BILL BERKSON (1939 2016)
by Jarrett Earnest
WE WERE DESIGNED FOR HEAVEN
Bill Berkson On Arcadia, Utopia, and Collaboration
now the sky feels
the gods must love you
Closing my eyes now, I’m trying to remember what Bill Berkson had written on the blackboard—a cloud of disparate names and concepts: UTOPIA; ARCADIA; CHRONOS; AS YOU LIKE IT; KAFKA; OVID. I should have taken a picture or copied it into my notebook—I probably did, but neither are at hand. In memory, the words are just floating there, sort of drifting around, in his slightly scrawling hand. On April 13, 2014 Bill came to my class in the East Village at the BHQFU to discuss What’s Your Idea of a Good Time, his book of correspondence with the poet Bernadette Mayer. He started by describing the origins and nature of their book and soon, in usual fashion, the conversation flowed elsewhere, following slides Bill had prepared. After his death, I returned to the audio recording of that afternoon to transcribe some parts (collected below), an attempt to fix some of his words for myself, and for those who love talking with him.
Kenneth Koch once said to me, You should come to this party Friday night that Jane Freilicher is throwing because Frank O’Hara will be there—Frank O’Hara being a poet I already admired in Kenneth’s class—And you’ll meet him, and he will become a germ in your life—a remark that Kenneth later denied having made, but I remember it so well. And, he was right. This germ in my life once wrote a poem with a line that goes something like, “It’ll keep you alive, if that’s your idea of a good time.” Frank was a great phrase-maker, so that is how that question came up in my correspondence with Bernadette Mayer—“What’s your idea of a good time?” One’s idea of a good time can be, let’s go to this party, or it could be a larger thing, since a “good time” might mean a “golden age”—like, we’ll all drink champagne under the willow trees. Or like Jasper Johns’s painting Good Time Charley (1961).
A major work Bernadette did during the time of our correspondence was a book called Utopia (1984). Bernadette is much more of a “change the world” kind of person than I am. Just like Bernadette, I believe the world should be more perfect—but I don’t believe in the perfectibility of man.
Bernadette and my answers in this book are all subject to certain contingencies, and are rapid fire. We’re not sitting around pondering. We wrote our answers the way we write our poems, which is off-the-cuff—this is my response right now as truthfully as I can communicate it, with as much vivacity. In writing to a friend I want to amuse her and myself too. That is an all-around aesthetic principal, which is to say that my friends and I understand that the recipients of our art are other human beings, not cardboard figures in classrooms. The extension of thoughts and feelings through words, through contours in paintings, or through images in video, are put forth with the understanding that this is what human conversation is like—this is the way we see it, this is how we conduct ourselves. Bernadette is a very great no-bullshit poet. She’s gone into areas writing about herself personally that nobody had gone before. It’s like a little poem William Carlos Williams wrote in the ’20s: “The revolution is accomplished, noble has been changed to no bull.”
This is a Cranach, Fountain of Youth. This is his idea of a good time.
Now here are paintings by George Schneeman, who died in January 2009. He did portraits of his friends and family, largely nudes, sitting often on chairs or sofas. The rest of the painting is usually bare, just white paint. The paintings have extraordinary light, which is the kind of light that you find in 14th- and 15th-century paintings of which he was especially fond. I questioned him about the space—Are these figures in another place? Yes, he says, they are in heaven, in a platonic elsewhere, a perfect world. In order to live in this world—I’m paraphrasing George here—we have to have this other world in our heads and hearts. We have to have it, he said, otherwise, everybody would kill everybody. The poet Anne Porter, who was married to Fairfield Porter, said in conversation once, We were designed for heaven. What is it about our lovely senses, the way our minds work? That sentiment is a similar to George’s view.
You have these terms: Heaven, Eden, Arcadia—which is the site of the golden age. In classical terms, as in Hesiod or Ovid, the golden age is described largely in terms of what hasn’t happened yet—strife, work by the sweat of the brow, hunger. It’s usually depicted as people with no clothes on down by the riverside—like the song, ain’t gunna study war no more down by the riverside. In As You Like It, when you go to the Forest of Arden you get a taste of it. Coincidentally, As You Like It is the first place in literature where the word “modern” is used. It’s used essentially to mean fashionable, the latest thing. So there can be no postmodern, you just have a succession of moderns.
I posed naked for George three times. Once alone and another time with his wife Katie and Ron Padgett’s sister-in-law. Then a quick group portraits of about fifteen people all nude together, most of them poets—interestingly done just before the community which was down here at the end of the ’60s dispersed. In all those instances, including the one where everyone was all together, it was comfortable. There was no embarrassment, nor was there an orgy. Just like that, the golden age.
More recently I, like a lot of other poets, did a number of collaborations with George. He said there was a “utopian quality” to these collaborations. If nothing else, you could say there is a hugely generous melting away of the ego—really dissolving into the project of hand—without any sense of competitiveness. I’m not particularly handy, and I always think my handwriting is embarrassing, but with George I’d charge in thinking, I can make this mess and George will fix it, because he’s got the graphic gift.
The last time George and I had worked together, we did about five or six poem-pictures, May through December 2008. They had just taken a trip through France to see Romanesque churches, which he was really keyed up on. I said to him, paint your favorite Romanesque church, and as he laid it down, quite automatically I wrote these lines. By that I mean, the feeling was that they were dictated. The first words “Stars Fell” came from a song—stars fell on Alabama last night—fair game. So: “Stars fell.” Then came, “And now the sky feels / empty handed.” And the last line is, “the gods must love you so,” which is really just a riff on “those whom the gods love die young.” George was seventy-four and he died in January and this became a kind of elegy.
One of the poets who lived in Boulder and taught at Naropa was the Finnish poet Anselm Hollo. When he died in 2013, at a memorial for him at Saint Mark’s church, his wife Jane read a text that she wrote about how Anselm had introduced her to this community of fellow poets, and how graced she felt by this introduction, and the life that she led within it. That was the hook for me—I could go back to images like this Cranach, or images that George made, looking for what Jane Hollo described as a community. That is the kind of thing that occurs to you in time, but you can’t think about it when you’re having these relationships. You can’t live with someone and say “I love you” everyday, because it will stop making sense. You can make gestures, every day—three times a day—that shows it, but you don’t name it. I held onto that “teenager in love” thing way into my thirties—that whole thing of being carried away—as though love is something that happens to you. It took me a long time to understand that love is something you go out and do.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.