Berkson, Bill

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Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 30 August 1939. Education: Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1957–59; New School for Social Research, New York (Dylan Thomas memorial award 1959), 1959–60; Columbia University, New York, 1959–60; New York University Institute of Fine Arts, 1960–61. Family: Married 1) Lynn O'Hare in 1975 (divorced 1996), one son and one daughter; 2) Constance Lewallen in 1998. Career: Editorial associate, Portfolio and Art News Annual, New York, 1960–63; associate producer, Art-New York series, WNDT-TV, New York, 1964–65; taught at the New School for Social Research, 1964–69; guest editor, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965–69; editor, Best & Company magazine, 1969; Teaching Fellow, Ezra Stiles College, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1969–70; editor, Big Sky magazine and Big Sky Books, Bolinas, California, 1971–78; teacher, California Poets in the Schools Program, 1974–84, Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado, 1977, New College of California, 1977, 1983, Southampton College, 1980, and California College of Arts and Crafts, 1983–84. Coordinator of art history, 1988–94, since 1984 professor of art history, and since 1994 director, Letters & Science, San Francisco Art Institute. Since 1988 corresponding editor, Art in America.Awards: Poets Foundation grant, 1968; Yaddo fellowship, 1968; Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines grants, 1973–77; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1979; Briarcombe fellowship, 1983; Artspace award in art criticism, 1990. Address: 25 Grand View Avenue, San Francisco, California 94114, U.S.A.



Saturday Night: Poems 1960–61. New York, Tibor de Nagy, 1961.

Shining Leaves. New York, Angel Hair, 1969.

Two Serious Poems and One Other, with Larry Fagin. Bolinas, California, Big Sky, 1972.

Recent Visitors. New York, Angel Hair, 1973.

Ants. Berkeley, California, Arif Press, 1974.

Hymns of St. Bridget, with Frank O'Hara. New York, Adventures in Poetry, 1974.

100 Women. Chicago, Simon and Schuchat, 1975.

Enigma Variations. Bolinas, California, Big Sky, 1975.

Blue Is the Hero: Poems 1960–1975. Kensington, California, L Publications, 1976.

Red Devil. Bolinas, California, Smithereens Press, 1982.

Start Over. Bolinas, California, Tombouctou, 1983.

Lush Life. Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1984.

A Copy of the Catalogue. Vienna, Austria, Labyrinth, 1999.

Young Manhattan, with Anne Waldman. Boulder, Colorado, Erudite Fangs, 1999.

Serenade. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Zoland, 2000.

Fugue State. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Zoland, 2000.


Ronald Bladen: Early and Late. San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art, 1991.

Homage to George Herriman. San Francisco, Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery, 1997.

Editor, In Memory of My Feelings, by Frank O'Hara. New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1967.

Editor, with Irving Sandler, Alex Katz. New York, Praeger, 1971.

Editor, with Joe LeSueur, Homage to Frank O'Hara. Bolinas, California, Big Sky, 1978.

Editor, What's with Modern Art? by Frank O'Hara. Mike and Dale's Press, 1998.


Manuscript Collection: University of Connecticut, Storrs.

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Bill Berkson was a late arrival to the New York ferment that produced such poets as Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler in the 1950s, when abstract expressionism released new energies of awareness for poets as well as painters. Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were giants at the center of this creative apocalypse, and their projections through paint of various states of conscious (and unconscious) experience liberated art from its old logical categories. Suddenly, free and fluid forms of self-expression became the norm of such art, and by the mid-1950s poets applied to syntax and diction the same release and invented a fresh discourse. O'Hara, who as associate curator of the Museum of Modern Art served as a liaison between painting and writing, was the reigning figure of this revolution in poetics.

Berkson came from the next generation, but his credentials were good: born in New York City to upper-class parents, a private school education, a writer for Art News, occasional work with the Museum of Modern Art. In addition, Berkson edited a book of O'Hara's poems, In Memory of My Feelings, and collaborated with him on a second, Hymns of St. Bridget. These are only details of a life, but they add up to a sophisticated apprenticeship for writing a certain style of poetry, one that requires considerable daring and finesse, since much of it is calculated to swing into and well out of ordinary sense. There is about the New York style a punning sense of reality, that objects and events are only tenuously situated in fixity and that the whole texture of one's certainty is as easily disturbed as a creek bed. A delicate, sometimes foolish humor overtakes such lyrics, but behind it is a philosophical impetus—a gnawing frustration with the usual and the vague, a repressed but squirming vitality beneath the mundane and the actual, as in "Leave Canceled":

   What we need is a great big vegetable farm!
   Every vegetable to stand up and be counted,
   and all the farmers to love one another
   in their solid, lazy dreams.
   Then this would be all knowledge,
   all hygiene, and the plants we feel,
   and it comes down to Boy and Dad and kind
   balloons of sight. The sky's neat sweep.
   the irrational, would be this butterfly dish
   where lovely woman stacks her arms …

Berkson only narrowly skirts sense in his own work, which sets up an interesting tension in reading him. Although the language often seems to be a runaway logopoeia—words ordered by sounds alone—with a little scrutiny the thread of a reasoning process is discernible, as in this typical passage:

   Are you different from that shelter you
   Built for knives? On the side walk, sapphires.
   On the fifth floor, fungus was relaxing. I have put on
   The crimson face of awareness you gave me.
   What is the heart-shaped object that thaws your fingers?
   It is a glove and in it a fist.

Sometimes Berkson's experiments break through to a new level of metaphor that ties extraordinary words together ("In the Mean"):

   Running water—
   it makes you think of all you didn't do
   but not regret it, no: de ma jeunesse.
   You didn't know I was the President of
   a great cloud of falling bricks, did you?
   Zoom. Bent. The bare stalk of the corn tree plant of
   October thirty-one, of November one, November two …

In such work, however, the strain for novelty can become an effort, and there is much dogged flippancy in Berkson:

   What am I indicting that heads off gardenia?
   green green stove-pipe
   arm around me stalk wherein pegged a relax bus
   globule of often-candelabra in the cake
   of soap …

And so on. The intention, we might suppose, is to break free of the routines of syntax, lyric formula, the prescribed means by which we translate experience into generalized patterns. The sheer predictability of most poetry tells us that Berkson set out to run off track, to derail his imagination from that groove in which Emily Dickinson tells us the "brain runs evenly—and true" until a splinter sends it reeling forever. It's the outer world the mind borders that Berkson wants to spring toward through derangements of sense and syntax.

Although his later work, as with Start Over and Serenade, has continued down the same path as before, Berkson, like Ashbery and O'Hara, stands in a prelusive way to the ideas and inventions of the language poets. He is a resource of certain early linguistic ideas, distortions, and strategies by which consciousness found its way out and set off on some sort of trek into the nonformulaic world.

—Paul Christensen