Articles - May 2011

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.


On Frank O'Hara, 'Second Avenue'

Dated 1953. Published 1960. Picked up by moi in 1964 and purchased, not for ninety-five cents as priced on back (Totem Press), but for five francs twenty-five centimes, in Paris at Shakespeare and Company, which was almost the same as one dollar considering it had to fly the Atlantic, which it probably did on sheer exuberant sexual and lexical energy and gay will to power, which was clearly not masculinist will to power but impressive and powerful in a different “we are sissies” way, thereupon to be confronted by an immediate me who immediately couldn’t understand one word, but got the energy and the comedy and the insouciance and the verve and the nerve — and stored it up. [1] These emerged in a much transfigured form in the ode and the serial, and desire, and the long poem, and scale. But not so much in a cocky sense of combinatoire, a-referentiality or the transformed real, but rather in the pleasure of a visceral happening based on erotic pulse and on the sheer charm of the world.

The door opened. It really was something outrageous and helpful. Not to speak of utterly unlike the flaccid stuff, with no particular force or dimension, but dutifully bowling straight down the middle, those overworked samplers from the Hall, Pack, Simpson anthology, treat of my recent college days. This was not overworked — it was overwrought!  And thus a talismanic power bundle wrapping a suspect magic.  It was a traveling poem — why else was it called by the name of a street, non-static and in motion? Why else did it have motion lines on the cover? How else to explain how it got from word to word and phrase to phrase where the not-expected was happening —consistently! It was propelled by the strange energies of combination. “I hope the poem to be the subject, not just about it.” [2] In contrast, the well-made poem was all about “aboutness.” Well, let’s just say our heroine wasn’t exactly in Kansas any more, and it was “less comfortable but more decorative,” but it wasn’t totally clear where she was yet. Probably “my head [was] covered by a green cloth.”

This copy of Second Avenue is not the black and white cover with tipped in label blah blah — $145 at AbeBooks in 2010 — but the first printing, second state, in semigloss wrap, offset printed in red ($45), cover art by Larry Rivers, foxed foxily and light pencil markings. Carried here, carried there. Pink and speedy. A liberation and very uncomfortable. Nothing to solidify, something to do, to have happen, to engage with, to be confused by. It was — like the Sixties were about to be — all happening all at once.   

This poem manifested the erotics of writing as an erotics of living; it put words like effeminate in play — the line, “Are you effeminate, like an eyelid, or are you feminine, / like a painting by Picasso?” condensed five layers of cultural education. In your face! Such fairy stories about one’s friends, each one “acting” in another junky movie — and any word that happened along was a good enough word, from marshmallows to motherfuckers. Not too many of those had been in poems I’d ever read, but now they were. The poem was a zippy discourse circus, with the poet as a juggler, keeping five bowling pins, four striped hoops, and two balls in the air at the same time. Being inside this eleven-part poem was like living in an alternative mind, inventing elaborated, baroque-ish narrative skits in which to enfold friends with a show-offy zeal that took place as language urgency. Such dramatic, campy love for John, and Joe, and Grace, and Kenneth was expressed as sheer grifting snarkiness, narcissism and pleasure. It was a real nice party going on next door. It wasn’t quite my house then, nor was it to be, but the door was open and the music came out.   

A list of what is on any single page of this poem would look like a list of what is in any of Joe Brainard’s assemblages: “jewels and sparkles and doilies and dollars and rubber stamps and plastic eggs and hard rolls and glasses and ‘Peace’ buttons and cameras and satin slippers and elephants and screws and price tags and words and squares …” [3] Or one of Jackson Pollock’s pictures: “Oil on canvas with nails, tacks, buttons, key, coins, cigarettes, matches, etc.” [4]

It’s excited, it’s giddy and solid at once: the pleasurable poesis of a really intent plethora that won’t give up.  Accumulative, funny, and scandalous, “unreadable” and totally syntactic.  Amuse-toi! “Why don’t you go on with it as long as you can?” was the instruction — O’Hara said this to Kenneth Koch, but of course it was a message to the self. [5] This poem occurred between at least two people. Maybe six. Later on, John Ashbery did note the “obfuscation” of this work and the fact that it was an “experiment” that “eventually turned out to be unsatisfactory” — he sees it as a deck-clearing move. [6] That’s probably why I liked it. It swept everything away, despite being a pileup of stuff and allusions set in relation. The impacted impact of it exploded the literary into a totally other zone.

That is, the literary became externalized energy and desire, which it always is at root. Dionysiac with an Apollonian cockiness — so one feels “the physical insistence of the mind to keep on making decisions,” as Larry Rivers said on art, interviewed by O’Hara. [7] Same general ethos in O’Hara, as Bill Berkson pointed out: “Reading his poems, you find yourself engaged in a number of intricate calculations made at break-neck speed […] You are getting the language firsthand, from where it gets put together in the mind.” [8] Sheer continuance, propulsion, and energy get that ribbon or pulse of words to work. And if they don’t, one simply moves along. No crises of judgment in relation to decisions. No angst! Just an insistence on scale that here seemed out of proportion to the casual intensity. [9] Precisely. That impressed me. More and more, longer and longer, fun to do, and stop when it’s not.   

Ashbery again, with a general law: “The poem is the chronicle of the creative act that produces it.” [10]

The desire, patent in this poem, is to pile up transformation. This desire had a distinct political shadow. In 1959, six years after he had written the poem, O’Hara pointed to Jackson Pollock’s use of Surrealism not as a surface effect, but as “spiritual clarity” — “the accumulation of decisions” made towards “action.” [11]  That is, O’Hara said, “you do not find in his work a typewriter becoming a stomach, a sponge becoming a brain” — a surface surrealism of images in combinatoire. [12] Rather there are “qualities of passion and lyrical desperation, unmasked and uninhibited” that O’Hara traces to a atomic-bomb-post-war world “faced with universal destruction.” [13] He called the necessary, critical response to this “the urgency of joy.” [14]

And “She went bloated into the azure/ like a shot.”

[1] Frank O’Hara, Second Avenue (New York: Totem Press, 1960); Frank O’Hara, “Sissies,” in The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 39.
[2] Frank O’Hara, “Notes on Second Avenue,” in The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 497.
[3] Ron Padgett, Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004) 69. The list is over twenty-two lines long — I have cited just under four lines.
[4] Pollock’s painting “Full Fathom Five” (1947) was discussed by O’Hara in his essay on Pollock in Art Chronicles.
[5] Kenneth Koch.  “A Note on Frank O’Hara in the Early Fifties,” in Audit–Poetry IV: Frank O’Hara Issue (1964): 32–33.
Kenneth Koch’s When the Sun Tries to Go On, begun before “Second Avenue,” is 2,400 lines. “Frank said to me, on seeing the first 72 lines — which I regarded as a poem by itself — ‘Why don’t you go on with it as long as you can?’ Frank at this time decided to write a long poem too…” Koch is pretty amused/bemused by O’Hara’s mix of competitiveness and generosity. “Sometimes he gave other people his own best ideas, but he was quick and resourceful enough to use them himself as well.”
[6] John Ashbery, “Introduction,” in The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) xi.
[7] Frank O’Hara, Art Chronicles, 1954–1966 (New York: George Braziller, 1975), 109.
[8] Bill Berkson.  “Frank O’Hara and His Poems,” in Homage to Frank O’Hara, ed. Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur (Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Company, 1980) 162.
[9] Frank O’Hara, Art Chronicles, 1954–1966 (New York: George Braziller, 1975), 34–5. What was Pollock’s transformative intervention in American art, besides the all-over surface of great scintillation? It was, O’Hara says, “SCALE.” This concern begins with the WPA projects like the Federal Arts Project. Murals in post offices, for instance, were linked intellectually, aesthetically and politically to the Mexican muralists, and their desire to have progressive public art. According to O’Hara, scale is interpreted by Pollock as a shift from the normal sense of a represented reality (scaled to a person’s body as in Renaissance proportions) and of the intended setting — the place for which the painting was conceived. Because Pollock had no recognizable images in the drip paintings, the normal sense of scale (the “image of a body” imagined by the work) was not in play; instead he chose the painter’s actual body, and the setting was no more or less than the surface of the canvas.  What then O’Hara calls “scale and no scale” is “the physical reality of the artist and his activity of expressing it, united to the spiritual reality of the artist” in a state of “oneness” without any need for “the mediation of metaphor or symbol.” This is suggestive, but would demand more gloss than I will give.
[10] John Ashbery, intro., The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), viii–ix.
[11] Frank O’Hara, Art Chronicles, 19541966 (New York: George Braziller, 1975) 25–6.
[12] Ibid., 18.
[13] Ibid., 26.
[14] Ibid., 27.