Some Assembly Required
Bill Berkson’s “Memoir In Pieces”
When talking about Bill Berkson certain assumptions must be addressed. That he was a quintessential New Yorker who had escaped to California and created a niche for himself among artists and writers on the “shaggy and rustic” West Coast while maintaining a certain Atlantic savoir faire. With classic good looks and aristocrat bearing, that he was a knowledgeable esthete of impeccable taste. That he was not of the musty academic or dyspeptic grammarian persuasion but someone attuned to the dynamic of a modernism intent on creative reassessment. That schooled in the fashionable at his mother’s knee, as an adult he cast a discerning eye on the world of art and chose poetry. That with Berkson there always seemed to be a plan.
Since When, the title of Bill Berkson’s 2018 “Memoir In Pieces” from Coffee House Press can be heard as a challenge to a change in circumstances as well as a question as to a specific time or starting point. Berkson had a penchant for these pocket tropes rife with quotidian ambiguity as exampled by previous book titles: Same Here, Repeat After Me, Expect Delays, and Recent Visitors. Expect Delays, his last poetry selection from Coffee House Press, echoes the Breton, Char, Eluard collaboration Relantir Travaux and is well reinforced by large digital signs wherever road crews are at work. Recent Visitors was appropriated from the back pages of pre-Lilly bequest Poetry Magazine. Berkson learned to unpack the potential of seemingly bland common usage from Kenneth Koch who put him through his poetry paces at The New School in Manhattan in the 60’s. This fondness for the stealth idiom resonant with ambiguity became one of the characteristics of Berkson’s poetry in that familiar usage belying its common meaning, the result of linguistic drift as the splice of hybridized morphemes, produced unique declarations. But then, as this neo-Goncourtian encapsulation of scenes and episodes reveals, Berkson’s interest were not limited to literature.
The first forty pages of Since When are an autobiographical portrait of a somewhat privileged upbringing in a fashionable world of glamour and refined sensibilities, and the access it allowed to a jet stetting strata of New York society. That sense of entrée is the key that allows Berkson to open doors for himself in search of that esthetic yet obscure object of desire, the quest for a truth in the realm of taste. Born in Manhattan in 1939 to Seymour, a journalist and newspaper publisher, and Eleanor, a public relations professional in the highly visible fashion industry, he grew up in a home that bordered Central Park. He attended private schools as a youngster, prep schools in the upper grades, and after a stint at Brown University found the progressive New School of Social Research in the West Village more to his liking. And it was through his immersion in the “steam heated” downtown art scene that he received an education unavailable through academic curriculum. As is characteristic of autodidacticism, Berkson made himself an expert.
Following the autobiographical introduction, the sideboard of collected remembrances serves up Personal Portraits, Scenes and Routines, One Hundred Women, including journal entries from his early 20’s in New York, and selected interviews.
The anecdotal portrayals recapture an awestruck deer-in-the-headlights neophyte in the world of the famous, near famous, and notorious. “Always meet your heroes” was ostensibly Robert Creeley’s advice, and so he did. The list includes a veritable who’s who in the contemporary world of art and literature: Abstract Expressionists (the de Koonings, Goldberg, Rivers, Mitchell, Freilicher), New York poets and painters (O’Hara, Ashbery, Denby, Berrigan, Koch, Schuyler, Brainard, Schneeman, Guston), The Beats/Black Mountain (Burroughs, Wieners, Baraka, Olson, Ginsberg). As well, there is Auden and John Cage, Morton Feldman, Arnold Weinstein. Philip Whalen, a poet who remains somewhat of an enigma to Berkson as he does to so many others. And for those still interested in postwar mid-century American poetry, further anecdotal evidence of Frank O’Hara’s irreverent, flippant genius is always welcome.
One particularly poignant section dated 1999 details a visit with artists Rudy Burckhardt and Yvonne Jacquette in midsummer Maine while staying nearby with Alex and Ada Katz. It was a visit Berkson confesses he’d wanted to make for thirty years. After a congenial day of chat and a robust dinner and wine, Berkson and his wife, Connie, drove back to their lodgings. The following day, returning from a hike, they were informed that “Rudy walked into the pond late last night, before dawn.” Yvonne is “shocked but not surprised” but perhaps not more so than the reader by this tragic spike in the narrative coming on the heels of varied and rather unsurprising anecdotal portraits.
Yet the sketches are not without Berkson’s incisive insight into the world of art. In his 2010 essay “Everyday Expressionism—Michael Goldberg and Painting in the Fifties” (revised 2016), Berkson’s keen assessment succinctly and precisely identifies the dilemma of painters and contemporary poets as well.
“The desperation tactics of first generation painters—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others—had been taken up by the next generation with more irony than angst, as well as more assurance, if only because assurance was everywhere in the air, those being peak years of Empire. Younger painters talked the talk of existential doubt where in fact absence of faith and the ego-requisite determination to go with what one had—the intuition that a painting was there to be made and that one had the aptitude, particular as to both character and technique, to act accordingly—were givens.” Substitute “poet” for “painter” and the proposition is just as relevant, if not more so.
The section titled Scenes and Routines collects a grab bag of impressions, remembrances, and reflections from the frivolous to the personally revealing. Reminiscent of Jules Renard’s Journals in the cataloguing of social lights and sightings, Scenes and Routines could be subtitled “Names Keep Dropping From My Head.” Greta Garbo, Roddy McDowell, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, Montgomery Clift, Myrna Loy, are presented like the receiving line of New World royalty. Berkson recounts being in Spoleto with Pound, John Wieners, and Charles Olson in 1965. Meeting the eerie and spectral Jean Genet at Yale and along the banks of the Seine. Hanging with Judy Garland at Warhol’s Factory. And being introduced to Frank Sinatra who left him underwhelmed. Berkson, the boyhood autograph hunter, still relishes the bright shiny radiance of celebrity, putting himself in propinquity to the leading lights.
As such, and in no half measure, Berkson’s associations are varied and legend, from house guest Liza Minnelli and the high fashion crowd to the scuffling poets and painters of the lower Eastside, all well documented with photographs of those times. Here are Bill and his mother, Bill as a young urban sophisticate (and date), Bill of the penetrating gaze as eye candy, Bill with Kenneth Koch and Patsy Southgate, Bill with Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch, Bill with Frank, Bill with Frank, Bill and the nascent school of New York poets at an Easter Sunday softball outing at the park (later to be the cover of Best & Co., the first collection of the work by these poets), Bill with Willem de Kooning, Bill with Frank, Bill with Pound in Spoleto, Bill with John Wieners and John Ashbery, Bill with Philip Whalen, with Ted Berrigan, with Allan Ginsberg and the Naropa University gang, with Jim Carroll, with Joanne Kyger and Larry Fagin, with Lewis Warsh, Joe Brainard, and Kenward Elmslie, with Ron Padgett, with Bernadette Meyers, with Alex Katz, with his mother photo bombing Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow at the Black & White Ball, Bill at Woodstock, and more pictures of Bill enhancing any background with Zelig-like ubiquity.
The fragmentation of this some-assembly-required, multiple-choice memoir lends itself to random accessing or browsing the table of contents, name surfing to gauge the breadth of Berkson’s social register in the world of art. In this he is his mother’s son, as he too has an impressive rolodex of connections. But as close as he comes to revealing the full scope of his autobiography, there’s a feeling of omission, editorial or personal, of wholeness hinted at but never fully detailed. Typical of a self-assured humility, Berkson buries his accomplishments under the persona of an affable raconteur in which everything from the monumental and historic to the most mundane has the same weight, viewed from an esthetic distance. As an example, the suicide of Rudy Burkhardt after his visit, shockingly matter of fact in the narrative of his socializing, is dealt with the same dispassion as the whimsical raw footage of his admission to having had sex as a young man with an older woman, a film and TV actress, titillating in referring to her by initials only, but easily discovered by further reading in the memoir.
Yet to portray Berkson merely as a social butterfly would be hugely inaccurate. Although there will always be something of Fifth Avenue privilege in his attitude, there is also an equanimity to recounting the incidentals that make a life in the thrall of the modernist ethos as its explainer and critic, gate keeper, game keeper, referee, warden, arbiter, curator, docent, teacher, and chronicler.
The convergence of art and literature is perhaps a symptom of modernism. Early in the century the poets of Cubism were allied with those painters, followed by Surrealism and its poets and painters. In Francis Steegmuller’s Apollinaire, Poet Among The Painters (1963) he identifies Apollinaire as the modern poet who bridged cross disciplinary affiliations of art and literature. Unfortunately, he observes, most English majors have not a clue about art yet it is from their ranks that the literary ambitious arise. The independence of the artist is attractive. The poets choose galleries and bars over bookstores and coffee houses. Rather than write book reviews, they write reviews of gallery shows. The poets hang out at painters’ bars and talk about poetry although the painters never go to the coffeehouses to talk about painting. The obsessive intellectual scrutiny of writers, poets in particular, is deemphasized among the immediacy of the visual arts coup d’œil and focus placed on the purely perceptual. As with what became the New York School, poets formed similar alliances, and while O’Hara could easily be considered the Apollinaire of late century American poetry, Berkson, as well, could be the philosophical Bergson as his name has often been mispronounced or misunderstood.
Berkson’s unobtrusive leadership in a world of esthetics unaffiliated with academics provided an outline for cross discipline literature and art. He identified the precursors and established a network, a loose fit of poets, uptown and down, whose esthetic was a worldly pop modernism, what Brand Gooch, in his O’Hara biography, identified as “Bill’s School of New York.” And like most blips on the esthetic radar it was way ahead of the curve but passé by the time it became popular. As Apollinaire was to Cubism, and Breton to Surrealism, Berkson, evoking Motherwell’s declaration to the painters, was to the school of New York poets. Berkson endowed with context a group of loosely affiliated poets who had migrated to his turf. His social position and that of being a native son gave him a unique sense of ownership, certainly conferring on that particular swim a more cosmopolitan air. It was a case of prep school meets reform school. Or maybe the pure products of America meet the high hysteria of the uppercrust. Berkson admits he never completely assimilated the fashion of the downtown tee shirt poets, later known as 2nd Gen New York poets. His shirts were always collared or turtleneck. The association of poets with the visual arts and artists, and the School of New York painters in particular, that convergence is due in large part to Berkson. And, regardless of having the nomination of this economic and cultural singularity, that post-Beat affiliation is not strictly geographic but finds itself in many regions and locales across the map of the Americano Literary landscape.
Of that movement, admittedly the most important and defining text is John Ashbery’s “Europe”, from his book of poems, The Tennis Court Oath. In a piece of unequivocal ephemera, Berkson includes excerpts from his engagement calendar for the year 1961. And it contains a gem of hearsay. He is in Paris, with Frank, and they are having lunch with Joan Mitchell:
October 31: Hallowe’en. Joan Mitchell lunch/ Roy Leaf & JA [John Ashbery] at Deux Magots
Note/ October 31: During lunch at Joan’s, Frank pronounces Ashbery “the foremost poet in English today.” Joan Mitchell says “God! How I worked over that poem!” (meaning Europe). I grunt. Jean-Paul fixes the camera.
Even though he chose California as the place to take his Archimedean stand, Berkson would always be a New Yorker in exile with the curious expat removal from the place, belonging yet not belonging, or so his writing would indicate. In an impressionistic piece titled “Changes” he admits “The shock shortly after my sixtieth birthday, of realizing that I had slipped over the line and had spent more than half my life in California, all the while maintaining my New York credentials.” Ten years later he is at Diane di Prima’s induction as San Francisco’s poet laureate. She looks like a perky Queen Victoria, but for her Brooklyn accent. He remarked to her at the reception following, “The longer we stay out here, the more ‘New York’ we sound.” Berkson found on the West Coast a creative milieu as civilized but perhaps not as set in its ways as the East Coast. Although in his element in the high octane art scene, it was ultimately the soft convergences of Pacific Rim atmospheric cycles that held him.
In his day, Berkson catalyzed a group of young poets defined by a time and place, marshalling a second generation to spotlight the accomplishments of the first generation. Some of the great later poems by Frank O’Hara found their inspiration in Berkson’s bourgeois insouciance. What he memorializes in Since When is a time past, a window on a homogeneous art world of poets and painters. Yet all that is history now that the English majors have retaken the ramparts, and they are famously ambivalent, even hostile, to the visual arts.
Berkson’s anecdotal highlights map out a life as impressive as the times which he chronicled and includes wives, children, travel, altered states, sexual encounters, marginal gossip, and even, in his sixties, a lung transplant. He grew up in a fashionable world with a sense of decorum that never left him, reserved and sophisticated. Through it all he passed with a certain sober equanimity, clear eyed to his sense of place in the world, especially that of art and literature. Bill was proud that he could be equally comfortable with the natives as well as the society swells remarking that he was the only one he knew of his generation that had been at Woodstock as well as Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. He attained personal equilibrium in July of 2016.
Since When, A Memoir In Pieces by Bill Berkson,
Coffee House Press, November 2018, 288 pages, $17.95 (paper)
Submitted to the membership by the Parole Officer
Portrait And Dream, New and Selected Poems, Bill Berkson, Coffee House Press, 2009
Expect Delays (poems), Bill Berkson, Coffee House Press, 2014
The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings 1985-2003, Bill Berkson, Qua Books, 2003
New York Painters & Poets; Neon In Daylight, Jenni Quilter, Bill Berkson, Advisory Editor (with Larry Fagin), Rizzoli, 2014