Martha Dalzell Orr, Edwin was born in Tientsin, China in 1903, where Charles had been appointed as Chief foreign advisor to Yuan Shikai a year earlier. Edwin's grandfather, Charles Harvey Denby, who had served as United States Ambassador to China for an unprecedented 13 years, died when Edwin was one. Edwin spent his childhood first in Shanghai, then in Vienna, where his father served as consul general from 1909-1915, before coming to the United States in 1916. He was educated at Hotchkiss, and attended Harvard but failed to graduate. He also attended classes at the University of Vienna, before obtaining a diploma in gymnastics (with specialty in modern dance) at the Hellerau-Laxenburg school in Vienna in 1928. He performed for several years, notably with the State Theater of Darmstadt.

Looking for someone to take his passport photo, he encountered photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt in Switzerland in 1934, and the two remained inseparable for the rest of Denby's life. The following year, they returned to New York and rented a loft for eighteen dollars a month in a five-story walk-up building on West 21st Street in Chelsea. Edwin's friendship with painter Willem de Kooning, who lived one floor below in the adjacent building, began shortly thereafter when de Kooning's kitten turned up on the fire-escape outside of Edwin's window one evening.

On Tuesday, July 12, 1983, at the summer house he maintained with Burckhardt in Searsmont Maine, he committed suicide; he had been ill and increasingly concerned about the loss of his mental powers.

Denby was inducted into the National Museum of Dance C.V. Whitney Hall of Fame in 2002.


In 1935, soon after Denby's return to New York, Orson Welles and John Houseman asked him to adapt Eugène Labiche's Un Chapeau de Paille d'Italie for the stage. The play, titled Horse Eats Hat was scored by Paul Bowles and was performed as a Works Progress Administration Federal Theatre Production in 1936. During his lifetime, being ambivalent about the publication of his poetry, he was known primarily as a dance critic. At the behest of Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, he began writing a dance column for the magazine Modern Music in 1936. In 1943, Thomson drafted Denby as the dance critic for the Herald Tribune.

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Edwin Orr Denby's Timeline

Tientsin, China
Age 80