ABOUT POLYPHONY: All in One
When he’s painted himself out of it,
de Kooning says his picture’s finished
The most beautiful dream is that moment in Purgatorio when first Virgil rejoins the four shades of ancient poets “on the enamelled green,” and after a while they invite Dante in, “so that I was sixth amid so much wisdom”—the gist being there’s room for more.
The teachers are always there, in mind, in acquired gestures, voice, things casually said that become markers. Older men who keep teaching me new things are Kenneth Koch, Alex Katz, Frank O’Hara, two of whom are dead, but I hear them constantly.
Did I learn more from them than from the outnumbering ones my own age, or now, much younger poets and artists?
A teacher is not necessarily a hero or role model. “Always meet your heroes,” Robert Creeley once said. That way, you see that everyone is in the same boat.
Almost 50 years since Frank O’Hara died, I know less about the person but more and more about his poems.
I don’t feel that art or personality is a contest about exclusivity. Maneuvering for identity in art seems to make artists ill at ease with themselves and others.
Style at best is something you can’t help. Most people think it’s an achievement, but it mostly comes from flaws and limitations. People borrow other people’s glitches.
Funny, I’m hearing Creeley again here, whom I resisted mightily at first because he made such a struggle about his own continuity—“trying to be in my life,” as I once heard him say. But he had this joke: “X says, Who am I? and a voice comes back, Who’s asking?”—like out of one of those Magic 8-Ball toys.
Or the old, oft-quoted story—was it John Cage or Philip Guston who told it?—about how, as you work, the room is full of other artists, but as you keep at it, one by one they all leave, and then the work is you. Nonsense—nobody leaves. You are just the same old material for the work, and perhaps at a certain point the work begins to talk back.
I have an unfixed, relatively unstable character, or anyway my poetry seems to reflect that.
As far as personality is concerned, for a long time I was confused. Then, at a certain point, I decided to go with what I had.
Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago told us something about polyphony: “You in others—that is your soul.” I think the other way round is true, too, to some extent.
I like my poems to have good company.
BILL BERKSON is a poet and art critic living in San Francisco and New York. He is professor emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught art history, writing, and poetry from 1984 until 2008.