Talking to Bill Berkson was one of the great pleasures of my life. The following is an excerpt of a longer interview I recorded at his home in San Francisco in March 2015. There was always stirring sense in the conversation with Berkson that the arts are relevant to how a life can be lived. At moments the dialogue becomes a meditation on the suggestive spaces in which encounters with art can bring a person, and all that each one of us brings to such experiences. Elsewhere, writing about the nature of artistic conversation, Berkson remarks, “The thing said solidifies to a neat genetic energy bundle, and accordingly one feels impelled to add to it.”
Bill Berkson died in June 2016. His obituary in the New York Times focused on his life in New York City, which was a rich one indeed, though he lived on the West Coast and in San Francisco for the past forty-five years. A beloved poet, art critic, teacher, Berkson was the author of over twenty poetry collections, including a number of collaborative books with artist-friends, such as Philip Guston, Alex Katz and Joe Brainard. His last poetry collection was Invisible Oligarchs published by Ugly Duckling Presse (2016).
Berkson’s essay “Divine Conversation: Art, Poetry & the Death of the Addressee” touches upon many of the things we talk about here:
…a poem can tell (like beads) the words—phrases you can turn here or there towards what might want to be said. That’s part of poetry’s sensational impact, where, at the edges of meaning, words return to their peculiar physicality (which then provokes undreamed-of connotations). It occurs to me that this sensation business, maybe because it was so much in the air for the painters at the time, has been with me from when I began to write seriously. A poem’s coherence may hang by a thread. Snap that thread, a kind of pattern of recognition takes charge, and it is this that sometimes defers or erases syntactic probity, granting the poem a discrete, believable (because no less connectable) ethos all its own.
Again, from the same essay, Bill unpacks more ways in which sensation can work:
Actuality is missing, missed most of the time. The issue of sensation, what Matisse’s picture [Bonheur de Vie,(1906)] conveys above all else, seems tied vitally to appetition—literally, a taste for living and the will to live. Bertolt Brecht in his journals took up Wordsworth’s promise of a poem’s efficacy “to haunt, to startle, to waylay” and wondered at “a possible criterion…. Does it enrich the individual’s capacity for experience?” And so Brecht finds “Poetry is never mere expression. Its reception is an operation of the same order as, say, seeing or hearing….a human activity, a social function of a wholly contradictory and alterable kind, conditioned by history and in turn conditioning it.”
Thomas Devaney (Rail): Questions related to your frames of reference are fair game, but then to ask how that all becomes personal idiom might be a little more out of bounds.
Bill Berkson: John McPhee wrote this interesting piece for The New Yorker called “Frame of Reference,” and it’s about dealing with editors about how many readers even of The New Yorker will get this reference? McPhee is probably a little older than me. Maybe he’s of the previous generation, and it gets increasingly niche if you stop to think about it, or even to consider it. At this point I guess I take my frames of reference to be those of my hopeful, wished, my secret audience, my secret readers. Otherwise you’d have to stop because I think my poetry is so full of, even if it’s just allusions. Certainly it’s full of idiom, to the point of this sort of logjam of different idioms: it’s Broadway musical, it’s R&B, rock and roll, in terms of musical idioms just that. Then there are speech idioms from all over the place. Some of it is literary, some from different places I’ve lived; some of it is simply what you know from the movies and TV, or even what you imagine. When I started writing poetry really seriously around the time I was taking Kenneth Koch’s class, I wrote these poems that sort of imagined some kind of folkloric American, small-town-America stuff, where I’d never been. So the imagination was based somewhere on movies and radio and comics. It was some kind of fictive idiom.
Rail: There are the well-spring of sources, and then there is the much larger well-spring itself.
Berkson: I mean the interesting thing there is the memory track, the consciousness or the unconscious, that works in me. To hear “Blue Monk” and say, Oh! that’s “Melancholy Baby,” I hear Melancholy Baby in there. We’re probably not even conscious that some element that’s in this poem really does come from a long, long way back. It can be as particular a thing as has happened to me time and time again, of using a word that I’ve never used before and I’m not even quite sure of the meaning of the word.
Rail: Intuition is a deep conveyor. But my own intuition is also goading me here to ask if intuition is the right word?
Berkson: Yes, I guess, the muse, the muse of the language, the muse of the poem, whatever. This has happened in art writing a lot for me—
Rail: I know what you mean. It’s there, but sometimes there’s no tracking it down.
Berkson: I don’t know, it could be a word like preternatural. It has happened in my expository and art writing quite a bit. I will go to look up the word, and—spot on. But I didn’t know it. So that’s coming from some stream, that one’s mind can apparently tap into, not willfully, it’s just given, in this wonderful way. So in that sort of identifies “the muse.” I’m really interested in that. How to tap into that thread? What is the story? There was this time when the story was handed on from generation to generation. That’s kind of a tribal thing, whatever resulted in The Iliad, The Odyssey first out of the oral tradition, but it has happened in literature too. But we don’t seem to have that continuity, so we have to be content providers. The old sense of the artist was as a joiner, meaning you sort of put this thing together. Somebody who visited the New College (when I was teaching there) seemed to know a lot about Greek poetics, and one of the things that he quoted was a story that involved Hesiod going to sleep under a tree. He woke up, and the line goes something like, “the muse had given him something.” So he was prepared to write the poem. It’s like a dream. If you’re given a dream, then you wake up and the dream is going to make itself available for a poem. Then all you have to do is write it, recalling as best you can.
Rail: Those are gifts. The whole world of the Native American Dream Songs, in Bible stories, Blake, and, it happened last night!
Berkson: All you have to do then is write it. You don’t have to make the damn story up. I mean what I like best is telling stories. But they are not always available, and so then I get into this—it’s something like what Joyce described as scratching around in the sand. There’s a mess of words and you’re trying to put the words together in some way that feels like some kind of story—the kind of story that music is.
Rail: I don’t exactly know what you mean when you say “the kind of story that music is.” But I love everything about the phrase and idea of it: the kind of story that music is. I’m writing that down. It says so much about your poetry. And also the fact that words are toned.
Earlier today you said “something something, baby” and were kind of charting a geography of a tone: connecting a sound in Virgil Thomson’s voice, which you said Frank O’Hara was picking up on. Did you know Thomson through O’Hara?
Berkson: Yes, but also through my mother (Eleanor Lambert). It was very interesting to know him. He had such an interesting speech pattern—this kind of Kansas. It was Kansas, but it was your grandmother. Very high pitched.
Rail: I know your mother worked in the fashion world. How did she get to know Thomson?
Berkson: He got real fixed on my mother. There was a wonderful man named Morris Golde who was a friend of the musicians, and he gave some of the most terrific parties. He was not a musician, he was not an artist, and he and his brother had an office supply business, I think that they made things like shredders. Morris had met my mother and thought it would be a great idea to put her and Virgil together. So we had this dinner which was Virgil and my mother and me, and a very close friend of my mother’s named Sybil Connolly. Sybil was an Irish clothes designer (pleated linens and Irish textiles), and also very much involved in rescuing old Irish crafts like glass blowing and tatting and so forth. The five of us had dinner, and so forever after when I would see Virgil (this is an example of how I can get to his tone) the first thing out of Virgil’s mouth would be “How’s Mama!”
Rail: Amazing. So good.
Berkson: And he liked to call everybody baby. And that’s probably what Frank is hearing when he says ”the Brise Marine wasn’t written in Sanskrit, baby.” He’s probably hearing Virgil.
Rail: Did you say something about Thomson having a few of Gertrude Stein’s vests?
Berkson: Yes, he did. Virgil had them in a closet in the Chelsea Hotel. In fact, once he modeled one or two of them for me and somebody else, which could have been O’Hara. Gertrude Stein left him her vests, which were brocaded. She’s been photographed a lot in them. The Cecil Beaton portraits have her in them.
Rail: When did you first hear or listen to Four Saints in Three Acts?
Berkson: When I was at Brown—around 1957-58—the lively scene was down at Rhode Island School of Design. There was a guy, slightly older who had been like Ted Berrigan at Tulsa. He had been in the Korean War. He died recently; his name was Harry Smith—not the filmmaker—different guy. He did a magazine called The Smith and we were in contact in recent years somewhat. I went to a party and he put on that RCA recording of the Four Saints; you know the sort of edited version. I had already been reading Gertrude Stein, but I didn’t know this recording existed. I probably didn’t even know that the opera existed, but then it just became a staple for me. I still listen to it a lot. I love the opera.
Rail: Have you seen it live?
Berkson: Mark Morris did a fantastic version, which I wish would go into repertory somehow. I mean just so one could see it over and over again, at least once a year with his dancers, but with the chorus on the side. Really wonderful.
Rail: So hearing that at that party that just got into your head...
Berkson: It was so exciting. I loved that score anyway, the way it sort of rolls around, and it’s episodic and then it has this Stein libretta with completely memorable lines. There’s one that’s about the Saints: “Those who were overwhelmingly particular about what they were adding to themselves by means of their arrangements.” Pretty good guideline for anybody’s life.
Rail: That’s great. I don’t know those lines from Stein. To go back for one minute, when you said Frank O’Hara might have been picking up on Thomson’s tone. Can you speak more about that?
Berkson: That’s an intonation. At one point it came as a shock to me to realize that every word in a way was this glyph, or every word had its root, had its inception in something physical.
Rail: That all words are somehow forgotten metaphors. Some image and something else; some sounds, dissimilar things fusing, and now it’s all but forgotten what they were.
Berkson: I’ve tried to take it back…I think about sensation a lot. There’s another aspect to music and painting like de Kooning’s for example, or Alex Katz’s, or Pollock’s or some others, which is sensation. That’s the way the thing strikes you. If a reading of poetry out loud comes across, it often eases, or speeds up the reception, the getting the sensation of that poem. You hope that it can also come off from reading just off the page—that’s where the poem would work on the reader somewhat the way it would work on the writer. My experience is, at a certain point, if you get there with a poem, where the poem hits you, the poem speaks to you, you receive a certain tone or sensation from that poem, that you say, “Okay, this is at least somewhere. The poem’s gotten somewhere, you know; it’s not where I thought it was going to go.” You can hardly ever see where it’s going to go. Sometimes I will aim a poem towards a last line, I know that’s the last line, and I don’t know how I’m going to get there, but still, that’s not really the objective. So, I would say (my book), Expect Delays is somewhat about that. It’s a faint—it’s not really desperate—but it’s a faint caution, and inside of the caution is a little bit of hope that people can still slow down enough to receive the nuances within the succession of sensations that a poem delivers, can deliver. And with that is also, in terms of vocabulary there’s a lot of vocabulary in the poetry, especially recently—consciously—that’s the vocabulary of, well, it’s a little like Bouvard et Pécuchet, there are words that have given meanings in the culture, and I want to rip them away from their usage. Maybe back to other usage, or what they really mean, something like that, away from often its political usage.
Rail: Well, countering reification is one thing, but it sounds like you’re working on the language from another direction.
Berkson: To a certain extent, the word is opened up again, or the sense of the word is opened up again. But anyway, it’s interesting to me, one source of that usage of sensation was Cézanne. Early on, Allen Ginsberg was very interested in this little sensation that Cézanne spoke about, which was really the flash between or among words. He wrote beautifully about that, around the time of Howl. And something that he acknowledged being inspired to do by seeing and then reading up on Cézanne. In an interview, I think it’s Harold Rosenberg is goading de Kooning to talk about Mondrian, and de Kooning says this beautiful thing about the lines in Mondrian, he says, “Where the lines cross there’s a little light.” It’s like those black lines shhht and it puh! It’s a beautiful thing happening this sort of spark, or little flash that can happen as the words conjoin. And that’s like Monk’s chords too. [Hums]
Rail: Those brilliant corners.
Berkson: Who knows? I always forget which came first or who said it, but somewhere between Mallarmé and Poe there’s this sense of—they would say not the thing, but the effect that the thing produces. Is that Poe or Mallarmé or both?
Rail: The Poe/Baudelaire continuum. The sensation and effect as it happens to you, or more likely in you—in time.
Berkson: They had to have the patience, or something. That’s in a way what we’re up against—poetry is up against—is this mad rush with no time to sit with this poem, or listen to it even; and to let the sensation hit or sink in. If it’s really going to get anywhere, it’s got to be more than just a quick hit, and oh let’s go to the next thing. It’s like walking through the museum. I don’t know how they’ve clocked it, but it’s something on the order of seven seconds per painting [laughs]. If even! Which makes sense because there will be a lot there that you have no use for whatsoever, or need for, but then some things need you to stop, look, and listen. It’s a subversive state, among other things.
Rail: The condition of our own moment, as you say, is “the quick hit.” The hyper-speed that never wants us to stop—the capitalist drive just to keep plugging us. But for me, one of the great things is when you are actually stopped in your tracks, and that’s it. You’re there. At that point, I just have to sort of leave. Or stay with it as long as I can and then I’m done. I don’t want to take anything else in because something happened. And that’s sort of the definition of narrative too—something happened.
Berkson: Yeah, well it’s also that you have these controls. Like these guys, if you’re sitting across the room from the mechanism, the player, you can stop and go back. An LP used to be twenty minutes per side. Now you have CDs that can carry an hour and a half or more, right? There’s this kind of weird function of the album where you go from song to song—from piece to piece to piece—and it’s kind of like being in a museum that way, where you go, oh, you just keep absorbing it. Or not. Or it just becomes a blur. At which point you say, oh that’s a really interesting cut. I remember the days you would pick up the needle, and say okay let’s go back to that cut, and very carefully find the gap between where the start of the record, let it come it down on it. As you say, something about being pulled from one thing to the next in this culture, and that is part of it. It just goes along, like you about Michael Gizzi’s Collected Poems. So what if you have the box set? There’re all these mosaic record box sets with seven CDs in them, The Complete Nat King Cole, or Chris Connor, or whatever. I mean sure, great, I want to hear everything, and yet, what you really want to hear—in some ways you really want to hear that song.
There’s one song that you really absolutely need in all that box, and you don’t really necessarily want this thing going just on and on and on and on. It’s not the way music is. I mean, I have your book or Joanne [Kyger]’s book, and that’s within, absolutely within my grasp, my control. I may open it at random, or I may be reading through the book, but my experience will be very much what you described with that one painting in the museum which is for that day, I’m going to read that poem, and that poem strikes me in a certain way, and then that’s enough for today. I’m not going to keep leafing through. I’m going to let that poem sink in because that’s the experience of that poem. It’s not a book that’s going to, oh! Poetry books are not page turners, really. Here’s a book of Basho, and all these poems are three lines long or five, and you’re just going to flip on to the next and the next, and the next one. No. Actually, sometimes just read the one that says frog in the pond goes ploop, and that’s it.
Rail: The old pond!
Berkson: That’s it for today folks. [Laughs] Because you should let it become part of your metabolism for the day. Let it work on it. Let it work on you.