Yesterday brought the very sad news that the poet and art critic Bill Berkson had passed away at the age of 76. Berkson was of course of central importance to the New York School and its legacy, and over the coming days and months there will surely be many tributes and memorials, discussions of his poetry and its lasting importance.
Although I didn’t know Berkson as well as so many did who are mourning his loss today, I was fortunate enough to meet him several times and to correspond with him. He was generous and kind, insightful and sharp, quick to share his insights about Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Amiri Baraka, and so much else with younger scholars and poets. He will be deeply missed.
Although Berkson was nearly fifteen years younger than O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler, he became an important part of their scene, and later, a founding member of the movement’s so-called second-generation. In fact, Berkson has the distinction of being one of, if not the, first of the many younger poets to fall under the sway of the New York School’s first generation in the 1960s. After becoming aware of the work of Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and other “New American Poets” while studying at Brown University, Berkson left Brown behind and came to New York in 1959, where he began taking a course with Kenneth Koch at the New School that had a profound effect on him. As he later wrote, he was “greatly influenced by Koch’s sense of humor and beauty (he presented their connection clearly) and through his teaching, by Williams, Reverdy, Auden, Stevens, Michaux — then, of course, O’Hara and Ashbery, and Koch’s own work, or more exactly his way of seeing funny details.”
As O’Hara’s biographer Brad Gooch describes him, “Berkson was twenty years old and strikingly handsome in a Kennedy way that made him seem even more handsome in the early sixties. The son of Seymour Berkson, a famous Hearst newspaperman and publisher of the Journal-American, who had recently died, and Eleanor Lambert, a fashion publicist whose provenance was Manhattan’s uptown cafe society, Berkson communicated an unusual mixture of patrician reserve, bohemian curiosity, intelligence, politeness, and brash rudeness.”
Koch recalled that Berkson “seemed to be at least as mature as I was and I was in my mid-thirties.” Koch soon introduced Berkson to O’Hara, setting in motion a close and complicated friendship that had an enormous impact on both poets’ lives and work. Berkson later recalled that Koch had warned him this might happen: “He’ll become a germ in your life.” Koch was right.
In a biographical note he wrote for An Anthology of New York Poets (edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro in 1970), Berkson paid tribute to O’Hara’s deep influence on him:
General ‘cultural’ education through friendship with Frank O’Hara: the Stravinsky-Balanchine Agon (and Edwin Denby’s essay on it), Satie (we created four-hand ‘annoyances’ at various apartments, once played for Henze in Rome), Feldman, Turandot, a certain Prokofiev toccato, Virgil Thomson (I had heard a recording of Four Saints at Harry Smith’s, Providence, 1957), movies … we read Wyatt together, recited Racine, skipped through galleries, collaborated on The Hymns of St. Bridget 1961-64, a note on Reverdy for Mercure de France 1961.
As he later told Brad Gooch, “I listened hard to what he said about poetry, about all the arts, about people, about living.”
Berkson became not only O’Hara’s inseparable companion and collaborator, but also something of a muse, sparking a long stream of poems — including such major works as “For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson” and “Biotherm (for Bill Berkson),” O’Hara’s great, last long poem, which he wrote to mark Berkson’s birthday. Other Berkson-inspired O’Hara poems include “Embarrassing Bill,” “A Short History of Bill Berkson,” “Essay on Style,” “Drifts of a Thing That Bill Berkson Noticed,” “Bill’s Burnoose,” “To the Music of Paul Bowles” (which begins “Dear Bill”), and “Bill’s School of New York,” in which O’Hara describes his subject and his quirky personality traits with affection: “He likes tunafish / and vodka, collages and cologne, and / seeing French movies more than once.” There is also the string of poems titled “F.Y.I.” (for your information) or “F.M.I.” (for my information), or some variation thereof, written (mostly by O’Hara) out of the ongoing dialogue between the two. Hymns to St. Bridget, a series of more purely collaborative works the two composed between 1961 and 1964, finally appeared in print in 2001 (in Hymns of St. Bridget and Other Writings). O’Hara held the work they did together in high esteem, and may have been only half-joking when he wrote to Vincent Warren in 1961: “Bill and I are almost finished with a book of poetry and prose which we modestly figure will be the mid-20th century equivalent of Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.”
When O’Hara died suddenly at the age of 40 in 1966, Berkson quickly became one of the chief guardians of O’Hara’s legacy and most vocal and eloquent champions of his work. Not only did he write perceptively about his friend’s work and its importance, but shortly after O’Hara’s death, Berkson put together the wonderful collection In Memory of My Feelings, published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, which paired O’Hara’s poems with prints by an array of famous artists, including Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Barnett Newman, Philip Guston, Alex Katz, and many others. Along with Joe LeSueur, Berkson also edited Homage to Frank O’Hara (1978), an indispensable gathering of tributes, poems, and photographs dedicated to the memory of O’Hara.
Berkson is a terrific poet in his own right, and I do not mean to diminish in any way the importance of his long and varied career as writer, editor, and art critic by focusing on his connections to O’Hara and other New York School writers. But it strikes me that whole essays remain to be written about Berkson’s pivotal role in the story of the New York School and the arc of Frank O’Hara’s career. Brad Gooch’s biography has one version of this story, Joe LeSueur’s memoir (Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara) another. But there is so much more to be said about Berkson as a figure in, and catalyst for, O’Hara’s writing, as a poet building on and extending the aesthetics of the New York School, and as a dynamic force within the worlds of the the movement’s first and second generations and beyond.
Here is Bill Berkson’s poem “Sound from Leopardi” (1968):
To the me of my own making, seeing I am here,
I’d speak a gesture sudden and precise
to show Time’s inconsiderateness where
to head in, and Death, that busboy,
his vanity of speed.
But always here and before me,
the rude lullaby: “Sleep, Mighty Mouth; sleep and die.”
And I would like to leave,
or bring other words and worlds miles closer
as a wakeful company, and out of plain talk spin
Truth and Falsehood, the greatest weapons in the world.