Bill Berkson (1939–2016)

Bill Berkson in 1990. Photo: Nancy Kittle.

“WE DO NOT RESPOND OFTEN, REALLY,” Frank O’Hara once noted. “And when we do, it is as if a flashbulb went off.”

No stranger to bright lights, Bill Berkson—O’Hara’s protégé, collaborator, and traveling companion—quoted the elder poet’s line in “Critical Reflections,” a 1990 essay for this magazine. The piece, a manifesto of sorts, lamented an art criticism where words let go of the heady rush of looking, listening, and taking it all in, to slip instead into a kind of joyless airplane mode. No flashbulbs now, just the flutter of a smartphone, endlessly dividing our attention.

Bill wasn’t about to accept those terms, declaring himself “an aesthetic hedonist.” “I’m ‘in’ art for the sensual and intellectual pleasures I continue to find there,” he wrote.

Criticism that dampens, rather than heightens, aesthetic pleasure seems to me worthless. The aesthete proceeds, by stumbles and veers, along the lines of articulated sensation, cultivating a shifting horde of passions, tolerances, fascinations, glees, and disgust that marks the temporary side effects of what keeps promising to be a civilized habit.

It’s difficult to write about Bill and not slide into his rhythms, those stumbles, and veers—the damp thump of that damn sentence, A woman has fallen, keeping him from his Costanza. The hardest part about mourning Bill is knowing that now someone else will have to read that sentence for him. We’d heard that woman fall so many times, Bill’s voice carrying over bookstore counters and galleries filled with folding chairs and a league of dedicated Listeners, those that recognized one another more or less by sight, but never went into the specifics of how we “knew Bill.”

The truth is, Bill had a startling capacity to draw others into his orbit, though he would have cackled if you tried to make him out as a guru. Decidedly not the guru type, so unassuming, so expert at keeping it casual, an easy generosity and free-flowing enthusiasm just to share the same time and place as another person. In a reciprocal stream of gratitude, he regularly dedicated poems to the people in his life, just as many unknown quantities as art celebrities. Bill wasn’t here for fame and wouldn’t abide by name-dropping; he couldn’t help it if his coterie happened to be legendary.

As a poet, Bill was particularly attuned to the odds and ends of the daily grind, the sudden high notes and spare sentences that he picked up and added to his collection of running observations, which he would publish in great globules. He didn’t force these commentaries into any faceted structure. Let posterity decide what to keep. What was that line he liked from Miró? No, not Miró, Gris. (Bill would have shaken his head at my confusing the two.) Anyway, it was a line about making a bad painting, but making a “Great Bad Painting.” Bill didn’t make bad poems. Each of his verses had that same featherweight forgiveness and acceptance of the world, with all its wonders and inconveniences, down to the three-line poem “CT Song,” which discovered a fleeting moment of fancy amid the indignities of illness: “Breathe in. | Hold your breath. | Breathe.”

For a man known primarily for his words, Bill had also offhandedly mastered the quiet pause. When he was listening to someone or looking at a work, he would cock his head just so, his eyes taking on an impish cast for a quicksilver second of consideration, punctuated by the occasional short grunt (not quite a chuckle, more like the sound old computers made when you pushed too many keys at once—still processing). It wasn’t judgment, just interest. It is what made him such a magnificent teacher. He knew how to look, and he knew how to listen, and most of all, he knew how to take his time. (Expect Delays, the title of one of his last publications.)

That’s not to say our poet didn’t have his share of killer comebacks. He had the dry martini wit of someone who knew he would always be in style, the son of a professional tastemaker—a bona fide doyenne—never fully dressed without his smile. His smile and that slight tilt of his head that meant he was listening. Oh, and in recent years, also a hat, because vanity has a way of finding us all.

When I spoke to Bill a few years back about a bump in the professional road—“chasing fire engines,” he teased—he offered the following: “I always think it’s a good idea to have a kindred spirit or two in mind when one writes reviews, don’t you? Sort of keeps the grammar between friends, and eases its extending outward.” Bill probably had too many friends to be able to take his own advice, but I knew what he meant. Even now as I write this, I write knowing full well that it’s for an audience of one, who would have listened with his soft smile, wincing at the Miró mishap, and appreciating the gentle irony that that damn woman has kept falling, even now, even here.

Kate Sutton is a writer based in Zagreb, Croatia.