By Garrett Caples
With much sadness I note the death of poet, critic, professor, lecturer, and friend to City Lights Bill Berkson (1939-2016), from a heart attack on June 16. Bill was perhaps best known for his association with the New York School of poets and painters, having published his first collection, Saturday Night (1961), in John Bernard Myers’ legendary Tibor de Nagy poetry series. He was particularly known for his friendship with Frank O’Hara, who dedicated two major poems to him, “For the Chinese New Year and for Bill Berkson,” published by City Lights in Lunch Poems (Pocket Poets No. 19, 1964), and the tour de force “Biotherm,” which Wayne Koestenbaum has called O’Hara’s “very greatest poem.” His friendship with O’Hara cast a long shadow that took him a while to outdistance, and I feel like only in the new millennium did Bill’s reputation finally catch up to his own industry and achievement.
At the same time, the past 15 years saw an extraordinary flowering of his poetry, accounting for more than half of his present output in terms of books and culminating in his most recent volume Expect Delays (Coffee House, 2014). During this period, he harvested the fruit of his labor as art critic and literary commentator with a trio of compilations, The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings 1985-2003 (Qua Books, 2004), Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 1981-2006 (Cuneiform Press, 2007), and For the Ordinary Artist: Short Reviews, Interviews, Occasional Pieces & More (BlazeVox, 2010). No doubt retirement from his longtime professorship at the San Francisco Art Institute had something to do with this newfound attention to his own affairs, for in addition to teaching art and writing, Bill had routinely been a generous promoter of other people’s work, and not solely through his little magazine and small press Big Sky.
(Below is a video of Bill reading from Expect Delays at the San Francisco Public Library in 2015 [footage by Evan Karp].)
I first met Bill, in passing, in the late ’90s but we didn’t connect. Later, in the mid-oughts, he nearly died from emphysema, but managed to bounce back from the precipice with a double-lung transplant, and only then did I get to know him. In 2009, I was editing a volume of poems by Cedar Sigo for the new City Lights Spotlight series. Back then Cedar lived in a tiny semi-detached cottage with a front-yard in SF’s Mission District and threw the greatest parties, and as I was entering the front gate, Bill was exiting the front door. We paused to compare notes. I was astonished at how this 70-year-old man was a sincere admirer of the under-35 Sigo, displaying a level of curiosity and understanding I’d already felt the difficulty of sustaining myself as I merely neared 40. Bill made it seem like a matter of course. At the time, I was also working out a cover for Kevin Killian’s Impossible Princess (City Lights, 2009) with Colter Jacobsen, and Bill’s remarks on Colter’s genius as an artist were so illuminating, so in line with what I felt but so much better thought-out, I was deeply impressed, even as Bill had taken me seriously, for my own appreciation of Colter and Cedar.
Later I had the good fortune to work on a project with Bill for City Lights, his introduction to our 2013 relaunch of Poems Retrieved by Frank O’Hara, previously printed by New American Poetry editor Donald Allen’s Grey Fox Press. This was the beginning of our friendship, generally conducted over lunch, where we’d handle whatever business we had at hand and then I’d spend the rest of the time picking his brain for advice about editing and publishing. Still later, he proved to be a tremendous help, in an informal capacity, as I worked to piece together the biographical facts for the introduction to Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems (City Lights, 2016) by Bill’s fellow second-generation New York School poet Frank Lima. I remember Bill taking the trouble to write to me from New York to introduce me to Tim Keane, whose uncle Bob Corless had been Lima’s roommate in his first apartment. I was struck by the fact that my own project was still on Bill’s mind in the midst of his own business—his expertise was considerate and thoughtful—and Tim proved to be a great source of information about a particularly obscure era of Lima’s life.
I can’t say I knew Bill well, and I know I was by no means the only recipient of his generosity in poetic and artistic matters, so I look forward to hearing other reminiscences about this extraordinary man. I feel lucky to have known him at all. The last time we had lunch together, at the end of May, he was praising the poetry of a young woman named Lyric Hunter, whose chapbook Swallower (2014) was published by Ugly Duckling Presse, which also just published Bill last book, Invisible Oligarchs: Russia Notebook, January-June 2006 & After (2016). That was Bill through and through, still curious and receptive after a lifetime of glamorous soldiering through the fields of art and poetry.