Last week, tragic news hit the worlds of indie rock and contemporary poetry simultaneously. The musician and poet David Berman, leader of the acclaimed indie band Silver Jews, had passed away at the age of 52, after a long struggle with depression and addiction. The news carried an extra potent sting because after a decade of silence following the last Silver Jews album, Berman had recently emerged with a new band name (Purple Mountains) and an excellent new album. He had also begun giving interviews and was about to head out on tour. Twitter immediately lit up with stunned laments by fellow musicians, writers, and fans, and many obituaries, wonderful appreciations, and reminiscinces of Berman and his music and writing have quickly followed.
In the days since his death, Berman has been hailed for his vivid, off-kilter songs – studded with unforgettable aphorisms and sung in his not-for-everyone but deeply resonant baritone – but also for his strange and moving poetry. This is fitting, because, unlike many rock musicians who perhaps dabble in writing poetry, Berman was the real deal: he was an English major at University of Virginia, where he studied poetry with Charles Wright, and then went to get his MFA in poetry from the University of Massachussets, where his mentor was the revered poet James Tate.
In 1999, after garnering fame and notoriety in indie circles with the first three, terrific Silver Jews albums, Berman published a book of poems called Actual Air, which arrived complete with blurbs by James Tate and Billy Collins. The book quickly gained a cult following, pulling in many readers who were otherwise unfamiliar with contemporary poetry, and quietly influencing a whole range of younger poets. The impact of Actual Air on a generation of poets reminds me a bit of Brian Eno’s famous comment about the first Velvet Underground album: the banana record may have “only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
So I just wanted to add this small footnote to the chorus of memorials for Berman. In addition to being a hugely important and beloved musician, Berman should be seen as one of the best of a handful of figures who manage to bring the sensibility of contemporary poetry – and, particularly poetry of the New York School – to the world of music. As I’ve written about before, the connections between indie rock and the New York School of poets are real and extensive, but among musicians, Berman surely has one of the most direct connections to this lineage, whether through his link to Tate (widely seen as a key heir to Ashbery) or simply his own reading and stated influences.
As many reviews of Actual Air noted, Berman’s poetry clearly shows the impress of Ashbery’s work. For instance, the New Yorker’s review noted that Berman “comes on like a prankster, restocking the imperial orations of Wallace Stevens and the byzantine monologues of John Ashbery with the pop-cultural bric-a-brac of a new generation.” And Ashbery pops up in various places in Berman’s work, like the epigraph for a piece in the Baffler about his experience working as a guard at the Whitney Museum. (Around the same time, Berman’s close friend and collaborator Stephen Malkmus, the founder of the iconic indie band Pavement, was giving interviews in which he too identified Ashbery as a source for his own strange lyrics).
But Berman’s debts to the New York School lineage extend beyond Ashbery: in interviews, Berman repeatedly mentioned Kenneth Koch as a major influence. When the Poetry Society of America asked him “Are there poems, poets, or anthologies that have opened up or radically altered your ideas of what can be done in poetry?” Berman responded “I always thought that the corollary to ‘make it new’ should be ‘make it not boring.’ Stephen Crane and Kenneth Koch both inspired me. One with his clarity, the other with his obfuscation.” Even as recently as last month, in an interview with Travis Nichols for the Poetry Foundation, Berman said “I would put amusical influences down to Tate, Russell Edson, Kenneth Koch.”
Interestingly enough, this ongoing conversation seems to have run in both directions: as Berman himself noted last month in a discussion of James Tate, the title of his old teacher’s final, posthumously published book The Government Lake, seems to have been from one of Berman’s own poems.
The New York School ethos and aesthetic can be found all over the place in Berman’s poems and songs, which masterfully evoke the surrealism of everyday life, take a playful, ironic stance towards experience and the self, revel in the cracked weirdness of ordinary language and the absurdities of pop culture, and experiment with a collage aesthetic.
David Berman’s death is a heartbreaking, tremendous loss, and it’s hard to know what to say beyond that. “Do you believe in MGM endings?” he once asked in “Like Like The The The Death,” a song about mortality with a weird, stuttering title worthy of Gertrude Stein or Ashbery himself. I must say it feels pretty tough to believe in happy movie endings at the moment. Berman’s song also includes these lines, which seem as fitting a conclusion as any other: “Like like the the the death / Air crickets, air crickets, air crickets, air crickets, air.”