BILL BERKSON (1939 2016)
Bill Berkson: Our Friends Will Pass Among You Silently
Love this title of yours, Bill. But never silently, as the subtext is a great adhesive roar to what counts, what sounds, what listens, what lights up the cortex in relation to Bill Berkson.
Wit! Confidence! “You showed me the greatest poems of the century / And then I wrote the greatest poem of the century.” He was key to the many zones poets inhabit and he, being bicoastally situated, occupied numerous, expansive worlds. He had a glamorous past. “The beggars are upon us!” cried Chester. ( W.H. Auden’s friend Chester Kallman?) In art, in friendship, Bill held poetic etiquette together, based on acute awareness of the whole ride, our 20th/21st century lushness and panic; and the crazy backdrop environment and what we can do inside it. Shift the frequency of all the panoramas? Wild mind kinetics passed among us bouncing in relationto “it all.” Au courant. And in the current.
Although it might seem breezy when it needed to be, language made the poems. And Bill was paced at great urgency, aspiration always, steady toward the thrill, the mark of it: poem after poem in later age. Don’t tarry. What is your vessel? Your desire? Don’t tarry. Activity demon: don’t you ever tarry. “Shape advancing smilingly/fit to print.” Magic: bells ring and a profound curiosity and attention to talk, the “high talk” as Ginsberg called it, of the New York School. He held that lineage beautifully, royally. “What color is that?”/ “Mirimba?” or just the talk:
“Gosh, look, Walt, they are laying/ track on Market for the Muni/in this town of white and pastel girls.” We want this urban renewal everywhere now!
A cry above frivolous and social media’s egocentricity. It knows its “skillful means” its upaya, which is Sanskrit for activated male energy blessed with subtle rasas, many complicated flavors or moods. All you need do is walk around and look and listen, and breathe it, à la Guillaume Apollinaire, Edwin Denby, Frank O’Hara.
And there’s the wonderful dream poem with Marcel Duchamp where they are collaborating on a huge wall painting and Bill paints a large gorilla.’ “You see,” I say, “We (Duchamp and I) are much the same—but mostly at the edges!” And he was in touch, of late daily, sending blasts/posts of work to friends, all heart, poem, psyche.
And I think of his real-life collaborations with Joe Brainard and George Schneeman, painters close to his heart. And the St Bridget poems with O’Hara and his letters with Bernadette Myer. And our own “Young Manhattan.” He was always up for the writing duo romp. We joked about Part 2 of Young Manhattan being a tell-all “Sexoir.”
Bill Berkson made something that reflected what he caught, instantly perhaps, and back in mind recess was recognized—this to that—inside the throb of it. You know, what you deeply know and value. Never a pretense. He revealed. He reveled. True blue.
“Blue is The Hero” is an early signature poem wherein “the clouds/disentangle a perfect Mondrian, pure grey, to which you give nodding assent, somewhat true— you are that helicopter, primping for the climb into whose bed of historical certainty? The fuel streaming down the sides, like fun in the sun, air in the air”
A glorious ease of hallucination and filmic motion. Can you see it? Perfectly sounded, balanced in Berkson’s ever kinetic aural-visual imagination.
Live in the great sacred conversations of poetry, art, life and your deeds are exemplary and you soar.
We spanned some unsurpassable generative years. I had known since 1966, the year Frank died, the year we started The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery before Bill moved downtown. The year my mother, Frances LeFevre, was in his class at The New School and sent weekly witty reports on the assignments, the people in the class (which included Bernadette Mayer, Peter Schjeldahl, Michael Brownstein and Hannah Weiner) and what Bill is wearing:
“He is such a dandy. Last night he was wearing a navy blue jacket, obviously new, with brass buttons. And some of his ties are very loud—arty.”
It was at Bill’s uptown, 57th Street, I officially met Frank O’Hara who invited me to intern at MoMA. Heartbreak. I needed the paying job which turned out to be The Poetry Project, founded so close to the time Frank died. I remember thinking this will be the Frank O’Hara project too. And I also met William Burroughs at Bill’s, after the performance with John Giorno and films by Warren Sonbert at the bandshell at Central Park. The Job had been published and parts were scary, disturbing—that stuff about men babies being born out of men’s anuses? Help! But I could talk to William safe in Bill’s zone. Bill was a connectdome. When he moved downtown he was giving away many elegant shirts and suddenly everyone was a Bill shirt avatar: Ted Berrigan, Dick Gallup, Ron Padgett. And it was in a cab ride we had some of the most intimate conversation. Who was in love with whom? What did we desire beyond poetry?
To count on Bill: the poems and friendship team with phenomena, particulars of history, Kulture. An erudition you get from dropping out of college and tuning into vibrant interstices of life, 1960s. We kept going on the motto of wake up the world to itself. And don’t complain. A poem is the mind moving in all directions of space and time and also what’s right in front of you. The social and the phenomenal world is our teacher. Read the world as a book.
He made the line vivid “The orchid bears the twitch. My mind is such”. Prodigious achievement. He carried a profound poetic lineage, transmission from Frank O’Hara at an early age. And helped found that academy of the future as it opened its doors to us and was a lifelong votary of poetry and a brilliant interpreter respondent to all art.
After he survived his lung disease, he became the genius Lazarus, Time is urgent, don’t tarry, show your voluminous spirit inside the phenomenal world. One of the last bits he sent me was from his forthcoming memoir, about Amiri Baraka, to be published by Coffee House Press. He was working on this book with delight and urgency: “After Amiri read his poems at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater in November 2007, with Roscoe Mitchell accompanying on horns, I went backstage to say hello. Because it had been another twenty years since we had seen one another, I re-introduced myself. Taking my hand, Amiri said, ‘My God, when I knew you, you were just a kid!’ ‘Yes, isn’t it amazing,’ I said, ‘Now we’re the same age!’”
All quotations are drawn from Bill Berkson’s poetry and memoir.
Anne Waldman is the author most recently of Trickster Feminism (Penguin), Sanctuary (Spuyten Duyvil) , co-translator of The Songs of the Sons & Daughter Of Buddha (Shambhala) and the album SCIAMACHY (Levy Gorvy).