The education of poetry
An interview with Bill Berkson
That the critic and the poet should be the same person is not a surprise when it comes to the work of Bill Berkson. Both activities have fruitfully informed one another over five decades of writing. What remains engaging in all of Berkson’s writing is how each poem and how every essay continues to be so distinctively and affectionately rendered. In his “Critical Reflections,” Berkson expresses a commitment to “communicating the spontaneously dense, specific and often paradoxical events of consciousness in the face of contemporary works,” that he desires “to tell the polymorphous story of the thing.”
There are some affinities in Berkson’s polymorphous poetry to John Ashbery, especially The Tennis Court Oath, but Berkson marks the lyric poem in ways distinct from Ashbery. In Berkson’s collaboration with Bernadette Mayer, What’s Your Idea of a Good Time?, Mayer asks: “Do you think clarity, in poetry, is a thing to be worked toward?” Berkson answers:
I don’t think of clarity as an ideal. It’s just one face, very often very superficial. But declaration seems like a miracle. Why be so equivocal like everything else? The style of the times is equivocal, so the best poets seem like raving solipsists. Anyhow, poetry starts with a clarity flash — lines that open up a space, even if by themselves they don’t look so clear. Most poems I like are clear all the way, or are mostly forthright.
Berkson’s poems can be playful, but he is not a trickster. In fact, the more you read, the more you see just how forthright the poems are. Anselm Berrigan has commented that Berkson’s poems “quietly demand a clear eye without forcing a kind of clarity onto the reader.” And he quotes: “Nothing is more perfectly obscure / than the trace of intention and no mess.”
There is a great untangled fusion in Berkson’s best poems. The fusion is manifest in nearly every aspect of the work, including his use of talk (often decentered) as well as his artful description (often understated). Berkson’s poem portraits, such as “Roy Eldridge, Little Jazz,” “To Lynn,” and “An Ives,” are all achievements in this art of finely fused description. There is a deceptively matter-of-fact quality in Berkson’s poetry that emerges from his ability to consolidate object and subject. The latter is indicative of Berkson’s light yet incisive touch. He writes:
A man sitting at a piano, singing and talking.
A woman using an electric fan on her hair.
Berkson’s fact poems intertwine and become part of the poem’s history. In his compelling longer poem “Start Over,” facts and personal history intersect on specific days in specific places. Another favorite fact-driven poem is his “Broom Genealogy.” The poem turns on distinctions, but here personal history and facts overlap and becoming nearly indistinguishable. Berkson writes:
Eventually I learn to distinguish between two kinds of broom plants,
French and Scotch. Every time I take a walk with you I get to ask
one question about plant life, another you say I always forget
the answer next time around so my questions are repetitive like
an absurdist play or catechism. Both French and Scotch broom are
somehow naturally fixed in the mesa ground, the clay and sand and
real dirt of it, thought the Scotch kind you generally find
closer to the cliffs. […]
In the landscape, in the relationship with the narrator’s walking partner, in the intricate family genealogies — the poem continues on.
Some context for Berkson’s poetry can be gleaned from historian Christine Stansell’s American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. Stansell writes:
The talk was artful, with formal principles at work. The urbane, politically aware conversation was notable not for its discursive unity but for its juxtapositions: it was pastiche of speech, a bricolage, a collage. Lack of cohesion was the fundamental principle, random items and topics from the vast range of American life assembled with tonic excitement. It was an aesthetic exercise in daily life, a quotidian American corollary to European high-modernist aesthetics of language […]. Broadly speaking, the linguistic play of Ulysses and the urbane stream of consciousness of Greenwich Village talk were fostered by similar urban forces: a booming print culture, the spread of advertising, and the compression of polylingual populations, all touching off an explosion of language.
In all of his poems Berkson is singular in multiplicities, and perhaps he is most powerfully so in some of his shortest poems, which are simultaneously maximalist and minimalist. In the poem “Stamina,” he writes:
worn like sweaters against dark drifts.
He blinks in several places.
Then I wiped out the face
and when the face was gone
the skyline was standing
broke “in what
childhood scuffle I forget”
Employing numerous devices, Berkson continues to expand the reach of the lyric. Perhaps the most explicit characteristic, of my favorite Berkson poems, is an unflagging sense of forward momentum and “a forward love.” Here the senses promote the heart and mind and all that can intersect it into his nuanced idiom. In his poem “By Halves” Berkson’s synthesis is manifest. He writes:
do limits build
both sweet and cruel
or over to you off at
your compass studies,
visor to odd angles perforated,
plumb to sky
to service mouthful signage in pearly
cantina load where squawks from a ceiling,
headed down the demon slopes
for work place, total their sheer
carbon feed on an average night
that at any guardrail slick nails the morphological in bins?
Thus backup wealth lifts an ancient spume, glowering with grammar
whose joined bronze gives pause,
erect lapse paging glory, when wing is rag
This interview was conducted in 2008 at the San Francisco home of Berkson and his wife Constance Lewallen. It was first published in Zoland Poetry no. 5 (2011).
Thomas Devaney: Your poem “Blue Is the Hero” leads with the line “leading with his chin” and ends on “like fun in the sun, air in the air.” It’s a portrait of sorts: one of a time that has passed and that is currently passing in the moment of the poem.
Bill Berkson: Thanks. I think of it as what Gregory Corso would call a “top shot” for me, at least up until that time, summer of 1968.
Devaney: Sometimes it seems you’ve found your form in shorter poems. Poe, in his perfect Poe way, says that long poems do not exist. Still, it’s interesting that a slightly longer poem like “Fugue State” highlights a central mode in your own idiom.
Berkson: Soon after it appeared in print, Kenneth Koch told me how much he liked that poem and another called “In Gray Sweats.” He said they indicated something fresh in my work, which in retrospect seems true — or at least they went on at greater length. I think it was then that Kenneth urged me to write a really long poem for a change — something I still feel honor-bound to try. I don’t write long poems, or haven’t. The model I have in mind for one is Kenneth’s own 100-page, twenty-five lines per page “When the Sun Tries to Go On.”
Devaney: You’ve really explored the possibilities of the shorter form for sure. I like your poem “15 ½ / 34.” It’s not that it’s just both tight and open, but it’s tailored too, cut and fit: everything is where it needs to be. Anyway, “Fugue State,” long as it might be for you, is still in my own Bill Berkson anthology.
Berkson: Well, it’s funny you say that because that’s the one Dave Brinks asked me especially to read in New Orleans last week when I read at the Gold Mine. And it came home to me — not for the first time — but I said to him, I always hesitate reading that poem. It’s a very hard one to read. I think the difficulty may date to my years with severe lung disease. It’s hard to get up to speed, to arrive at the proper tempo when one is short of breath.
Devaney: That’s no small thing. Shortly before he died Creeley remarked upon having a “crisis of breath.” In 2004 you nearly died from lung disease. Your health — and that fact that you’re alive right now and we’re talking here — is a remarkable thing. How is your health right now?
Berkson: I’m in pretty good health, allowing for all the medications a post-transplant patient has to take to maintain the middle way between the ills immunosuppression can foster and the rejection of transplant organs it’s supposed to prevent.
Devaney: Well you made it. It’s miraculous. Now when you said that “Fugue State” is a difficult poem to read out loud, is that because of your own shortness of breath, or for other reasons, not including the challenges of reading any poem in a bar setting?
Berkson: Yes, well, shortness of breath can defeat just about any poem of significant length, especially if it’s meant to zip along, too. By now — post-transplant, as they say — I can meet the demands set by any poem pretty well, and I enjoy trying out different tempos and “vocal stylings,” as it were. But I should emphasize that reading for Brinks at the Gold Mine Saloon has come to be an extraordinary pleasure. As Andrei Codrescu said after the reading, it’s the only bar in the world where the ambient noise actually lifts instead of defeating you. The whole scene is so exhilarating. At the start of my reading I heard some ring tones coming from the far end of the bar. I stopped and said, “Somebody turn off their cell phone,” and a voice answered, “It’s not a cell phone, it’s the pinball machine and it doesn’t turn off.” Poetry plus pinball. So that continued — no problem — and it turned out inspiring.
Devaney: So that one actually worked in the crowded murmur of the bar?
Berkson: Yes, you know, something in that poem and some few others comes clear for me that has persisted in the poems from the get-go. I think of it as my “Waste Land” mode.
Devaney: Eliot and you, that’s interesting, please say more.
Berkson: Encountering Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in high school yielded my first sense of serious poetry, and of modern poetry altogether. It was really the beginning for me. Before “The Waste Land,” although I had begun to write poetry, it was just a general field where I was casting about haphazardly. I had absolutely no taste. I would look at and try to copy poems in The Saturday Evening Post or The Saturday Review of Literature or virtually anywhere. You know, whatever anthologies we were handed in school, with their smatterings of Shakespeare and Milton, Vachel Lindsay and John Masefield. “The Waste Land” was the first modern poem for me that was recognizably that, but also I sensed that this was a poem of some power.
Devaney: So you’re still talking about being in high school, right?
Berkson: Yes, at this point I was fifteen or sixteen. I thought I knew what Eliot’s poem was about, or anyhow I was determined to find out. So I read up on it, all the secondary literature, which wasn’t much then, but then I also took this other initiative, which was to educate myself through Eliot. I followed the notes to “The Waste Land.” So that gave me John Donne and Dante, Jessie Weston, The Golden Bough, John Webster, Ovid, and so on. Then a teacher at Lawrenceville kindly handed me his annotated copy of Pound’s Personae and I got the Eliot-Pound connection. That was the beginning of a real poetry education, you know, where before it had been mostly osmosis — unconscious absorption. I paid so much attention to — not the method — but how “The Waste Land” happens as you read it. And about reading it: you have to wrench the poem audibly away from Eliot’s way of reading it, the one that’s on record anyway. It’s like Ron Padgett said about Wallace Stevens — at some point, you have to hear the poems read, not in the author’s rather stuffy intonations, but in the voice of some Ozark balladeer.
Spoleto, 1965: Bill Berkson, John Ashbery, John Wieners, unknown, Desmond O’Grady, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Olga Rudge, unknown, and two unknown in background.
Devaney: All the same, “The Waste Land” is a landmark. There’s still something immediate in the voices and bits here and there that retain their mystery after all this time. And how the classical and the contemporary (at least at that moment) were put together in the way that they were.
Berkson: One of the critics called it a “cinematographic” way of composing. So that business of one line put next to the other, phrases from diverse sources — I now realize how that persists with me. Frank O’Hara once introduced me at a reading at NYU by saying that I was the only young American poet making an interesting use of T. S. Eliot. How he figured that out I’ll never know. There’s a funny connection, too, between that brief phase of Eliot and what is loosely called Cubist poetry, “Lundi rue Christine” by Apollinaire or certain poems of Reverdy, the really adventurous French poets Eliot seems to have had no interest in. But then on to “Europe”: from “The Waste Land” to John Ashbery’s “Europe” seemed like a simple step.
Berkson: No, but clear to me. “Europe” was, in those terms, immediately comprehensible. Both “The Waste Land” and “Europe” — and this is, I think, key — allowed for a sense of format. Which is to say, whether it was Coolidge or Padgett, Dick Gallup or Ted Berrigan, Joe Ceravolo — those of us inspired by what John Ashbery was doing in the poems of The Tennis Court Oath, particularly “Europe” — each poet responded in his own way. Format was the handy aspect there. Ashbery was taking apart his native language, which had, because he was living a French life in Paris, become distant to him; his relation to language being already aslant with irony as it is. The so-called ‘pulverized’ language of “Europe” and those other poems was different from ours in that ours would not or had not yet composed itself. For myself, a nonsyntactical grid of words and phrases — or one where the syntax is slippery — allowed for a way of locating what I had. For the poems, or some of them, early on, all I had was a feeling for how to lay them out, some of which came from print culture generally, some from how “Europe” looked on the page, and otherwise from visual art and music. In some of the poems in my first book Saturday Night I repeated the layout of one poem for the next.
Devaney: That sounds right, so what did you do with that?
Berkson: Right, or what did I have to do? A lot of words banging around in my head, and not a lot of experience, not a lot of ideas or philosophy — though I could sort of fake or try it out, like trying out a philosophical tone. But for “experience” as in an “I do this, I do that” type of experience …what did I know? Very little.
Devaney: You’re smiling. It is a question of knowing?
Berkson: Well, yes and no, but all I knew was that I was sort of in love with words, and putting them together — phrases, one phrase next to another. The introduction to that kind of love is part of what Kenneth Koch provided in his workshop.
Devaney: What an enduring gift to give to a class and to receive as a student.
Berkson: It had a deep impact on me. My taste had improved, but I didn’t have much in the way of character. Through studying that one year with Kenneth I got to know O’Hara and Ashbery and Kenneth’s own poetry, and with their poems, this wonderful sense of high surface. But I took it that surface could be made of an almost innate sense of design or format into or through which I could put what I had, what I was carrying. I had words and phrases, music and patter, but no syntax. Or else the syntax, the language so to speak, that was available — the official language of 1950s America, the language of grownups in my social class, upper-middle, more or less — was absurd to the point of oppressive. Growing up absurd. As Saint Augustine says, “I heard the language of men,” at some distance, as if from the back seat of a car. I had some instinctual and also some well-trained formalities, but Americans are no good at forms. We seem to be very handy with design or what I tend to call format. Looking back, I understood that Ashbery was — just as Burroughs was — working in a completely different way, and both of course wildly different from each other, from different angles.
Devaney: What were their different ways in your view?
Berkson: Well Ashbery was refamiliarizing himself with his American language because he was living away from and lonesome for it. Burroughs was trying to attack the logical order of words. “Breakthrough in the grey room.” The subtext was Korzybski, whom Ted Berrigan also admired. I was maybe, in a way, closer to Burroughs’s way of seeing it, because I felt very aggressive about trying to short circuit any kind of anticipated meaning, to defeat the reader’s habitual expectations at all costs. I thought I wanted to write poems that didn’t mean anything.
Devaney: This is either a very simple, or a very loaded question, but is that possible?
Berkson: I thought it was. I was schooled to read any poem or story for a defined meaning — everything was symbol and metaphor — after which, if you get it, you sort of discard the text, a system I found nauseating and reacted accordingly. Then again I came to this sort of joyful, but also scary realization that meaning is unavoidable — you have to watch your language, what it might be saying. I got more interested in poems with a presence of meaning, or in which meaning is a sort of felt presence. Sometimes you feel you could get it, grasp and define it, and sometimes not, but you feel an impingement, an atmosphere where shifting connotations appear almost graspable.
Devaney: I think that describes something of what happens in a number of your poems. “A presence of meaning.” I like that.
Berkson: Presentiment. The sense of shifting or multiple meanings thickens the plot. With that came this other realization, that the scatter all fits, whether one intervenes or not, to make it so. As Beckett says, the mess gets accommodated. A similar thing became obvious to me much later — very recently, in fact — in the works of visual artists. Like the way Americans — and some immigrant Americans too — took cubism. Stuart Davis for one, and Arshile Gorky for another, took cubism as design, a design style. It wasn’t composition like it was for Braque and Picasso, or even Gleizes and the other Parisian cubists. Shifting planes — “planometrics,” they called it in midcentury art classes, when cubism had become an easy teaching tool — for Gorky and Davis was a format into which you could plug in whatever meaningful matter you were carrying.
Devaney: [Smiling.] Well, you’re describing an entire world, or several. Gorky’s painting “How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life” seems to be relevant for your poems: the concert and the abstract. Can you break it down a little more?
Berkson: Well Gorky came to America with his Armenian memory baggage, some of it mightily traumatic. You can see in his pictures all the stuff that goes into Turkish or Armenian rugs, birds, flowers, his mother’s apron, Paradise, the gate to Paradise. He found a place for it in the configurations that cubism made possible. Better there than in some surrealist stage set. Same thing with Davis. For him it was New York or Gloucester, as well as the look of an environment freshly plastered with signage. It’s a way of putting your specificity into a larger, mediating context. That’s what Americans tend to do about form; and what they do about subject matter — maybe because the sense of particulars is so strong in us — if they have enough respect for the art they’re dealing with, what O’Hara called poetry-respecting objectivity — which is also to say a bigger applicability. If Ashbery were writing a sestina about growing up in upstate New York — you know, with those cherry trees and the canning factory down the path — OK, the sestina is the setting for it, the front-page layout.
Another aspect of this is visible in the Guston drawing there across the [dining] room. Guston said, “I want to make or do something that will baffle me for some time.” I’ve been baffled by this drawing for almost fifty years, gladly, you know.
Devaney: That’s wonderful, because the drawing keeps revealing itself?
Berkson: Yes, I keep seeing new things in it. Someone was here and said that they saw a woman reading a book. That I’ve never seen. Connie’s five-year-old granddaughter sees it as just a bunch of squiggles. I’ve seen all kinds of things in it: syringe, leaf, schlong, hand, balloon, balloon head, tendrils. But what I love about it is the in-between-ness of — similar to what goes on in Jackson Pollock’s late black and white works — going towards an identifiable image and at just the last millimeter, flick of the wrist; veering away so that an “almost” recognition is left. A suggestion, suggestibility, furthering multiple suggestions. So that it’s not so literal. In writing, it’s not so much saying something, spelling it out or expressing some unfathomable “inside,” as an atmosphere that allows words to be taken as they’re given, one put next to another, line knocking against line — as someone said recently about the poem inspired by Richard Tuttle, like boats moored next to one another — open to meanings that accrue.
Devaney: And that’s a kind of description of some of your work, too.
Berkson: Yeah, some of it. A French translator whom you know, Béatrice Trotignon, asked which connotations I intended for certain words in a poem she was working on — or did I mean it to be polysemic? I wrote her that there should be as much polysemy as the poem could hold. But, at the same time, obviously some of my poems perform like those Gustons that, as he said, tell stories. If you have a story to tell, you tell the story or you find that it is a story by way of the telling. But even there there’s a little something, a texture perhaps, that calls the literalness of the account into question.
Devaney: I’ve never thought about Guston’s work in terms of telling a story. And you used the word baffling a minute ago, so it’s another way that he continues to baffle us in his raw and gorgeous work as story. Anyway, you can plug in what you’re carrying — each in his or her own way. But when I think about Eliot and Four Quartets after “The Waste Land,” and then Ashbery — they also have powerful forms. Whether it all works or not, there’s such a presiding tone in Four Quartets — and then Ashbery’s tone, or tones.
Berkson: Interesting, because after “The Skaters” came out — which is to say, after he put the language back together — we had lunch in New York at Larrés and I said that the poem reminded me of The Four Quartets, and he said he’d always meant to read them, and probably would. I think what happened was he had so steeped himself in secondhand Eliot — he may not have read Eliot much at all, though God knows Eliot was almost unavoidable in the ’40s — but he had read the post-Eliot poets: Devlin, Delmore Schwartz, F. T. Prince, John Wheelwright. Even the hoax poet Ern Malley of Angry Penguins fame was a post-Eliot poet, in some ways the most exemplary.
Devaney: Avoiding Eliot would have impossible altogether. Auden seemed to engage Eliot by fruitfully swerving from him.
Berkson: John, Frank and Kenneth loved the early poems of Auden, who was Eliot’s direct successor. So I think it came through that way. Then later on he wrote an essay — John Ashbery did — on Kitaj, and he connected Kitaj with Eliot. So obviously by then he had been reading Eliot. This was in the ’70s or ’80s.
Devaney: For me Auden does something different from his modernist predecessors; I feel your poems are similar to Auden’s in that you both used mixed styles and are not grand actors in historical dramas, but are both present in actual histories in other ways. Still I understand there are some threads in Eliot that are not obvious and remain generative for you. But early on, it was more the forms that got you rather than the tones?
Berkson: No, early on it was that curious thing, you know — when you’re a teenager, depressing literature is very appealing. Angst, despair, melancholy — they all answer the confusion you feel, which feels heavy but may not be the same as despair. All those books that I read — Dostoyevsky, all the existentialist material and so forth, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, which is sort of a guide to the depressed side of existentialism, which I now know wasn’t all that existentialism was about — but that was the cover story, the popular view. Like Funny Face — sallow-faced girls in berets and leotards, sullen boys and everybody sort of down. And so depressed literature just answered my confusion and sense of the absurd, which I then followed, responded to by getting into a serious funk as a kid. Kenneth to a certain extent saved me from indulging that funk too much.
Devaney: You once mentioned a teacher you had, who you said said: “You may not know it, but you are all existentialists!”
Berkson: Oh yeah — Gerald Weales, who taught a wonderful seminar in my freshman year at Brown and who now lives in Philadelphia. You met him when he came to the Kelly Writers House the day Trevor Winkfield and I were there. And it’s very interesting because I thought, if you walked into the classroom today, could you look around the table and say, “You may not know it, but you are all Pragmatists” — or Neo-Pragmatists. Actually, Neo-Pragmatism grew out of — certainly in the shape of Richard Rorty — rereading Sartre, along with Pierce, Dewey and William James, in a different way. So it continues in a certain way. But it’s not so French. The French went elsewhere, less productively, I think.
Devaney: These are large ideas and forces you’re talking about.
Berkson: Yes, but at the poetry level I think it is this willingness to see — it is like, where are you going to project juvenile confusion and rage? I found my analogies in existentialist and protoexistentialist literature, because that’s the way things were supposed to be in the ’50s anyway. There was a kind of glamour attached to that mess.
Devaney: So how have your feelings held up or not about some of these ideas?
Berkson: About ten years ago I wondered what it would be like to read those books now. It certainly is a shock to understand Sartre or Dostoievski, say, from the point of having lived fifty or sixty years. At sixteen or seventeen, I hadn’t a clue, other than that subterranean connection. It was just the general aura of the thing. Edwin Denby said about Goethe’s Elective Affinities that it’s a book you shouldn’t read until you’re sixty years old. Funny because Elective Affinities is about two relatively young couples and their falling in love in more or less tic-tac-toe fashion. There are, however, books you probably shouldn’t read, won’t really understand, until you’re at least forty. I wasn’t alone in reading somewhat precociously — I belonged to this group of schoolboys who were just avid readers.
Devaney: For the record, or tape — or this digital sound device we’re talking into now — I want to question if the word “avid” is the best one to describe your reading habits? You were probably a few notches above avid, no?
Berkson: Well the idea was to read the whole of the Modern Library series. But we were really after the really depressing or dangerous ones — the taboo authors like André Gide with his act gratuit, and any obscenity, smatterings of homosexuality were in. Whether it was Radclyffe Hall or, you know — any sex. Henry Miller was banned in the USA then, so was Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Anaïs Nin. Absurd. Sex books were high on the list for obvious reasons.
Devaney: A great confluence no doubt. It’s a certain continental modernism you’re talking about too, and somewhere in all of that (and so so much) there’s some through-line to Ashbery’s “Europe” as well?
Berkson: “Europe” appeared, fortuitously, in the same issue of Big Table as a poem of mine that constituted my first magazine appearance outside of school journals. What number? Four. Paul Carroll decided to call a section of that issue “The New American Poets.”
Devaney: What year was that? Sometime in the late ’50s?
Berkson: 1959. Kenneth Koch encouraged me to send some poems to Don Allen for his anthology. And also to Paul Carroll, who was continuing Big Table with contents forbidden when it was Chicago Review. I sent just one poem off to Paul Carroll, a poem called “Poem,” which Larry Fagin reprinted last year in his anonymous issue of Sal Mimeo. It’s also in my Portrait and Dream. It begins, “You showed me the greatest poem of the century, / and then I wrote the greatest poem of the century.” A little Ashbery-esque, probably influenced by the long-uncollected poem that he published in the Evergreen Review called “The Poems” that Ted Berrigan kept referring to in The Sonnets. It was a poem in numbered sections.
Devaney: Interesting, until recently I thought Berrigan was referring to his own poem there. But to keep things straight, you were talking about your own poem called “Poem” right?
Berkson: Yes, well, Paul Carroll replied with a postcard saying, “I think you are a poet.” Wow, you know, “poet”? Ordained, so to speak. So the thing comes out, and there were maybe three or four quite young people, Diane DiPrima, me, I forget who else. But anyway “Europe” appeared. That was the first time anyone in New York other than maybe Kenneth and Frank had seen it. Other poems that were in The Tennis Court Oath may have appeared — I think some were in Floating Bear. So then next came The Tennis Court Oath.
Devaney: It’s a significant moment. And when was your first book published, in ’61?
Berkson: That’s right. And those Ashbery poems were already coming out, like “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher.” The Tennis Court Oath didn’t come out until 1962.
Devaney: There’s a lot going on with many different people all over the place too.
Berkson: Well, in October ’61, four months after Saturday Night appeared, I was in Paris and went with O’Hara to Joan Mitchell’s loft. She had the galley proofs of The Tennis Court Oath, which I immediately grabbed and went over in a corner and just started poring over. And I remember Joan saying, about “Europe,” “God, how I worked on that poem!” and Frank then saying, “John is the foremost poet of our age.” For people who at least were on to those magazines, the excitement was gathering well before the book came out.
Devaney: Even today The Tennis Court Oath still serves as a litmus test sensibility-wise.
Berkson: For me the book is important. I had a strange opportunity to say as much to Seamus Heaney, whom I met when Clark Coolidge and I went to Harvard to talk about Philip Guston. They sat me next to Heaney in the Faculty Club. It turned out that Heaney’s wife had met my mother in Dublin and they liked each other. I knew that Heaney knew Ashbery, so John’s name came up. At one point, knowing I was crossing some line, I said, The Tennis Court Oath was the most important of John’s books for my generation of poets. Well, Heaney’s the same generation! We were born the same year, he’s about five months older. But there I was, seeing him as a grown-up, as I tend to with unknown quantities. In such company I forget that I am an old man too! Well anyway, his face just fell. And I thought, uh-oh, an Ashbery too far. But I had made my point. There’s this camp of people — Harold Bloom is the least of them — who think John is great for whatever reason they have devised, but that The Tennis Court Oath was a brief aberration. I mean Ashbery really is, as Frank said, the foremost, along with a few other foremosts, and that’s not to say John’s other work isn’t great — I also love his recent poetry — but The Tennis Court Oath remains superb and the most suggestive of possibilities. I keep looking back into it, and it still holds up, just as dazzling.
Devaney: What I’m interested in is the fact that even Ashbery’s public remarks on his own book help to keep the conversation from simply being another predigested Raw and Cooked debate.
Berkson: Well, the talk about the book is one thing and what it means to me is another. In fact I’ve had two inclinations lately. You mentioned The Four Quartets. I have about three paperback editions — one very pretty one, the Harper Torchbook edition. Nick Dorsky, the filmmaker, who’s always reading those poems, inspired me to think it would be interesting to go back into the Quartets and write a sort of parallel text. Now I think the same about The Tennis Court Oath — that I’d like to go back into it and work off it in some way. I don’t know how. But it’s tantamount to the impulse to write some of Saturday Night again, but fifty years later.
Devaney: Maybe that’s what you are doing?
Berkson: It’s possible. Because, as I intimate in that Skowhegan lecture, you get to a point where you recognize that you’re doing certain things, themes or motifs that you went after when you were you were starting out but couldn’t quite address. The matter needed more handiness or clarity, a level of technique that the young artist or poet can’t muster. I’ve seen this more plainly in visual artists. A painter will come back, consciously or not — older and wiser, like they say, or just plain handier — to a certain image. You don’t necessarily declare this for yourself. The worker ant inside you takes care of that, recognizes that possibility.
Devaney: There’s also this idea, about the Four Quartets and The Tennis Court Oath, kind of doing another text: the tradition of art responding to art, and the criticism actually becoming the next work.
Berkson: Well that’s Pound’s assertion, that the best criticism of a poem was the next poem, and that just keeps coming up for me, that sense of ongoing conversation.
Devaney: There’s a word you used another time we were talking, it was “contemporaneous.”
Bill Berkson and George Schneeman, "Stars Fell …," egg tempera on paper, 2008.
Berkson: It’s funny. I was just reading in Art in America, the obit for Mike Goldberg, who died at eighty-three. John’s eighty now. So the obit says, “one of the last original abstract expressionists,” which puts him in the same class as de Kooning and Pollock.
Devaney: But Goldberg was second generation?
Berkson: Yeah, he was second generation. Um, yeah. You get past a certain age, and some are older than others — eighty isn’t sixty — but you never feel your age, really. Except when the creaks in the system occur.
Devaney: Good lord we can’t escape the body. But back to the artifactual idea of the contemporaneous.
Berkson: Amiri Baraka was here in San Francisco to give a reading recently, and I went backstage to see him. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. We hadn’t talked, probably, in 40 years. So I go back and introduce myself to him. Why? Because I’ve probably changed over time and he might not know me. And he says, “My god, when I knew you when you were just a kid!” OK, but he’s just five years older than I am.
Devaney: Ah, is that right?
Berkson: Yes, he’s born 1934, I’m born in 1939. Think of it, the generation of 1934 is him, Joanne Kyger, Diane Di Prima, John Wieners, Ted Berrigan, quite an array. But he was LeRoi Jones when I met him — you know, editor of Yugen, poet of Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. That already had happened, and he was in the New American Poetry, on and on. So I said to him, “Yes, isn’t it great? Now we’re the same age!” You know, five years doesn’t matter anymore. I’m three years older than Ron Padgett, you’ll be sixty someday with me around or not, and so it goes, on down the line.
Devaney: What you’re saying is completely right, but at certain points five years is a huge difference, and then voilá, you and Baraka are the same age! Still it was still a vote of confidence for Koch to urge you to send poems to Don Allen. After all you were young at that time.
Berkson: I was. I don’t know if there was anybody that young … David Meltzer, Kirby Doyle. Much later I ran into Don Allen at the Living Theater and made so bold as to walk up to him and say, “Did you get those poems I sent you?” Because I never heard “boo” from him. He didn’t send me a — Don wasn’t the most gracious of men. “Aspish as ever” is what Jimmy Schuyler said when he saw him here in the late ’80s. So when I asked Don he said outright, “Yes, but I thought they were too much like John Ashbery.” He was probably right. I certainly had no comeback to that. At that time, too much Ashbery was good enough for me.
Devaney: You hadn’t published Saturday Night at that point, right?
Berkson: That’s right, Saturday Night wasn’t even part of the package. You know, Don must have sewn up his anthology by ’59 to get it out by ’60. I think. I don’t know. I never felt like, “I should have been in there.” Joanne Kyger should have been in there. I don’t know who else. It’s an extraordinary book, and Don Allen took a lot of good advice to make it as solid as it is. Jordan Davies has apparently embarked on research into the making of The New American Poetry anthology, which should be interesting.
Devaney: You grew up in New York City. Did your parents take you to museums and things like that?
Berkson: No, but probably my governess took me to the Metropolitan Museum. I didn’t know or learn anything about art until I got to Brown. I had no introduction, except the pictures in our house that I later realized were pretty good, some of them. What art meant to me was the medieval armor section in the Met, mannequin knights on horseback with armor on. Everything came from movies — pirate movies, and knights-on-horseback-with-shining-armor movies, Western singing cowboy gunslinger movies. Romance movies. The English thrillers my parents liked, with Ann Todd. That was what was available and what I responded to. I looked at the armor and fantasized.
Devaney: It sounds wonderful.
Berkson: It was, and then I got into, like little kids do, the Egyptian area — mummies, tombs, and hieroglyphs. The mystery of the tomb with the mummy seen through a peephole. The same thing happened with my son when he was very, very young when the King Tut show came here, to the De Young. He really got on to Egypt. He’s in Egypt now, seeing it for the first time.
Devaney: How old is your son?
Devaney: What’s his name?
Berkson: Moses. Moses goes to Egypt. He’s got to find his boat in those reeds, discover his real birthplace.
Devaney: That’s great, a father’s instant poem for his son: Moses in Egypt. It’s interesting when you’re saying you had no introduction, and earlier you used the phrase “educating myself” — those terms come up a lot. Because I think there could be an essay written, or maybe even the title of this interview, could be “The Education of Bill Berkson.” Henry Adams’s book imaginatively reveals a boggling nexus of “interrelatedness” that I sense in your own relation to poetry, people, art, and the world. I like how broad your tastes are: from medieval art to pop art, so many strains.
Berkson: “Plato or comic books — I’m versatile” is the motto the Lawrenceville yearbook editors plopped under my picture the year I graduated. I think that, first of all, there’s the bedrock culture of — well, first of all growing up in a fairly articulate household. Both my parents were journalists. If they weren’t so smart, there were certainly talkative, joke-telling, verbally expressive people coming to our house all the time. So words are there. I’m at home with words at least to that extent. Then there’s what Larry Fagin calls my “Fifth Avenue language,” which amazes me as much as it does him. Words, turns of phrases that come from my initial surroundings, and I know it was just by osmosis that I absorbed them. This was just the language that was spoken around the house, and at the schools I went to. I don’t know if it’s WASPish, or just sort of upper-middle class New York slang. That was the language, part of the language, as well as the slang of my school years, that I had to put into those early poems. Yes, it was just that — as if I had to get those words out of me and onto the page. Sometimes in the way of an exorcism, sometimes in the way of its being just what’s here.
Devaney: That’s strikingly similar to what A. J. Liebling describes in Back Where I Came From, which is a kind of humorous title since he’s from New York City, a place where people from other places come to, rather than are from.
Berkson: I was still trying to find my place in the world, through many, many, many years, probably well into my twenties. In the process I had the advantage, so to speak, of going to these schools where one was at least exposed to a quasi-classical education. And what did I do in school? I was trying to be everything that was more or less required — good at sports, get the girls, and be some kind of character, whatever character seemed attractive to inhabit at the time. I was making the movie, improvising really, with no director on the set. Meanwhile there were classes, and I would do whatever kind of homework I was supposed to, sometimes. They made me memorize Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness,” and Shakespeare sonnets, and we studied a different Shakespeare play every fall and spring. And that stuff kind of stuck, thank God. It was a chore at the time. I think I enjoyed it, but still it was on assignment, not by choice.
Devaney: I’ve started to have my students memorize poems. Of course they groan at first, but then I’ve found that they’re glad, and even grateful, to have done it. So there’s school, and there is after school!
Berkson: Yes, that’s very important, the other function of the extracurricular curriculum, what you begin to find for yourself. Like finding music. Finding rhythm and blues haphazardly on the radio — and the secret sharings: one friend is into jazz, so we begin to listen together to jazz, no one else knows these sounds — that kind of thing. Well, the books get passed around, but the more mysterious thing is going alone to a bookstore — by the time I was at Lawrenceville, junior year, there was one very good bookstore in Princeton — and just sort of glomming onto things. Why? Why Williams — William Carlos Williams — at a certain point? Why D. T. Suzuki’s books on Zen or The Book of Tea or R. H. Blythe? These things are in the air — I’m picking up on them, interestingly, by myself. I had no idea that Ron Padgett was in Tulsa or Larry Fagin in Germany getting the same books, you know? Nobody at Lawrenceville that I know of was reading them then, and I didn’t mention that I was. These schools that I went to — oh, Lawrenceville’s motto is “The Pursuit of Excellence.” Trinity was maybe more geared to inspiring writers, and a breadth of people with more diverse ways of life. But really, they were schools meant to train CEOs and government officials. And spies — like the plutocrats who invented CIA.
Devaney: Are spies born or bred?
Berkson: Yeah, exactly. I remember Ted Berrigan saying, “Where I come from, I have no business being a poet. I’m just a guy from near the Cranston Line,” meaning working-class Providence, Rhode Island. Well where do poets come from, you know?
Devaney: It’s question that could be posed in Plato’s Symposium.
Berkson: Maybe they’re supposed to come from the art classes or something — you know, the professional classes, or artisans. You know, doctors’ sons, and professors’ sons, or poets’ sons, ceramicists.
Devaney: The examples and counterexamples are endless.
Berkson: Yeah. It seems to me that they don’t come from those places, unless they toe the line in some way. For example, the acceptable Lawrenceville poet par excellence is James Merrill. He’s their prize alumnus poet. And I think he’s a very good writer, you know. But they will never claim me, really. I got pissed off about this recently and wrote to an old classmate, “I’m not giving them any more money or showing up for this alumni thing, our fiftieth reunion, class of ’57 indeed!” This old school friend’s a very bright guy, a classicist who reads — he’s a fan of Jeremy Prynne, and so forth. He writes back, “You don’t understand. You chose to write the way you do.” The implication being, why expect that a place like Lawrenceville would welcome such excess? It’s saying the same thing, but he’s sort of ranking me out like Gertrude Stein, like that I’ve chosen this obdurate path and I shouldn’t expect the world to come around to it — or not that world, anyway, not in this lifetime.
Devaney: When it comes to demanding poetry you can hit a wall very quickly.
Berkson: But meanwhile, I have all the advantage of this terrific — very nice teachers, very nice — in a way, a sort of contemplative atmosphere in these schools that allows a lot of high-minded stuff to come my way. By the time I got to Brown, I realized that a combination of Trinity and Lawrenceville was like college already. Brown’s advantage was John Hawkes was there, and S. Foster Damon — people who were serious about writing, who actually did it. Richard Foreman was an undergraduate there at the time and a very interesting guy named Ken Snyder who was kind of the campus, student poet. To whom I’d show my neo-beatnik poems, complaints mostly about America. One day looking at my poems, he said, “Don’t blame everything on America.” That saved me probably six months. Maybe a lot more.
Devaney: Rant poems. Well everyone’s allowed, or should have, one or two rant poems.
Berkson: Yeah, rant poems. And so it was really good to be in these places, but the thing that was happening, the remarkable thing — and now you realize, being a teacher, that yeah yeah yeah, you can give students whatever you have in the classroom and you can be really hip, too, hipper than most of the students, in your own terms — but those students really need to go to the secret bookstores, and the secret concerts, and find what’s going to be theirs, their own discoveries. Apparently that is what we all did, without knowing that “we all” were doing it.
Devaney: Another chapter in your education is working at ARTnews.
Berkson: Yes, at ARTnews listening to Tom Hess over the partition. After I dropped out of Columbia, somehow or other Alfred Frankfurter thought that I was this bright young thing and invited me to come work at ARTnews. I was his designated protégé.
Devaney: Well, you were in, you were there.
Berkson: So yes, there I was working at ARTnews in this cubicle. And over here was Tom Hess, on the other side of the partition, at his long desk, near the entrance to the offices, and people like Harold Rosenberg, Elaine de Kooning — all kinds of artists and critics — would come and sit and talk to Tom, and I would overhear their conversation. Plus, I got to know people on the staff like Irving Sandler, Mark Roskill, Betsy Baker, T-Grace Sharpless, Edith Schloss, who was married to Rudy Burckhardt, and Jack Kroll — all of them reviewers for ARTNews. I now think of that as graduate school. The end of my undergraduate education was night school at the Cedar Bar.
Devaney: There is certain kind of intelligence that happens during a great conversation. It’s like poetry.
Berkson: Well, it’s great to hear that, it’s a term that comes up for me too … I just got a transcription of a journal that John Wieners kept. The original physical book itself was a rather ornate Italian notebook that I gave him that Wieners’s friend Charlie Shively found among Wieners’s effects. The contents will be published soon by Bootstrap Press. Jim Dunn in Cambridge sent me the typescript. There’s a poem about me in it. I gave John the book on the occasion of taking him out for a day from West Islip mental hospital on Long Island. We spent the day together and at some point, though I don’t really remember it, I apparently handed him this book. Toward the beginning he wrote a poem characterizing me, and the poem is titled, “Intellect.”
Devaney: Does it say it’s written for you, or do you just know?
Berkson: No, no, it’s about me. I don’t think it names me, but it’s about that day, and he describes me in a way that’s recognizable.
Devaney: What a compliment.
Berkson: I think so. And then of course it’s John, whose writing I admire, who I admire to no end, writing with me in mind. “Intellect.” Intelligence is — you know, almost automatically, given the correct background and schooling, you’re supposed to be smart. An odd sort of genetics, really. “You’ve gone to the finest school, Miss Lucy, but you know you only used to get juiced in it?” A lot of people walk around and get by as intellects with that kind of veneer. Most of the so-called pundits you find in print media — William Buckley is a good example, as are most high-born conservatives — inherited an intellectual style that, if you take a pin to it, just goes poof — a very deflatable intellect. It took me a long time to wake up to my ... you could almost say, blessed stupidity.
Devaney: Then there are those rare and graceful souls who seamlessly seem to blend their intelligence and comfort all together.
Berkson: It has to be real. Joe Brainard was really inspiring in this way.
Devaney: Yes, Joe Brainard.
Berkson: How smart Joe was hadn’t quite dawned on me. I mean I knew he was smart, but I also thought he was being smart about that, letting his simplemindedness show — although actually it is difficult to clear away enough clutter to be that simple. A lot of Shining Leaves was written with that aspect of Joe in mind. Then finally one hears the Buddhist message of intellect as the sword or thunderbolt that cuts through ignorance. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about accumulated information.
Devaney: Well, we’re in the information age, so that’s worth saying.
Berkson: Right, worth saying. It’s intellect that leads you — or me, anyway, I’ve found — like a kind of gumshoe, a detective, to follow one lead to the next, connecting the dots as you go. It’s so interesting how things add up and connect, and also that there are topics in the air that many people, poets, are on top of all at once, so that one day you meet and you’ve been dealing with the same set. Discovering the detective in myself — the good student, too, at last! — was very helpful in art writing. Now it has become a habit. At least I’ve got the dots, but I don’t know if I’ve quite connected them.
Devaney: There’s a pragmatic modesty in what you’re saying.
Berkson: Some things people say to you sort of stick. When I was at Lawrenceville, one of the teachers accosted me in the library and said, “Why are you so erratic?” And I am. I just am. And so, you know, it’s like I have certain very good pitches, but I can’t count on always getting them over the plate. I don’t have a terrifically controlled mind, but I have some control. I’ve never gone crazy, off the rails. I liken my good fortune to those mysterious instances of being at the wheel of a car and it’s time to swerve out of whatever danger has presented itself — I could really total the car, and me, but a flick of the wrist makes the difference. No time to think. Where did that come from? The reflex that straightens it out, that keeps me out of trouble.
Devaney: It’s not simply an analogy.
Berkson: No, or I don’t go into the ditch. I can watch my better-controlled friends watching me go scatterbrained, scattertalk, as some of this surely is. And I think, well, OK, no control freak for you.
Devaney: Your book with Bernadette Mayer What’s Your Idea of a Good Time? [Tuumba, 2006] has this kind of wide-open energy and certainly allows room to let loose. You go with it.
Berkson: I think she does, too. She had a very tidy Catholic education, which really does introduce you to logic, syllogism, linear thinking big-time. She was a much better student, which means she was more willing to be indoctrinated and then rebel against the conventions of the Sisters. And that’s a very strong thing to rebel against. I think she’s more controlled than I am and has to will herself to be as loose as she is. After all, her writing is as limber as it gets, and very surefooted, too. Whereas …
Devaney: I love these distinctions you're making, and the connections.
Berkson: Well. One friend once pointed to what he called my Roman coin personality and messy mind. Where does the personality leave off and the mind begin? Is there surface and not surface? I think that, yes, both are operating at the same time, all the time.