The work of poet Bill Berkson hovers between the directness of idiomatic speech and the formal processes of linguistic abstraction in a way that reminds us of his early ties to Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler and the poets of the first generation of the "New York School," even as it anticipates the postmodern concerns of the "language-centered" and conceptualist poetries that would follow:
You hope the Earth is equitable,
Because why else are you here,
Fraught with the extra time
And sure-fire energy, clear
And in the same breath, not.
--"Our Friends Will Pass Among You Silently"
Berkson, who will be the featured guest of Just Buffalo Literary Center's "Big Night" event at 8 tonight at Western New York Book Arts Collaborative (468 Washington St., near Mohawk), is the author of 18 books of poetry, the most recent of which are Our Friends Will Pass Among You Silently (Owl Press, 2007), Goods and Services (Blue Press, 2008), and the half century career spanning Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems (Coffee House Press, 2009).
Like many poets associated with the first generation of the New York School, he is equally well-known for a wide range of art world activities, most notably for his critical writing for such publications as Art News, Artforum and Art in America (where he worked as a corresponding editor) and his work as a lecturer, educator and sometime curator for a number of major art institutions on both the East and West coasts.
As an art critic, he is widely admired for the clarity and specificity of his writing in a field where it is often the exception rather than the rule. In "Critical Reflections," an Artforum essay republished his prose collection The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings (Qua Books, 2004), he observed:
An art writer’s self-importance is nonsensical. History shelves all but the few critical pieces that give pleasure and interest as something more than topical position papers. And it recognizes the next work of art as the criticism that matters most. If as a critic I remain relatively unprincipled—an amateur at heart—it’s because I’ve learned that my pleasures come most fully from works that outstrip everyone’s principles, and most especially my own—at which point everyone, even the artist, should feel amateurish, and a bit humble. Criticism should be modest in principle and quick or excessive enough so that everyone can enjoy how hypothetical it is.
Born into an upper middle class family in New York City in 1939, he attended Trinity School, the Lawrenceville School, Brown University, Columbia, the New School for Social Research and New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where he found the Abstract Expressionist movement in painting, the New York School poets, the Beats and nascent Pop Art movement all seemingly coalescing around him in the Manhattan of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
After a decade of immersion in that heady world, however, he left an editorial position at Art News and made a clean break with the city of his youth, moving to Northern California in 1970. There in the small town of Bolinas, Calif., he joined a writers' community that was decidedly more diverse in its interests and attuned to the generational changes happening in the culture at large. He settled there, started a family and supported himself with various teaching gigs in the growing California education system. By the time he found himself back to writing about the art world in the late 1970s, he returned with sage eye of an outsider, less susceptible to art world hype and more focused on the work itself.
That continental shift in his thinking extended to his poetry as well. As his interest in new voices expanded, so did his interest in alternative publishing. He founded a small press and began editing and publishing a series of poetry books and magazines under the Big Sky imprint, and was awarded writing fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts and other foundations. By 1978, the poetry scene he left in New York became the impetus for his Homage to Frank O’Hara, an anthology he edited and published with Big Sky. Since undergoing a successful lung transplant operation to stave off the effects of emphysema in 2004, he has been extraordinarily active, publishing eight books and editing or collaborating on four others.
Also featured on tonight's Big Night program will be video by Shasti O’Leary Soudant, a short film by Justin Choiuinard, and food by gourmet chef and BlazeVox Books publisher Geoffrey Gatza.