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Edwin Denby

in conversation with Anne Waldman, 30 June 1981

This conversation with Edwin Denby took place on June 30, 1981, in the late afternoon at Edwin’s loft on West 21st Street in Manhattan. It was prompted by a phone conversation earlier in the week which somehow at the time seemed to relate to two possible sides of poetry, the ‘severely classic’ versus the ‘shapeless romantic’. I tried to pursue the topic further by setting up an official ‘interview’ and of course Edwin’s thoughts invariably touched on other subjects as well, which made me want to hear him talk more about the nature of emotion (excess?) in George Balanchine’s choreography.

— A.W.

This piece is 5,500 words or about twelve printed pages long.

Edwin Denby: What did you want to ask me? You didn’t want to ask me anything! (laughing)

Anne Waldman: No, I can’t remember now! But you were talking on the phone the other evening about one of Balanchine’s pieces with music by Tchaikovsky you had seen recently, saying Balanchine had done everything he wasn’t supposed to do. You were suggesting he had been perverse, he was doing excessive things one never saw Balanchine do in the past.

ED: He probably did — of course there’s just so much you say in conversation to somebody who’d understand it, but you can’t really say it because it means explaining...

AW: The whole thing.

ED: The whole thing. That gets very complicated. You know like in this kind of conversation talk the question came up and I said what Mr. B. was doing was quite ... well, at any rate — I don’t know if this is what you were talking about — There were two things he did and one was the Schumann thing which is to piano and which he did last year or two years ago and which the audience — very few people and very people who knew what Balanchine does, liked, and it was very gently put down by them.
      When I saw it later, a year later after I got out of the hospital, I was completely thrilled and thought it was something he hadn’t ever carried that far but was one of the possibilities, namely to make — how do you explain in dancing an emotional situation between two people — when it isn’t love? The Schumann piece is about four couples who are friends and I think that’s actually biographically true when he wrote this piece, ‘Davids-bundlertanze’, which means ‘The Dancers of the Club of David’ or ‘The David Association.’ A ‘bund’ is like a club. They called themselves that in real life but I don’t know the Schumann biography which everyone else knows, and everyone knows Clara Schumann and what a heroine she was.
      But in this case what you saw was four couples and a suite of dances, a series of dances, maybe fifteen or so, quite a number of them and with just a man on stage playing the piano. And these couples love each other very much and that’s something that makes them desperately happy, in a way, but that’s part of their loving each other. It’s real Romanticism of 1820. You know, it’s much subtler than it is in English literature and I don’t know about the French.
      Naturally in German, in the music, you can express a great deal because the question is the musicians were interested in carrying it beyond what Beethovan and Schubert had done, in making strange changes — remarkable changes from one key to another. You know the way they always do, but in this case more striking. So that on the piano it sounds all right and you can sort of dream this situation. If they make gestures of despair or adoration or something you’d be very unhappy — it wouldn’t mean anything — because they change too fast and they’re too combined — I mean an emotion in music starts and before you know it you’re somewhere else — with the intimacy of the piano it’s like a diary — it’s very easy to make it believable.

AW: You’re talking just about the music now, not the dancing.

ED: Yes, with the music it’s very easy to make it believable but with dancing it isn’t, but a lot of people did it, have tried to do it, you know the modern movement in general, the non-ballet movement in general, was toward intimate personal feelings. Isadora or all the people were doing it very marvelously and under certain circumstances it worked. This is so dense because it’s not just one person dreaming like Isadora, it’s four couples.

AW: It’s like Elective Affinities [the novel by Goethe].

ED: Yes, it’s also derived from that. But it’s much more condensed with music, but it’s that sort of double feeling and mysterious intuitions and not taking advantage of each other. They don’t want to separate, they don’t want to love somebody else, it’s something within two people together makes contrary emotions in each of them. Poetry’s always been about that too — intimate personal poetry, you know.
      And several things have appeared from time to time in Balanchine’s choreography when he wasn’t interested in the classic style completely but in the extensions of it. After all, he began as an avant gardist, post Isadora. Isadora had a great deal of influence on the ballet in Russia and was very much admired. In fact I think her first great successes were really there, and that is all part of the history. He didn’t want to lose the classic neutralness of expression but at the same time the expressive emotion, the expressive force, the active force, the propelling force, is a contradictory one.

AW: Isn’t that happening in, say, Douglas Dunn’s dances, or other modern choreographers’ work?

ED: Oh yes, of course. But they don’t have that tradition of classic dancing. They don’t have a ballet company trained that way to work and they don’t use that kind of music — which has that particular emotional expressiveness. With the Balanchine [‘Davids-bundlertanze’] you have the beginning, the first number, the vigorous man, not youthful but 35 or so, a woman like that too, were dancing, and there were several happy gestures, and funny steps, jumping steps, and then there was something else. And then a question of not being able to get together. And then in distress the girl runs off. And the man wants very much to follow her and tell her ‘it’s all right’ but for a moment, just a second, he hesitates, at the wings — that is before going through to the next room where she is — presumably — and you see him hesitate and you think — well he hesitated because maybe it wasn’t the right time to talk about it — ‘she really is distressed if I come in, et cetera’ — I mean all these things come up through my mind seeing him stop for a quarter note or something like that. It was just that this large body moving around stopped, perfectly calm, and then ran after her very quickly. And so I was very thrilled because that made everything clear to me.
      They had only done dance gestures, ballet gestures, but they were timed to the score so that somehow they were not in the time that continues building itself, it kept shifting a little, faster and slower, but the actual movement was that socially, friendly and agreeable, courteously, unpresuming kind of movement ballet movements have. So they had to be changed, the only changes he allowed were in the actual timing from one to the next, and then the time each one note was a little fast and a little slow. But he managed, moving with the girl, stopping it, then stopping it either dead or stopping it in a gesture. Because she also heard the piano music so clearly.
      The man played very well what that too fast or too slowness meant, because it meant that in connection with the discord, the change in the music. Then it was just that much and no more. I’d never seen such ballet gestures used to such an extent, as if they were mime gestures, you see. But the fact that they were all ballet gestures kept it from being the mime, ever. So you looked even more intensely and listened more intensely because that was the way you understood it, whereas if you had mime you listened less because you can see it in the gestures and the music didn’t really correspond, very often. If it’s a story. So all that interested me very much and I think it was extraordinarily brilliant and I’d seen that same intention fail so often with so many choreographers, especially all the contemporary story choreographers. So that we’ve all become accustomed to the dance choreographers which don’t have that problem. But he always had made the people in the neutral dance pieces in some sense real people and had underplayed the mime and told them not to make expressions on their faces. I suppose he told them that. And they didn’t.
      But, of course there were things in the Diaghilev tradition like ‘Les Noces’ and probably ‘Le Sacre’ (‘Les Noces’ is Najinska) that were less characteristic. Of course ‘Le Sacre’ was folkdance — based on what was imaginary folkdance and so was ‘Petrouchka’ — the way we would base something on musical comedy. Mr. B.’s ‘Who Cares?’ for example, which says everything in one or two gestures. In that dance, you know, everything’s necessary for a musical comedy situation. And it’s very touching because it’s not forced at all. So in this case it was possible to do it using that Schumann music if you could find a way of dancing to it. But you couldn’t dance it as if it were a continuous smooth dance and then peaking — or one or two peaks. And he had set himself that task in order to do it, evidently, and had done all kinds of complicated rhythms in the meantime — ‘Agon’ and so forth. He’d done all that and made it intelligible. In ‘The Four Temperaments’ he has lots of story implications because it is the four temperaments and that means certain things.
      Anyway, here he was using ordinary waltz steps, not three measure waltz. The couple would turn a few times and separate and get together. And he is managing to give you the actual inner thrill of that situation. When somebody that you like very much likes you very much — I thought it was fascinating and so tactful, in every way. The five people coming in as critics are a big shock. In the first place they’re symbolic. The second time I saw them I realized I like them OK because they changed whatever had been too realistic about the set which wasn’t really realistic but you got after looking at awhile — you felt the reality of the lake, for instance — and these people coming in and stopping dead just after appearing at the edge of the set, the room, you knew they were supposed to be critics.
      That much of the life story seems to be general knowledge, the life story of Schumann. And I guess at the time people believed it too. And, I don’t know, I suppose people might still, but I don’t know anybody who took the critics that seriously. They complain, but they don’t kill themselves. I hope. At any rate, I thought too they changed everything visually, by not moving and by being so clumsy, heavily dressed, in black. So that your eye was sort of refreshed — mine at least was — after watching half of those twelve or fourteen dances which succeeded each other with hardly a pause. And they were always different and some of them were much happier and more exuberant than others. The dancers were different — I was watching so closely I was beginning to lose track — I don’t see very well any more — so when this sudden shocking change came and just stopped, it cleared my mind so that I could watch the next series of a dozen dances or more all over again and see their difference, because they were all, each one different, and that of course is extraordinary since the subject matter, the emotional subject matter, is more or less the same. This one is a little more together, a little less together, a little more happy, a little less happy. But the characters were identifiable to people who knew them well as they are apparently in these music pieces. I think that’s true but I didn’t know anything about that, there hadn’t been a study, I just looked at it.
      Having seen how people who try to do that, tell stories without making it literal, without making the mind literal, so often, you know how tempting that is. But it never succeeds. You never can keep it going long enough to create a world, you know. You can create a dance world which is something different. It might be the same emotion but the whole tone would be lighter. It wouldn’t be so psychological. But these people dance very beautifully and fast, there was never an error or lapse of taste. I mean you remained in that world all the time and it was a very beautiful world and very interesting and real but it wasn’t complaining at all.

AW: Nothing’s ever resolved.

ED: Why should it be? You don’t feel it has to be because it’s art. And it’s also great when you don’t feel you have to have a revolution because it’s art. Or go to the doctor or something like that. Life goes on that way. It’s marvelous. So then when he did the Tchaikovsky ‘Pathetique’ which has all those things relatively enlarged, people were even more horrified. And that’s why I got a lot of tickets this year to see it before it gets blurred. Suzanne Farrell hurt herself in rehearsing the ‘Nutcracker’ dance, the waltz with flowers. I’m not sure what it was. So she was out. She was in ‘Mozartania.’ The new version of ‘Mozartania’ that everybody told me was marvelous, but I didn’t go the first night and it was only given then. Then she hurt herself and didn’t recover this season.
      At any rate, the question is does it have a climax, I suppose, because I notice that an otherwise friendly critic talked about it being a bit droopy, which I thought was nasty. Arlene [Croce] wasn’t strongly for it at all, I noticed. But what bothered her I thought I’d find out eventually, but I didn’t want to begin an argument, because she could see that I liked it the way it was and I could see that she didn’t really. And probably there was a very good reason and I would understand it if she explained it but I wasn’t anxious yet to lose my own pleasure. I’m sure she has a good reason. The person who said it was droopy was somebody else.

AW: It was the ‘Pathetique’ which we were talking about originally, the outrageousness of its being too personal I think.

ED: That was so much fun for me. People got very worried he was talking about his own death or Tchaikovsky’s death or was he talking about death in general?

AW: But do you think it’s only these pieces that are made to the music of Tchaikovsky or Schumann that lend themselves to a kind of super-romantic more personal feeling?

ED: Yes. But the point is, as a poet, some days one feels like writing severely classic things, and some days one feels like writing shapeless romantic things. Just as he does — in his case, as a choreographer. There were plenty of people who don’t care anything about Balanchine or whether he does anything at all. Because they want to do some enormously amorphous pieces that make no sense and don’t appeal to any psychology or any frequency, preconceived or post-conceived emotions and so forth. So that’s not their problem. But I was very interested to see somebody who had so often taken something that other people would explain as sentimentality.
      And his usual thing is to make the poem strict, the ballet poem is lovely to watch anyway if you make it right and restrict the ballet dancing. At least I like it, you know, some people don’t. But to make it then also adumbrate a verbal world is an entire different problem and he’s usually managed to avoid that very easily. Well, here he did the ‘Pathetique,’ which is overblown and he brought in some angels with twelve foot wings, lots and lots of them, people rushing around, three marvelous women who dress in green who kept flopping and rousing up again and rushing off to another part of the stage. And so forth. All these things were going on. And the new lighting system is working which is very interesting to me. I like it but most people can’t stand it.
      And so there wasn’t really time to finish these things but he did a great many and many beautiful ones and then he did this one and yes, I could see it was a challenge after the very good formal ones to see what you could do in the Romantic style again. There are larger things such as two figures that separate and come together and separate and turn around. They’re like classic words: ‘love’ and ‘hate,’ ‘dawn’ and ‘dusk,’ things like that. They don’t really get you mixed up once you’re willing to do it at all, be part of it at all. Of course a lot of young people never could do with them. And they’d be willing to imitate some of those things that are rare in classic poetry, English poetry.
      And then there’s the question of your great men like Dante, where it becomes so complex and changes so fast from one thing to another and the language remains so clear to the ear. That’s partly his Italian. In English it’s very hard to keep words apart. Milton tried very hard and sometimes succeeded for a while but it’s somehow hard to get the onward movement also. And that’s what’s hard to get in dancing emotionally, to get that wonderful onward course of a classic piece of music, you know, Bach, a piece of music that has so much propulsive force. So then you hear the tune or the occasional discord with a great deal of pleasure against this big thing that doesn’t bother you.
      But at any rate, I saw the piece once and couldn’t make it out. Then I read the reviewer, Toby Tobias, in one of the weeklies, and she was describing the last scene in which, a matter of fact, one of her daughters, who’s a ballet student, is in, and is very happy to be in. This came at the end of the Tchaikovsky festival. It begins very, very simply. A few people on stage dancing a very nice simple dance circle credited to Jerry Robbins, it’s one of his very best because it’s wonderfully neutral and still active... Then these angels come in, people in dark red rushing around, hair down.
      Then, while the music is going on, music that bothered me to no end when I was young and went to symphony concerts, the most hideous sounds, you know that Tchaikovsky business, it doesn’t seem to be shaped. Later on the same sounds in Stravinsky look as thought they have actual facets.
      But, anyway, a lot of people after all this rushing around, in a vault or a kind of church, then the angels come in, then lots and lots of people in dark gray rush in and they lie down on the floor and make a heap, and apparently it’s a heap that if you’re further up looks like a cross. I couldn’t see it from where I was, it was a heap, but I read it was a cross. Then the music does something, bunk, bunk, boomp and something goes uhuhhh, uhhh. You can’t see a thing because they’re all wearing these black towels and there’s so many of them. And then there’s a little boy, a tiny little boy, who has a taper he has to keep lit, and he stands there. And then if the heart beats — this thing Toby said is like a heart beating — then after two beats the little boy blows it out and walks off.
      It’s so much fun! It’s a very baroque idea. The idea is death and it’s perfectly serious and you don’t feel like laughing. But nobody evenfeels like applauding. It seems sort of sacrilegious to applaud. But, really, you feel quite happy. I did, and you will later on, probably, because you think of death a lot, later on in your life. You don’t know it as a child. You think of death as something sudden. How wonderful because it will end everything around. How miserable because it will stop everything. The fact that it goes on and on and on. I never thought about it that way — I thought afterwards if you were close to your parents you can’t help seeing it. People never want to talk about it or even think about it. I wasn’t close to my parents and didn’t see them much but I saw older people who were in that state. Now, of course, everybody who lives long enough or is sick enough, I mean slowly sick, that kind of thing, what he finds out about is a kind of concentration camp. There’s no way of getting out of it. But there is a way of getting out of it, really, inside you. The concentration camp — you keep thinking there’s a way out. It’s like a disease when you’re younger and you already know you’re going to be well again.
      At any rate, the first story I heard about the piece was discussing all about death, was it about Tchaikovsky’s death or about his own death. I said, well, I hadn’t seen it yet, but what people told me is that no Russian believes in any death except his own. But when I went to see it, it wasn’t that at all. It was a Romantic view and it was over quite fast. But it wasn’t comic. The horrid sounds of the symphony made perfectly sound sense and so it didn’t seem horrid with all this elaborate clatter going on.

AW:Back to Dante for a minute. I was going to ask how you read Dante now. Do you read it in long sections or word by word?

ED: Word by word.

AW: In the Italian?

ED: I can get through a good deal of the Italian but every once in a while I have to look over at the English. Because his vocabulary is very large. He had an extraordinary mental equipment because he knew so many things and knew them exactly. When he’s writing this poem they must come automatically.

AW: Like a scientific vocabulary or a scholarly vocabulary.

ED: He does say the world is round and nobody’s ever noticed that. Then I thought how very strange they haven’t noticed it, it’s such an interesting fact that he should know it. Because if he knew it it’s because his teacher knew it. Latini was an encyclopedia man. And then you do remember, gradually, it comes back to you, that you read somewhere, Plutarch or somewhere, the fact that the Egyptians and Greeks got together a little after Christ and found that these obelisks at mid — summer the sun is right there and hit it there. But then the obelisk — about 50 miles further north or south — was casting a small shadow. So then they decided to investigate that and have real people find out that it really was so, because how can a shadow be different. If it’s a flat world it couldn’t be. Is that right? It sounds so far off I guess! At any rate, they found that way that it was a progressive case, and in fact, the simplest explanation of it was that the curvature of the earth, that if it’s curved, where does it stop being curved?
      Of course they could think that everything beyond India, which they hadn’t heard about, Malaysia and China and Japan and all that was water. And everything on the other side beyond Gibralter was water. But strangely enough Dante speaks of the southern hemisphere, because he had the curious notion that — when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden — the Purgatory was invented. So as to make hell they had to take it out of the inside of the earth. They made a hollow there where you could put all those people in it. Because he knew how many there would be beforehand. And it was pushed up at the antipodes of Jerusalem. Which would put it in the southern hemisphere. And the sun would then cross it at a different arc than in any place in Europe during the day. But then of course he had to figure out the seasons, and all these things. And he got these all straight.

AW: But was it common knowledge then?

ED: It could hardly be because we would have known that people knew it in the 13th century.

AW: So this is a sort of hermetic teaching from somewhere.

ED: I suppose so. I suppose some of the church objected to this and some of it didn’t. There’s nothing irreligous about it.

AW: Was his book ever questioned by the church?

ED: I wonder, I don’t know. I’d like to know. I’m very curious because there’s a great many strange things in it. But they’re all explained within his system of religion. They all make sense. The system itself doesn’t make much sense but it doesn’t matter. It’s a system, the dream of sin and pardon, and not pardon. Which is really something that we all have as children, very strongly. But then it goes on.

AW: It seems very karmic to me. The laws it operates under — the laws of karma or cause and effect. It has to do with realization. That if you realize your ‘sin’ — you realize more points in a way. Although the point is to get to a place where you’re not making good or bad karma, you’re just existing. You’re outside the laws of cause and effect.

ED: That’s what you’re trying to do?

AW: Yes, Guru Edwin, that’s what I’m trying to do (laughing)! I want to be just like you! Modest! Inscrutable! Good! Enlightened! Kind to pussycats and cockroaches! Yes. But seriously, at least be more mindful. So that you aren’t trying to be an imposition either way. You aren’t working to good points, or good karma necessarily, or to bad.

ED: Well, that’s fine, but wouldn’t people work for good karma?

AW: Of course that’s what we barbariansmust do. You follow the Paramita precepts — right speech, generosity, right view, right practice, right livelihood et cetera... and the Boddhisattvas dedicate themselves to the benefit of others, but without a lot of fanfare and self-absoption or expectation.

ED: I’ve often wondered about that in general. What your obligations are.

AW: Well, you’ve certainly lived in a so-called Buddhist way. It’s very complicated because there are things like bad deeds done with good intentions or no intentions and the result’s a good deed. Or a combination of working in a group and experiencing the karma of the country you live in or the place you live in or the street you live in or your mother or somebody you’re close to. There’s white karma, black karma, and probably gray karma.

ED: That doesn’t mean racial, that means...

AW: No, it’s just the nature of the deed. The nature of the effects of any action. It’s a combination of volition or accident.

ED: I’m sure that Dante’s scholars can tell you all about that. I sort of understand some of it.

AW: Well, it’s his own system, isn’t it?

ED: I imagine so. Much of it — I mean he’s constantly referring to the Bible, and he’s constantly referring to the church. He accepts symbols. It gets very complicated trying to get the New and Old Testaments to reconcile. The church of course did and apparently succeeded by this time. And he’s very much concerned with the fact that the two — it’s like a perspective, they both mean the same thing and you understand them but you come from two different sides to understand them.

AW: I’m sorry, the two different sides being the church and the Bible?

ED: No, I meant The Old Testament and The New Testament. If you tried to reconcile, if you managed to twist the words so they seem to refer, or could refer, to the same subject. It’s a pleasure, I suppose, if you find it working, but it also involves a curious willingness to understand something in a particular way. It doesn’t seem to be written normally. But then the ways of something or other are strange.

AW: If you live within the system of karma your rebirth will be influenced by your past deeds.

ED: So you have one more time to get yourself clean.

AW: The idea is to just disappear ultimately — stop being a nuisance! — although if you’re a Boddhisattva then you keep coming back time and time again to help everyone else. But somewhere along the line if you’re really awake, you presumably (according to this particular view) have a choice.

ED: At the end of Monkey there’s that wonderful passage, it isn’t quite the end, where the pilgrim is coming back from having the interview with Buddha. And Buddha’s chief minister and secretary, who is somewhat harsh, fools him and gives him blank books. The Buddha says give him 56 volumes of this, and fifteen volumes of that, 47 volumes of this and 609 volumes of that. And he says certainly, and he gives him all these books.
      And then Monkey says, there’s something funny about that. You know you didn’t give that man a tip. So the pilgrim said ‘The tip’s in heaven’. He says, ‘Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. Let’s take a look!’ So they open the sack. He’s been been travelling for three years to get back, and they are blank just as Monkey said. So he feels terrible. He’s very easily disheartened, but never discouraged. So if he decides to go back there’s nothing he can do. That’s his excuse. But it never occurs to him that there’s anything to worry about because he’s so simpleminded and sweet.

transcribed by A.W., New York City, September 1981

Photo of Anne Waldman by John Tranter, Berlin, September 2002

Photo of Anne Waldman
by John Tranter

Berlin, September 2002

Untitled (note: this appears to be the end of a partial text — it appeared inside the long Edwin Denby interview)
July 8, 1978
From typescript

say my face is green; you feel it is — but it’s something else the audience has to do voluntarily. It’s the only reason I go to theatre.

Point is, the rhythm of the gesture is out of time with natural time but in time with the real gesture. Doing this gesture very slow (turns hand over), the result is entirely different — the sleeve doesn’t fall in the right place. They are constantly doing this, like putting a cigarette to the mouth. Can’t do it slowly, like this, unless it means something. The pause in between is a difficult thing to hold naturally. One learns how to hold that. A mask helps somewhat. It’s an inner thing. Actors do it swiftly — say something, wait, hear, answer. Other worldly thing (sic) isn’t dominated by time, but that drops out, and presence remains.

transcribed/paraphrased from a conversation, July 8, 1978 by Anne Waldman

An Interview with Edwin Denby was first published by Erudite Fangs Editions in an edition of 200 copies for the occasion of ‘A Tribute to Edwin Denby’ at The Poetry Project, St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, 131 East 10th Street, New York City, April 9, 1997.

Xerox image (with the original printing) from a photograph of Anne Waldman & Edwin Denby taken by Bill Yoscary at The Gotham Book Mart, New York City, circa 1973.

With thanks to The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at The Naropa Institute for support of this project.

An Interview with Edwin Denby Copyright © 1997 by Anne Waldman.

Erudite Fangs Editions
375 South 45th Street
Boulder, Colorado 80303

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