Essay

Life in Scatter

Bill Berkson’s memoir reveals a poet both of—and ahead of—his time.
Portrait of Bill Berkson

For several months after the poet Bill Berkson died in June 2016, at age 76, a note stayed taped to my desk. It was scribbled with the title of his then-in-progress memoir, Since When. I’d looked forward to the book since we last spoke on the phone, as it seemed to promise more of the generous conversation that marked all of Berkson’s associations. Although I corresponded with him only over the last year of his life, I was already the recipient of Berkson’s breezy magnanimity: a small stack of signed books arrived in the mail; he agreed to visit Atlanta, where I live, for an event about the New York School at a local university; and he arranged phone calls to talk about the history of his work—memorable chats. He was a gifted conversationalist with a deft sense of pacing and patience. He knew when to ask a question or offer a prompt, and he segued effortlessly between topics. I felt out of step, a little in awe of how Berkson made conversation its own art form. It was never lost on me that I was on the line with one of Frank O’Hara’s closest friends—O’Hara being another poet for whom the telephone was a crucible in which speech, emotion, and poetry fused.

Posthumously published by Coffee House Press in November 2018, Since When: A Memoir in Pieces is a lucid companion to Berkson’s iridescent poems and art criticism. The title, both a gentle, jokey declaration and a playful inquiry, is an open-ended prompt to consider Berkson’s vast influence in the New York School and the model he provided for a life lived among artists. It’s surprising to suddenly have Berkson’s “whole story,” as it were, and a fuller portrait of his autobiographically elusive poems, which always feel alive but are rarely about his life in a conventional sense. This is what makes his poetry so exciting. “You didn’t know I was the President / of a great cloud of falling bricks, did you? / Zoom. Bent,” Berkson writes in “In the Mean,” from Blue is the Hero (1976), which offers memoir as mediated through language and imagination. Though being president of so strange and oxymoronic a thing as “a great cloud of falling bricks” might seem outlandish, the image is just one example of the many lively descriptions throughout Berkson’s work. The poem concludes with a polyvocal misidentification, or so it seems: “Antia is my name—what a pretty name! / What else do you remember? // I was one …” Since When offers a significant historical addition to the dreamlike worlds in Berkson’s poetry.

From the beginning of his involvement in the New York School, Berkson was simultaneously a student and a catalytic figure. Often lauded as O’Hara’s handsome young muse because of his many appearances in the latter’s poems in the early 1960s and because the two collaborated on Hymns of St. Bridget (1974), Berkson’s meteoric youth overshadows most other descriptions of his later life and work. Since When rewrites these narratives of New York School inheritance by documenting Berkson’s multifariousness as poet, collaborator, art critic, editor, publisher, curator, teacher, and, in Anne Waldman’s words, “lineage holder.” Indeed, Berkson served as a de facto curator of the New York School’s aesthetic heritage, promulgating an intergenerational commitment to art and poetry. 

The “Personal Portraits” section of Since When is an especially striking showcase of Berkson’s friendships with artists and writers such as Willem de Kooning, Edwin Denby, Robert Creeley, and Philip Guston. Charting the serendipitous and surprising associations of a life lived among artists, these snapshots are miniature memorials to some of Berkson’s dearest friends. Like many memoirs, though, Since When also builds a mythic portrait of Berkson’s life comprising male artists almost entirely. Identifying and unpacking the casual chauvinism endemic among male poets of Berkson’s generation is a vital part of reading this book and of looking back at these important writers.

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Berkson was born in Manhattan on August 30, 1939. His father, Seymour, was a leading figure in the Hearst newspaper empire. His mother, Eleanor, was a fashion publicist whose friends and clients included Judy Garland and Salvador Dalí. The family lived at 1060 Fifth Avenue, overlooking the heart of Central Park. “The prospect from our high windows provoked a surge of initial wonder,” Berkson writes in Since When. As a teenager, he watched the construction of the Guggenheim Museum just a block away, a new counterpart to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was a further five-minute walk down Fifth. Many of the artists whose work hangs in the museums’ galleries soon became Berkson’s friends and colleagues.

After his father died in 1959, Berkson left Brown University and signed up for a poetry workshop with Kenneth Koch at the New School for Social Research. Propelled by Koch’s “excitement, which was itself then—and remains—a kind of poetry,” Berkson published his debut, Saturday Night: Poems 1960-61, with the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, whose roster included Koch, O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Barbara Guest. “It’s a book I might well wish to have signed my name to,” Ted Berrigan wrote in Kulchur, a clever stamp of avant-garde approval from a poet keen on appropriating lines from friends’ work.

Colored by the influence of Koch and Ashbery but embodying a style of fragmentation that went further afield, Saturday Night established Berkson as a connective voice within the New York School at age 22. “Strawberry Blond,” for example, recalls William Burroughs’s cutups while also anticipating Clark Coolidge’s attention to the syllable as an object-like unit:

            Knock on the forehead
            there, there beach nothings
            saw, reef, watery exchanges
            of life O’s not followed by
            anything turf        True?
            (ringlet)            (broadcast)
            in wing around immortal portraits, are they?
            the be-hanged cuneiform
            money sniff)

Or consider these lines from “History,” the mini epic that grounds Berkson’s first collection:

             it is baffling to be baffled by taller men
                       to be preoccupied by their grace (learning
  their awkwardness later and too late)
                       so that the sachem will guard his tribe
                       from history as from an enormous boat,
                       they will risk disobedience for their visions
                                 so become the desert itself
                                 with the modesty of a chameleon
             and changes
                                 beneath their hood of ice

Though reminiscent of Ashbery, whose collage-like The Tennis Court Oath (1962) appeared the following year, these poems’ disjunctive flair is a precursor to the Language poets’ turn to linguistic materiality in the 1970s. Though O’Hara’s presence is clear in a line such as “it is complete to be dying, slightly, today,” from “All You Want,” Berkson’s early work also invokes the dizzying sonic interruptions and comic consciousness of second-generation New York School poets such as Joseph Ceravolo (Fits of Dawn, 1965) and Ron Padgett (In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1964). Indeed, Berkson rejected seriousness as a de facto poetic virtue. Playfulness is his dominant mood. As these examples indicate, part of his originality consists in how he remixes his poetic influences. The homages weren’t one way either. As the editor and critic Joe LeSueur notes, Berkson was one of the most vital influences on O’Hara’s poetry.

The 10 years between 1959 and 1969 marked Berkson’s arrival in American art and poetry. During that decade, he worked in the offices at ARTnews (which he referred to as his “graduate studies”), traveled cross-country with the poet and future punk rock frontman Jim Carroll, attended dance theater with Denby at the City Center, and was turned into a cutout by artist Alex Katz. As Berkson writes in “My Generation,” which tracks the unexpected cultural alignments of those years, “I am almost certainly the only person who was at both the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969”—which he attended with John Giorno—“and Truman Capote’s Black and White Masked Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966”—where he appears in a picture behind Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra. Berkson was more materially and socially between aesthetic worlds than many of his peers.

While in his mid-20s, he began teaching poetry at the New School, counting among his students Peter Schjeldahl, Hannah Weiner, Patti Smith, Charles North, Bernadette Mayer, and Frances LeFevre. As he writes about that period in Since When, “A frame of reference was rapidly getting knocked together.”

That frame was built from an array of artists, many of whom are first- or second-generation New York School figures. Berkson’s aesthetic fluency belies the borders of these mostly academic groupings. This is due, at least in part, to the high culture milieu he inherited from his parents, which merged with the material of his post–World War II, Americana-rich childhood, full of comics, sports, and playing cowboys in Central Park. But Berkson bent these influences into his own models. He experimented with the kaleidoscopic movements of Gertrude Stein and Ashbery; the collage and conceptual methods of Burroughs, John Cage, and others; and the brisk momentum that runs through the discursive texts of Koch and Berrigan. This variousness is consistent across Berkson’s career. In “Russian New Year,” a poem from his first collection, he mysteriously asks, “Are you different from that shelter you / Built for knives?” A tercet from “Songs for Bands,” in Expect Delays (2014), includes the lines “Add oxygen, / a thousand bugs drop from the sky / —soixanitude.” Or consider the dense richness of “A Copy of the Catalogue,” collected in Portrait and Dream (2009), which devolves into a montage of images that zip and fold into one another, exhibiting what seems to be every tonal register available.

                                                    Who didn’t do what to whom?
“I spit on you, Yankee dork!” Yet doubleness dogs our days only
once the admissions committee attends the proconsul’s clip under
the clock at the Biltmore—oh, please. Protracted swoons.
One of me’s head decorates san insurgent’s dull green pike, or its
twin, as the young and restless storm the comfort zone, valiantly
punching holes in my alpaca-lined, velvet pup tent.

Berkson’s social and professional associations bear out his aesthetic in-betweeness: he taught workshops in the progressive institutional environment of the New School rather than in the experimental, grassroots space of the Poetry Project. In 1965, he read poems at the Spoleto Festival in Italy alongside Ezra Pound rather than visit the iconic Berkeley Poetry Conference that cemented the influence of the New American Poetry, and he published with the elite Tibor de Nagy Gallery rather than with downtown, DIY, mimeograph magazines such as C: A Journal of Poetry and Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. However, Berkson didn’t organize his aesthetic life through such divisions. His proximity to, and adaption of, so many of the era’s artistic icons and signposts is evidence of his own idiosyncratic devotions. “My voices always tell me when it’s time to move, and where,” he writes in “Cnidus, August 4th.”

This plurality of voices, evident in Blue is the Hero (1976) and Lush Life (1984), which Berkson calls his favorite of his own works, defines his New York School style. For example, it’s a joy to read the poem “Burckhardt’s Ninth,” from Lush Life, next to “Drill,” from Serenade (2000), to see the range of Berkson’s abilities. The former is a sonnet whose eponymous reference to photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt ironically pairs the artist’s everyday visual imagination with Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony. It’s a distinctly Berksonian assemblage with lines such as, “The little bleached asides, nudged, padding, wry / Heights like neckwear in a bison’s monkish glaze.” Every line is its own occasion for music, a fragment of an image, a sliding away into mystery. Berkson is attentive here to how syntax provides a stable architecture to even the wobbliest material: “All God’s bodies got coats, sheer Easy Street of bundled airs / And the filigrees arc lamps stand for.”

By contrast, “Drill” is a series of nine nearly minimalistic couplets, stacked on the page like a Donald Judd sculpture, that are sometimes so pared to an individual word’s syllabic resonances that “Burckhardt’s Ninth” begins to look glutted with meaning. “Skylight / Walleye” reads one especially thin, collage-like couplet, a dissonant image that recalls painter Guston’s cartoonish visual transformations.

When Berkson left New York for Bolinas, California, in 1970, Berrigan sent him off with the chiding question, “What are you going to do out there, raise chickens?” Bolinas, a town of fewer than 2,000 people, had an unusually high population of artists. At various points, poets such as Berrigan, Creeley, Joanne Kyger, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Alice Notley, Philip Whalen, Aram Saroyan, Tom Clark, Lewis and Phoebe MacAdams, and Donald Allen called the place home. Berkson’s time there, which lasted into the 1990s, began with his work as the editor and publisher of Big Sky magazine and books under the Big Sky imprint. From 1971 to 1978, Berkson produced a dozen issues of the comic book–size Big Sky, with covers by artists such as Katz, Guston, Joe Brainard, Red Grooms, and the underground artist Greg Irons, renowned for his iconic concert posters for the Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore in San Francisco. The magazine’s second issue, packed with work from New York School poets and Berkson’s new Bolinas neighbors (and featuring on its cover Katz’s ink drawing of a “monster portrait of Edwin Denby”), is a quintessential second-generation New York School document. It packages 1970s rural coolness in a new visual idiom more indebted to Guston-esque cartoonishness than to abstract expressionism. Simultaneously, Big Sky published more than 20 books, many of which—Bolinas Journal (1971) by Brainard, Phoebe Light (1973) by Notley, Gentle Subsidy (1975) by Steve Carey, and Studying Hunger (1975) by Mayer—are gems of that era.

In the 1980s, Berkson renewed his commitment to professional art criticism and became a faculty member at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he remained until 2008. During those decades, Berkson was a pillar of the Bay Area literary community alongside Kyger, Bob Glück, and Kevin Killian. Though he had a front row seat to the local (and soon national) rise of the Language poets’ critical interventions in American poetics, it’s notable that none of these poets appear in Since When, even though many, including Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten, had ongoing relationships with Berkson. This absence is a testament to Berkson’s deep affiliation with the poets and artists of his New York School origins. The one San Francisco poet he does note in Since When is Jack Spicer, whom Berkson glimpsed in North Beach one night in 1958, “shoulders hunched, standing alone in the 2 a.m. fog on the traffic island at Broadway and Columbus.”

As the Bay Area prose writer Steve Emerson remembers, Berkson had a “no-tolerance policy toward those who / showed up at his house with nothing to say.” Emerson recalls Berkson exclaiming, “The middlebrow must not be tolerated.” Amiri Baraka, whose literary life overlapped with Berkson’s, expands on this in For Bill, Anything (2015): “What Bill Berkson brought was … a poetry and reasoning that was open, strong, and surprisingly wise, yet fundamentally unaffected by the virus of dullness which has lately begun to re-infect the public literary muse.” There’s a sense here of Berkson carrying the torch of Koch’s conception of “fresh air.” It is embodied in his poem bearing that title, in which a passionate, righteous “blond man stands up and says / ‘He is right! Why should we be organized to defend the kingdom / Of dullness?’” before being shot full of arrows by sanctimonious poets. From an early age, Berkson recognized that “[g]enerally speaking, officialdom was rotten.”

Like many male poets, though, it’s possible Berkson took for granted that his own point of view and influence might generate new officialdoms. Before leaving for Bolinas, he edited the poetry anthology Best & Company (1969), a collection notable for its sure-footed establishment of a second-generation New York School and for its failure to include any female writers, a common elision in an era of male-dominated anthologies. Three years later, Berkson wrote “100 Women,” perhaps as a corrective to his earlier negligence. Composed of 10 lists of 10 names over 10 pages, “100 Women” is exactly what its title promises, a list of 100 female painters, poets, friends, family members, and wives of a number of male artists without accompanying text. In a 1975 letter to Berkson, Berrigan and Notley give him a hard time for the supposed sincerity of this list by creating their own collaborative version that includes Clytemnestra, Barbara Walters, Allen Ginsberg, and Lassie. If Berkson’s piece is an earnest conceptual response to society’s tendency to inventory women while monumentalizing men, then Notley and Berrigan’s parody both corrects the original list’s proto-feminism (including women only insofar as they are related to a man’s world, presumably Berkson’s) and humorously undoes the double-sided social architecture of gender.

“[W]ho were (or are) the women of the New York School?” Maggie Nelson asks in Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2007), a book that describes the irreducible work of female poets including Notley, Guest, and Eileen Myles. Even if Berkson collaborated with, published, and learned from his female peers, he doesn’t openly prioritize their work or larger conversations about gender in his poetry. One can’t read Berkson’s “Ten Books That Changed the World,” also collected in Since When, and not notice that all the authors—O’Hara, Ashbery, T.S. Eliot, John Dos Passos, Jack Kerouac, Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Reznikoff, John Wieners, and Thomas Wyatt—are men. One wonders what happened to the female authors Berkson elsewhere claims as part of his lineage (Stein, Mayer).

Even more troubling, Berkson’s poems tend to present a male perspective that at times slips into sexist portrayals. “Red Devil,” a poem whose title has clear phallic connotations, ends with the young narrator and his family leaving a restaurant.

            One time as we were leaving the place, getting on our coats,
            there was a tall stately brunette standing near us,
            adjusting her mink wrap. She was sexy, I was 12, I froze
            and gawked. Then I noticed my father looking at her too
            with a funny light in his eyes. I don’t know which way my
            mother was looking, but for a split second my father’s look
            and mine clicked, and he gave me a very knowing glance.
            I felt something slide into place.
            It was our first shared joke as men.

The “something” that “slide[s] into place” is patriarchy. Portrayed as a bonding experience between father and son, the shared male gaze that initiates the speaker into the sexist objectification of women is a set of directions about entitlement. Notably, this power, described as a “shared joke,” is organized around the implication of unspoken laughter. The recognition of manhood in an anonymous “sexy” woman is also what leads the speaker’s mother to essentially disappear. As one woman moves into the frame, the poem suggests, any other woman is made invisible, a pattern of objectification and tokenism that mirrors female artists’ scant inclusions in the traditional narratives of the New York School.

One reason I read Berkson’s poems and the poems of many of his male peers is to continue to work through what makes their work complicit in the unequal power structures of their moment and our own. This isn’t to say that Berkson’s poetry is dominated by these concerns. His are energetic, buoyant poems that move between the comically bent pathos of Padgett’s lyricism; Mayer’s loving, Whitmanic hedonism; and the dense, improvisatory syntax of Coolidge. However, recognizing how male poets construct and perpetuate inequity in their writing is inevitable and legitimate. As the literary canon becomes more representative and flexible, and as scholars and editors turn to the contributions of formerly marginalized poets, it’s a good time to revisit Berkson’s legacy as one of the chief architects of the New York School.

Without major awards or a single major work, Berkson’s poetry continues to fly under the institutional radar. When a definitive edition of his Collected Poems is someday published, or when readers eager for more O’Hara finally turn to Hymns of St. Bridget, poems such as “Fugue State,” “St. Bridget’s Hymn to Philip Guston,” “Blue is the Hero,” and “How It Goes” will finally get their due. The first stanza of “Fugue State” lays out this future.

            Worth mentioning?
            The horizon, such as is, splits mind across the middle.
            To turn in this world first: mirage
            of motel swale, votary albumens checked in coils, in ionosphere of certain age.
            The check is in the mail. When this arrives, millions cash in.
            Gone with its physics, the downy mist from motor inn planks.
            (“Once I chased that same white vapor down a soft shoulder near the Music Tent.
            It must have been a singular joy to spy at dawn beyond to stand deep still and feed
                        the stains. Signed, Do Tell.”)
            It so happens, what chemically will invoice time to a rug shack.
            Gone tree, the alder now a gilded stump. The gridlock rose has mattered more to some
            with less and less to tune, please notice the smallness pending there.
            That species worth mentioning?
            It will all return to fugue.

Alluding both to the polyphonic music of his poems and to the fugue state of any given I in Berkson’s work, the promise that “[i]t will all return to fugue” is Berkson’s allegiance to experimental process over a commitment to formal innovation. “Why go?” he writes in “On West Slope,” “There is life in scatter yet”—and pieces of Berkson are everywhere in the aesthetic afterlives of the New York School. Since When is notable for its glimpses into the personal and cultural decor of Berkson’s imagination and for what it tells us about how a great male poet of his era reckons with influence, gender, and legacy. Most important, Since When offers an occasion to visit or revisit Berkson’s poetry with renewed interest. “When you leave the building,” Berkson writes at the end of “Fugue State,” “things suspend from here,” and though Berkson is gone, his presence continues to be up in the air.

Originally Published: January 28th, 2019

Nick Sturm is a Marion L. Brittain postdoctoral fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His poems and essays have appeared (or are forthcoming) in The Brooklyn Rail, Jacket2, PENBlack Warrior Review, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and elsewhere. His scholarly and archival...