Friday, September 10, 2010

“[A]s Edwin Denby would / write”

After knowing Frank O’Hara’s poem “A Step Away from Them” for thirty years, I woke up this morning and realized (I think) the point of these lines:

                   Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
The key word (I think) is write (not say). Edwin Denby (1903–1983) was a celebrated writer on dance and, in a much less public way, a terrific poet. (He was also a friend of FOH’s.) Denby’s poems are usually sonnets, what might be called American vernacular sonnets, made with a deliberate awkwardness in meter. A few opening lines:
I myself like the climate of New York. (“The Climate”)

The subway flatters like the dope habit. (“The Subway”)

The great New York bridges reflect its faces. (“A New York Face”)
In such company, the seven words from O’Hara’s poem sound like a line of Denby’s pentameter:
Neon in daylight is a great pleasure.
I’d scan the line like so: NEon in DAYlight is a GREAT PLEASure. That’s iambic pentameter, with a pyrrhic in the middle and trochees substituting for iambs at the beginning and end:
/ x  |  x /  | x x  |  x /  |  / x
Or, for emphasis: NEon in DAYlight IS a GREAT PLEASure. That’s a more recognizably iambic line:
/ x  |  x /  | x /  |  x /  |  / x
Part of what makes O’Hara’s homage to Denby itself a great pleasure is that these words appear in the guise of O’Hara lines, so (seemingly) casually enjambed: “a / great pleasure.” I’m reminded of how Ted Berrigan relineates William Shakespeare’s pentameter in “A Final Sonnet” and of how Robert Creeley relineates Emily Dickinson stanzas in his poem “Desultory Days.” Creeley relineates William Wordsworth too, somewhere — where?

It is 6:36 in east-central Illinois, a Friday (as Frank O’Hara never wrote). That’s enough.

Related posts
Minetta Tavern (Neon in daylight)
Saratoga Bar and Cafe (Neon in daylight)
September 10, September 11 (Frank O’Hara’s poem)

comments: 2

Rachel said...

What a great close reading! I really enjoy this post.

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Rachel! Where this thought came from, I’ll never know.