Articles - May 2011

On Ed Dorn, 'The Newly Fallen'

I’d like to insert Dorn’s first book, The Newly Fallen (Totem Press, 1961), into the Symposium to address an element I felt missing in the original presentation of texts. Senses of space and seemed crucial to the new news about poetry I encountered at age twenty-one, living in Vancouver and having grown up in the Kootenay mountains in the southeast of British Columbia. The New American Poetry anthology tapped into a need to identify the “local” as an aesthetic that was just blossoming in the northwest, and was of great interest to us Canadian postcolonials. Olson’s poetic mapping of Gloucester was as overwhelming as our concurrent discovery of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. But younger, and more western poets like Dorn, Whalen, and Snyder suggested a geographically closer-to-home and local flavour. Gary Snyder’s poem “Riprap” in the Allen anthology was, for me, a gem of affirmation, a poem about the kind of work I had done in the kind of place I came from. The “home of my mind” seemed eligible for the world of the poem.

The Newly Fallen was published by Leroi Jones’s Totem Press in January 1961, just before Dorn turned thirty-two. It represents the initial staging of Dorn’s work and, it seems, (from the correspondence between Jones and Dorn) that Jones had the manuscript in hand by December 30, 1960. [1] Black Mountain cohort Fielding Dawson did the cover for the book and his drawing plays off of the book’s title (in turn, the last line in the book): it is of an aerial contraption used for transporting manure on a farm (can’t recall why I know this). In any case, Dorn’s first book is central to any assessment of American poetry from 1960.

Dorn had been living in the Pacific Northwest since the midfifties, the setting for his autobiographical novel By The Sound, and was in Sante Fe, New Mexico in 1959–60, in the midst of a poetic community that included Robert Creeley, Max Finstein, and Judson Crews; Gil Sorrentino and Allen Ginsberg were visitors. He had been published in Paul Carrol’s Big Table, courtesy of a push from Creeley, The Evergreen Review, John Wieners’ Measure, Migrant, Ark II, Moby I, and had work solicited by Jones for Yugen. A twenty-two-year-old Tom Raworth, in Britain, had just started publishing Outburst and solicited poems from Dorn in late 1960.

1960 was very much in the era of a lot of nuclear bravado (French nuclear test, US Polaris missile underwater test, Atlas and Titan missiles, and so forth). That year Leroi Jones travelled to Cuba, met with Castro, and published “Cuba Libre” in Evergreen Review. By 1960, living in Sante Fe, New Mexico, the middle of the continent, in the middle of what Olson called “SPACE […] the central fact to man born in America,” Dorn depends on the shared poetic interest of an expansive community of writers from New York to San Francisco. [2] He accepted a teaching job at Idaho State in Pocatello in 1961 where he wrote his stunning journey poem, “Idaho Out,” which I first heard in February 1962 when Creeley, who taught at The University of British Columbia that year, brought Dorn to Vancouver for a reading. I was enthralled by a poetry that foregrounded place and class and fleshed out a range of attention to the local, the sensuous, the political, and the national that I could feel somewhat at home with. Soon after, I managed to pick up a copy of The Newly Fallen.

Dorn tells Jones that his selection for the manuscript will be earlier works, “None of the things there were in Don Allens’s antho,” but scattered magazine pieces. And, he tells Jones, “the chore of selecting from my own work will be a headache”. [3] The selection seems a little tentative, considering the more specifically “western” poems in the next book (Hands Up!). A few of the poems incline to an easy kind of lyricism, but more generally they move through what he calls “the great geography of my lunacy” (“Geranium”), a range of love song, the domesticity and furnishings of what he saw as Williams’ “grand / commonplace” (“The Open Road”), some biotextual references to growing up in midwest Americanism, farm stuff, Illinois, Sousa, etc. [4] The collection contains no grand address to the geographical but a number of inclinations that a little later, in something like “Idaho Out,” shape Dorn’s ambivalent tension between the freedom implicit in Olson’s capitalized (and open) SPACE and the west as a site of poverty and estrangement, “mad elements to be scrutinized” (“The Open Road”). [5] And an uncollected poem, “The Mountains,” likely written in 1960 in Sante Fe, ends with the lines “there is no coming back from the space / you make,” a rather sardonic ambiguity so characteristic of Dorn’s view of space. [6] The poems in The Newly Fallen intuit his impending observation that the outsider, the stranger in town is the one to pay attention to, “He’s the man who knows where he’s come from” (The Poet, The People, The Spirit, Berkeley, 1965). Or maybe not:

I go on my way frowning at novelty, wishing I were closer to home
than I am. And this is the last stop before Burlington,
that pea-center, which is my home, but not the home of my mind.
That asylum I carry in my insane squint … [7]

Along with the poems in the Allen anthology, The Newly Fallen signals Dorn’s presence in the 1960 roll call of New American Poetry.

[1] Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn, Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: Selections from the Collected Letters, 1959-1960, ed. Claudia Moreno Pisano, The CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative 1, no. 1 (Winter 2009).
[2] Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (New York: Grove Press, 1941), 14.
[3] “Correspondence, 12-1-60,” Baraka and Dorn, in Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: Selections from the Collected Letters, 1959-1960.
[4] Edward Dorn, “Geranium” and “The Open Road,” in The Newly Fallen (New York: Totem Press, 1961), 4, 10.
[5] Ibid., 8.
[6] Originally published in the “New Poetry 1963” issue of The Yale Literary Magazine; also reproduced on Isola di Rifiuti; “New Poetry 1963,” blog entry by John Latta, July 13, 2010.
[7] Dorn, “Geranium,” in The Newly Fallen, 4.

1960 A First Remembrance

On the New Year’s Eve between 1959 and 1960 I met Diane Wakoski — a night spent between Armand Schwerner’s place, whom we knew, and LeRoi Jones’s, who was still remote from us.  I had begun to move beyond my familiar New York quarters the year before — a trip by bus and car to dazzling San Francisco — and found a poetry world there (a world, in short) that beckoned us to enter. My first real book — translations, to start things off — had been published in 1959 by City Lights, and traveling home from San Francisco, I looked through the rear window of the bus and saw what seemed like a white sun, flat and cold, overhead. That was enough to serve as a title for White Sun Black Sun, a first book of my own that I would publish in the new year — 1960 — through Hawk’s Well Press, cofounded with David Antin a couple of years before. It was also the year in which I published Jess’s O!, having met him and Robert Duncan the year before in Stinson Beach, California, followed shortly thereafter by Robert’s visit and monthlong sojourn at our apartment in New York.

A year of expansions, as I remember it, when expansiveness was possible, even while holding one’s own ground, or trying to. There was an inner circle for sure but its boundaries were increasingly permeable. The ones I worked with most closely were Antin, Robert Kelly, Armand Schwerner, Rochelle Owens, and Diane Wakoski, all of whose first books I published. Kelly and George Economou (another key figure) were then publishing Trobar, and my own magazine of that time was Poems from the Floating World, which I subtitled “an ongoing anthology of the deep image.” And in 1960 we were joined, significantly, by Clayton Eshleman fresh in from Indiana, Paul Blackburn, connecting us to the poets of Black Mountain, and Jackson Mac Low, then operating near the heart of Fluxus. Their part in the discourse — each in his own way but ultimately connected — led us into enough new directions to last a lifetime.

“Deep image” was a rallying cry for several of us, more questionable for several others. It was a term of my own devising, a cover-up perhaps for the continuity of a way of writing and thinking characteristic of French and international Surrealism. Thinking back to it now — a half century later — what seems most meaningful was how it led us into ethnopoetics, the search for a new/old poetics related to or imbedded in the deepest and most distant of human cultures and languages. In the third issue of Poems from the Floating World, I made that search explicit (as Kelly and I had both done in Trobar), and started on the road to Technicians of the Sacred at the end of the decade — not as a way of writing, Tristan Tzara had once taught us, but as a state of mind (esprit).

What was truly remarkable here — at least for me — was how our different pathways, our different means as poets, converged once origins were summoned, and how much depth of human experience those pathways shared. David Antin catches that later in an account of how our ethnopoetics, rather than a yearning for the past, “provided a lens through which it became possible to see some of the possibilities of a truly Postmodern American poetry.” If we hadn’t gotten there yet by 1960, if there was still a way to go toward anything like fullness/wholeness, the participants were already in place, and the battle, as Picasso said of his own collaged beginnings, was now engaged.

On Bob Kaufman, 'Does the Secret Mind Whisper?'

Does the Secret Mind Whisper? (City Lights, 1960) a folding, five-panel broadside by Bob Kaufman, appeared on the heels of his much better-known Abomunist Manifesto (City Lights, 1959), which was later collected in Kaufman’s first book, Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (New Directions, 1965).  Secret Mind remained uncollected and out of print until Coffee House Press reissued, under the title Cranial Guitar (1995), Kaufman’s second book, Golden Sardine (City Lights, 1967), along with a sampling of poems from Solitudes and his third and final book, The Ancient Rain: Poems 19561978 (New Directions, 1981), as well as previously uncollected work. Comprising a single unpunctuated sentence, Secret Mind rushes headlong through a murky and harrowing inner landscape that New World surrealists of African descent (Aimé Césaire, Kaufman himself, Will Alexander, Wilson Harris et al.) have made us somewhat cognizant of, if not familiar or comfortable with; but it also critically engages an external world of sterile information factories and sexualized commercial spectacle that nonetheless derives from an indigenous if not hybrid and murderous creative wellspring:

parker who begat morpheus who begat farnsworth who begat starkweather who begat geronimo who begat whitman who begat hymened women with moist tongues following chinese funerals […] hard breasted adding machine girls in store bought curls wallowing in sipped coffee talking of last night’s copulations with certified public computers and itinerant umbrella peddlers lost in rainless fogs heel and toe and breast and buttock and crooked neck ballet dancers seducing male nymphs under cover of secret blankets of brilliant dust blindly flying through terrified streets of ruined limping vehicles filled with shaggy mouth youthful gangers hunting the human dog with stilettos of fear and dreams of money sex money cars money suits money shoes money muscles money houses money hair money pearly teeth month pointed shoes money hats money brains money hate money love twisted into pimp patterns of money success … [1]

Recognizable are the echoes, both s(ard)onically and thematically, of Ginsberg’s Moloch. But while this litany of desirable status commodities is a typical Beat rant against materialism, Kaufman’s critique is doubled in that the fetish objects shrugged off by counterculturals were also for the most part inaccessible to Black people (houses, success, cars) except in the form of minor accessories (hair, shoes, hats).

Like Kaufman himself, an apocryphally Jewish and Martiniquan African American Catholic from New Orleans, the “secret mind” represents the convergence of multiple cultural trajectories. It is the political unconscious of the US, which registers all the “secret, terrible hurts” (Kaufman, “Bagel Shop Jazz”) visited upon people who belong to an “America not on any map” (Will Alexander), the disenfranchised who may ruminate silently on these social, spiritual and bodily injuries but who may speak of them openly only at their peril. [2] The “secret mind” is also a psychoanalytic concept; the Freudian unconscious, and its putative liberation through uninhibited narrative or Beat logorrhea, were objects of the US counterculture’s infatuation, popularized, along with a street version of French existentialism, by European war refugees of the intellectual classes.

However, Kaufman has also indicated an apprehension of an intuited but ultimately unreachable

silent beat in between the drums.
Without it there is no drum, no beat. It is not the beat played by who is beating the drum. His is a noisy loud one, the silent beat is beaten by who is not beating on the drum, his silent beat drowns out all the noise, it comes before and after every beat, you hear it in beatween its sound is
        Bob Kaufman, poet [3]

This silent prima causa is another candidate for the secret mind, the mind behind the mind, between the worded spaces that crowd the mind as lonelinesses crowd solitudes. In yet another riff around secrets/silence, Kaufman writes of “a place called loneliness,”

I know of a place in between between, behind behind, in front of front, below below, above above, inside inside, outside outside, close to close, far from far, much farther than far, much closer than close, another side of an other side … [4]

Kaufman spatializes the uninhabitable, ineffable “real.” Is this an expression of the “yearning” that O’Hara derides in “Personism, A Manifesto” — the structure of addiction spiritualized? Or does it simply point to its own existence as precondition for all else, as a horizon of permission? The secret mind whispers a song like the dead Lady Day along the keyboard while O’Hara (and everybody) stops breathing as he leans against the door of the john.

What does whispering mean in 1960? For O’Hara, it is a skillful and flirtatious way of managing the illegality and mandated social invisibility of his desires. In McCarthy’s Cold War, whispering meant snitching but also attempting to keep one’s leftist activities or queer affections underground, in a nuclear containment unit behind the door of the john. War and rumors of war, countervailing but inarticulable intuitions of something better, and a need to withdraw inward in a depoliticized reaction to a menacing social climate: secret, etymologically, is separate and set apart on one’s own, related through its roots to the word “idiom” — speech particular to a people or a place.  But any containment eventually secretes its holdings, and in Secret Mind the floodgates open. Here is where jazz comes in, a specialized language that nonetheless has a popular and populist urgency. Does the Secret Mind Whisper?, more Coltrane than Parker in its relentlessly tumbling concatenations of words and phrases, broadsides us with its public and private language. Indeed, it seems to scream rather than whisper; but Kaufman, given his racialized subject position in 1960, could scream as loud as he wanted to — he could scream, in Danny Snelson’s resonant words about Cage’s cartridge music, his “objecthood” — with no guarantee of being heard. [5]

[1] Bob Kaufman, Does the Secret Mind Whisper? (San Francisco: City Lights, 1960).
[2] Bob Kaufman, “Bagel Shop Jazz,” in Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (New York: New Directions, 1965), 14-15; Will Alexander, remarks made during “Modern Poets: The Political Line” (Q&A session following reading, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, February 2, 2011).
[3] Bob Kaufman, “October 5, 1963, Letter to the San Francisco Chronicle,” in Golden Sardine (San Francisco: City Lights, 1967), 80–81.
[4] Bob Kaufman, “All Hallows, Jack O’Lantern Weather, North of Time,” in The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (New York: New Directions, 1981), 48.
[5] Danny Snelson, “Cartridge Music by John Cage,” (lecture presented at “Poetry in 1960 — A Symposium,” University of Pennsylvania, PA, December 6, 2010).

On Larry Eigner, 'On My Eyes'

I really wish that I could do what Judith Goldman was able to do. [1] I’ve always wanted to give a presentation in which I stop talking and moving my lips but my voice continues on. But whenever I do that, I just get silence … I got very nervous when Chris Funkhouser actually does the full fifteen seconds of silence in Mac Low’s poems.  I would have said three or four seconds made the point. It was excruciating, fifteen seconds. We each have only five minutes and you use up that much time?!

The Mac Low really reminded me, especially in that silence, of what Danny started out with, with Cage, and I thought again of Larry Eigner, who I am going to talk about tonight. Also, with Rachel’s talk: Larry Eigner was the least cosmopolitan of people in the 1950s and Frank O’Hara the most. And yet, “Second Avenue”  is a kind of point of intersection phenomenologically, where you can almost see that there’s a connection.  Also, the book I am going to talk about, has a preface by Denise Levertov …

As I’m listening to this, I keep thinking somebody else is going to listen to this not in terms of what we’re saying about the poets we are talking about, but [in terms of] the nature of the event and what we’re enacting in the affectional preferences that we are showing, and the generational unconscious and, to some degree, conscious. I think, especially for those of us born immediately after the Second World War, the poets that we are talking about are our parents’ generation, and whether positive or negative you have that agonism played out. So, it’s a little bit different when I think of Barbara Guest and when I hear Erica speak about her. And that generational difference is one of the things that I kept thinking about in both respect to me and Larry Eigner: why I chose Eigner, why I have such a strong affectional connection to him, and some of the other [poets of his generation]. The other is the ongoing frame that Filreis provides especially with Counter-Revolution of the Word. I always say, and so those of you who have spent more than a couple of hours with me will know, that I’m stuck in the ’50s, so this event is the perfect thing: we’re all together, we’re all going to be stuck in the ’50s now because while the books come out in 1960, we’re really talking about work done in ’50s, that comes out of the ’50s and the deep Cold War. And very different perspectives on it. I think beginning with Stanley Kunitz was wild on Al’s part, and nobody really has picked up on that, but for me, of course, I think of maybe Larry Eigner and Stanley Kunitz are two possible uncles, one more like my father, Stanley Kunitz, in terms of his views, so I kept thinking about that, too. And then there's Stanley Kunitz in Worcester, early on dealing with Sacco and Vanzetti. There’s Charles Olson [born] one hundred years ago in Worcester. And Robert Creeley in Acton, Massachusetts, and Larry Eigner in Swampscott. So, you have a kind of New England matrix.

So, this book, I have only about a minute left actually, I’m at four minutes, and I think I just want to conclude my remarks now.

This book was published in 1960 [by Jargon Press, Highlands, NC, in an edition of 500]. It’s Eigner’s first large collection and I think that it’s notable for the way it really brings him into the world. And, again, to [add to] the tributes to people, Jonathan Williams having the foresight to publish a substantial collection of Larry Eigner in 1960 is extraordinary. And with beautiful Harry Callahan photos, so the book itself is beautiful. There was just one earlier book, very small, [from] 1953, that Creeley published, From the Sustaining Air, which echoes again something that Al said in the beginning about what kind of air, the sustaining air. So, Eigner, just to remind you … [was] born in 1927. If you compare this book, which is a great opportunity we now have, to the first volume of the [Robert Grenier / Curtis Faville] collected [four volumes from Stanford University Press, 2010], you really get a very different sense of what was going on. The work [covered in On My Eyes] goes back to ’53, so it’s really a lot of earlier stuff than one might imagine for a book [published in] ’60. When you read the whole set of what Larry was doing, it’s much different [than the sense you get from the book]. Not that these [poems in the book] are necessarily literary in any conventional sense, but in some ways there are more literary picks of the poems than Source: Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania. Exclusive one-time use in Jacket2, used with permission of Anne Tardos.when you read the whole [body of work from the period]. [In the Collected] you see work starting out from when Larry was in junior high school. You really get a sense of the impact in his own mind, first of all, very importantly, of the typewriter he got for a Bar Mitzvah present when he was thirteen, and the fact that because he suffered from palsy when he was born, because of the way in which he was delivered, he could only really type with the one finger.  Once he learned to type for himself — his mother had earlier typed for him — he could express himself, and spent all of his time working on that typewriter page. I mean, it’s one of the really monumental achievements of American art in my view, what Eigner achieved that way, and actually in an entirely [familial but otherwise largely] unsocial space of the ’50s. So, you see work that seems so cosmopolitan, so cosmically vivid, done by somebody who really hadn't had that much contact with anybody else outside his family. In ’49, he hears Cid Corman on the radio. He writes him a letter saying, “Your reading of Yeats is not emphatic enough. What’s wrong with it?” And after that, he meets Creeley, very importantly, and others, and he starts to move into the opening of the field that Ron refers to, and writes these extraordinary poems. He ends the wonderful From the Sustaining Air, which could be my motto as a writer of verse, “I am finally an incompetent after all.”  1953. “I am finally an incompetent after all.” A stunning comment at the end of a very beautiful poem.

However, I’m also really interested in this poem, which I’m going to read and then quote one of the lines, “So what if mankind dies,” he writes in On My Eyes, which is the name of the book I’m talking about: on my eyes, what I’m seeing

so what if mankind dies?

           the birds

    the croak and whistle
    has no future

so what?
so what?

the future arrives

the end of stick
in my crotch

toward the speed of light

(Collected I:160, 1955 # k ’)

So, I mean it’s an extraordinary poem about the nature of the phallus, a hard-on, being just about as far as where the future is gonna go for Eigner.  Again, a 1955 comment on progress from Swampscott.  And I want to end with a quote from a poem of his, the name of this piece is called

                        Eigner’s Fierce Calculus

… but please, in the transcription, keep the title right there because this is a talking essay.

“The Dead dog” poem that he writes in 1957 (Collected. I:266, December 57 # 2 b), I think he answers for, in a way, generationally, for me what I like so much about these poets of the 1950s, and he answers Corman, too, at the end of “The Dead dog,” he says, “but someday the grandmothers may grow wise / and speak the calculus” — and “calculus” is a term for him which really pervades, and it’s an alternative to “another time in fragments” and Benjamin’s constellation, it’s the idea that these individual, discrete, burning particulars together make a calculus that’s a three or four-dimensional calculus — and ends “making a fierce language.”



[1] Charles Bernstein presented this improvised talk following the glitchy video projection of Judith Goldman’s presentation on The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks at the Poetry in 1960 Symposium, December 6, 2010.

On Bill Berkson and Frank O'Hara, 'Hymns of St. Bridget'

Deep Fun

Hymns Of St. Bridget begins simply enough in October 1960 as the first collaboration between Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara — from there it multiplies energetically into an ongoing exchange between Berkson and O’Hara that includes the FYI poems, The Letters of Angelicus and Fidelio, and Marcia: An Unfinished Novel. The synergistic impact of this poetic alliance extends beyond the literal collaborations and can be seen, for example, in the many poems by O’Hara referencing Berkson between 19601962: For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson,” “Bill's Burnoose,” “Biotherm (for Bill Berkson),” and others.  Beyond “Biotherm” — a long poem that begins as a sort of pseudo-meditation on a skin cream — O’Hara further engages the chatty style explored in Hymns through a series of dialogues with television shows and films. “The Jade Madonna” (1964) has, for instance, the ambiance of the poet in collaboration with an old western movie:

I’ll give him two more days
                                                        and if he don’t think of
a way to get Wyatt Earp out of here by then
                                                                               I’m going to
plant some corpses.

And then:

I got $820. $820?  Yeah dollars. I kind of like having property.

Possession is better than
                                             a ranch.  That’s why I collect
all these things that have nothing to do
                                                                       with cows
with dollars or with the great open range.
                                                                           Smell that?
that’s my cows thinking about my money. [1]

“Fantasy” — dedicated to the health of Allen Ginsberg and wrapped around scenes from the 1943 World War II film Northern Pursuit — is also O’Hara in high filmic/conversational mode:

The main thing is to tell a story.
                                                          It is almost
very important. Imagine
                                             throwing away the avalanche
so early in the movie.  I am the only spy left
in Canada,
          but just because I’m alone in the snow
doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a Nazi.
                                                                  Let’s see,
two aspirins a vitamin C tablet and some baking soda
should do the trick, that’s practically an
Seltzer.  Allen come out of the bathroom
                                                                         and take it [ ...

                                                                            ... ] Allen,
are you feeling any better? Yes, I’m crazy about
Helmut Dantine
                              but I’m glad that Canada will remain
free. Just free, that’s all, never argue with the movies. [2]

Lytle Shaw, in his essay “Gesture in 1960,” provides yet another portrait of O’Hara composing through the ludic play of conversation in his discussion of O’Hara’s collaboration with the painter Norman Bluhm, Poem-Paintings. Bluhm emphasizes the “spontaneous and intersocial aspects of working on all the tacked up Poem-Paintings at once” while hanging out in the studio and listening to music. [3] As with the Berkson/O’Hara collaborations, Bluhm characterizes his collaboration with O’Hara as “instantaneous, like a conversation between friends.” [4] In an interview Bluhm notes that all the pieces in the collaboration “came out of some hilarious relationship with people we knew, out of a particular situation.” [5] Does the analogy of gesture — as used in painting — work when applied to writing? Can it apply to the role of conversation in the work? Berkson, in a recent interview, explains the intersection of conversation, gesture, and writing when he describes gesture as linking the space of a poem and the breath, perhaps like Olson or Kyger or Ginsberg. And he points to the physical presence of the line as a poem is composed, “the line moving through space-time.” [6]

“What is the role of humor?” I asked Bill Berkson over the phone. The way he paused, it sounded like maybe he thought it was a bad question. “The role ... of humor ...,” he said slowly, “is ... to have ... fun.” He repeated it with no hesitation. “The role of humor is to have fun. To keep things rolling. It’s the only way to do collaboration. To roll it. Most of it is having fun — fun between friends.” Berkson notes that “in the collaborations there is a sense of having fun, of humor — that is the way to do it [...] Allen Ginsberg talked about deep gossip — so why not deep humor? I’m sure there are deep, lyric moments in the collaboration. But one can also have deep humor.”

The story of how the collaboration Hymns Of St. Bridget got rolling can be found in the notes of the Owl Press publication of the book. [7] Berkson and O’Hara were walking along First Avenue and noticed the crooked steeple on a church — which I imagine was likened to a limp phallus — and they laughed about it. Berkson went home, still thinking about the limp steeple of St. Bridget’s church, and wrote “Hymn To St. Bridget’s Steeple” in what Berkson calls “a sort of poor imitation of O’Hara.” [8] “It is to you, bending limp and ridiculous, on Ninth / Street, that I turn” begins the first poem of Hymns Of St. Bridget, a conversational-rhetorical direct address Berkson considers his imitation of the high O’Hara or Ginsberg mode. “I showed it to Frank and he said, ‘Why don’t we do a series of these?’”

When Berkson came to Frank O’Hara with the poem he had just written, “Hymn To St. Bridget’s Steeple,” it had not occurred to him to make the work into a collaboration. The young Berkson had done just one collaboration, with Kenward Elmslie, which was later published in the Summer 1961 collaboration issue of Locus Solus edited by Kenneth Koch. Hymns proceeded, at O’Hara’s urging, with the next poem in the series, “St. Bridget’s Neighborhood”:

St. Bridget I wish you would wake up and tend my bumper
It’s cracked it is like the thought

I had of you when I cut myself shaving “O steeple
why don’t you help me as you helped the Missouri islanders?” [9]

The two poets — O’Hara in his mid-thirties and Berkson in his twenties — wrote Hymns my-turn-your-turn style at a single typewriter:

afternoon is leaning toward drinks   I am getting

myself one now though I shouldn’t     Would
you like one, heaviness of the compost thresh-

hold?  No, I want the plants to have it, for
they have died [10]

At this point in the story I should offer an explanation about the subject of Hymns Of St. Bridget in the context of a symposium of books published in 1960 — for Hymns was not published until 1974 by Adventures in Poetry. In fact, only two of the poems from the collaboration were ever published during O’Hara’s lifetime, in the May/June 1962 issue of Evergreen Review (“Hymn To St. Bridget’s Steeple” and “Us Looking Up To St. Bridget"). 1960 was, however, the beginning of this significant poetic dialog between Berkson and O’Hara. Hymns Of St. Bridget launched a flurry of collaboration, beginning aptly with the two poets walking along First Avenue and laughing.

By 1960 O’Hara had well established his “I Do This and I Do That” style and so came to the collaboration with these gestures in hand — and Berkson notes that he was heavily influenced by O’Hara’s work at that time. Berkson himself was increasingly working with open field pieces, as evidenced by poems dating from 1959 to 1961 and published in All You Want (1966):

my hat
your. . . the crumplings of an evening
put forward as ice was               

ah trolley!

the except

our still-life yearings allow tunes
    to the far suburbs [11]

If ludic play is significant throughout the collaborations between O’Hara and Berkson, then it is perhaps also an important contributor to the so-called “third voice” of collaboration as well. O’Hara’s work increasingly moves from painterly to filmic and the collaborations become increasingly untamed and open as they accumulate. “I think Frank was very excited by this,” says Berkson, “and on his own he began to write things that were wilder and wilder, leading up to “‘Biotherm.’”

troika        And back at the organ the angel was able to play a great
singe        green tree for the opening of the new bank
Caracallo                            it was
the loin        the last opening of a bank anywhere because the angel’s wings
sloth        got clipped in the swimming pool

it     ate     well     and     had     glorious     nightmares     days

        she                    hated            it

        “Satan, hélas? c’est vous?”  April had rushed into May while
                    she was reading Hollywood Babylon

and now the trees wore evil fringes where buzzards roosted
                    covered with old prayer beads

        An awning flapped. [12]



[1] Frank O’Hara, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Don Allen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 48485.
[2] Ibid., 488.
[3] Lytle Shaw, “Gesture in 1960: Toward Literal Solutions,” in Frank O’Hara Now, ed. Robert Hampton and Will Montgomery (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), 40.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 38.
[6] Bill Berkson, interview by Mel Nichols, November 27, 2010.
[7] Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara, Hymns of St. Bridget & Other Writings (Woodacre, CA: Owl Press, 2001), 83.
[8] Bill Berkson, interview by Mel Nichols, November 27, 2010.
[9] Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara, Hymns of St. Bridget (New York: Adventures in Poetry, 1974), 15.
[10] Ibid., 14.
[11] Bill Berkson, Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2009), 47.
[12] Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara, “St. Bridget’s Hymn to Philip Guston,” in Hymns of St. Bridget, (New York: Adventures in Poetry, 1974), 2930.