The (Pleasurable) Anxiety of (Aesthetic) Influence: Bill Berkson’s A Frank O’Hara Notebook

Reviewed By

For some time now, I’ve been jealous of many aspects of Bill Berkson’s life. A legendary poet and art critic, Berkson was born in New York in 1939 and became a central figure in the most interesting and influential circles. As a student at Brown, he studied with novelist John Hawkes; at the New School for Social Research in New York, his teacher was the poet Kenneth Koch. Thanks to Koch, Berkson began hanging out with the poets of the New York School, such as Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, and Ron Padgett. Through these poets he also met artists like Larry Rivers, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem de Kooning and his wife Elaine. He once bowled with Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage. He knew Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Ezra Pound and Amiri Baraka; he collaborated with Alex Katz, Joe Brainard, and Phillip Guston. He wrote for ARTnews, was an editor at MoMA, and taught at Yale. In 1964, Berkson started teaching at the New School where his students included Peter Schejldahl and Patti Smith. And those were just the New York years. After relocating to Bolinas in 1970, he hooked up with Donald Allen, Phillip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, Jim Carroll, Robert Creeley, and many others. Berkson knew everyone, and everyone knew Berkson. “I am almost certainly the only person,” Berkson one quipped, “who was at both the Woodstock Music Festival and Truman Capote’s Black and White Masked Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966.”

Of all of these towering figures, none had quite the impact on Berkson as the poet Frank O’Hara. The most popular poet of the New York School, O’Hara is famous for his breezy, conversational poems that mix high and low observations about New York, art, movies, and music. Dollars to donuts, every creative writing student in America will find at least one of these O’Hara poems—”The Day Lady Died,” “Ave Maria,” “Why I Am Not a Painter,” or “Sleeping on the Wing”—on their syllabus this fall. Berkson once claimed O’Hara and Koch were his two great influences, but O’Hara took up more of his psychic space than any other artist or writer. This is certainly in part because of O’Hara’s greatness but also because their friendship never reached its full potential. As most readers know, O’Hara died, tragically, in 1966 at the age of forty. His career, like their friendship, seemed endless, and yet both came to an end.

As it happens, Berkson planned for many years to write a book about O’Hara’s impact and influence. However, Berkson himself died in 2016 before he could finish or even properly begin the project. Luckily for us, A Frank O’Hara Notebook—Berkson’s sketchbook about O’Hara—has been lovingly and masterfully reproduced and transcribed by no place press, a relatively new publisher (started in 2017 with distribution through MIT Press). For fans of Berkson and/or O’Hara, and for anyone interested in the intersection of painting and poetry, this book is indispensable.

Part diary, part recollection, part listicle, part homage, part scrapbook, Berkson’s journal, subtitled “Life on Earth,” is a series of fragmentary observations begun in the 1970s as part of a way to remember-slash-honor FO’H (Berkson’s shorthand for O’Hara). In the afterword, written by Berkson’s widow, Constance M. Lewallen, we learn that not long after Berkson’s death, she found “a small cloth-bound book in a box of papers in his office.” In the notebook are handwritten passages, newspaper clippings, images pasted into the pages, excerpts from other poems, printouts of email exchanges, and many lists. I found myself completely intrigued by the lists, including the poets O’Hara claims Jasper Johns should read as well as a sampling of titles in O’Hara’s library. In fact, that page for me is a microcosm of the book—a record of the tracks, the spoors, of how one poet follows in the footsteps of another. Berkson looked to O’Hara, O’Hara to William Carlos Williams, Williams to Whitman, and so on.

The power of aesthetic influence is a recurring theme in Berkson’s notes, whether it was de Kooning on Koch, Koch on O’Hara, or Auden on Ashbery. Indeed, Berkson reveals early on that he was obsessed with O’Hara even before they met. Koch introduced Berkson to O’Hara’s poems in that early poetry workshop. Berkson recounts Koch reading from Meditations in an Emergency, the only O’Hara book available at the time. “Once into that book, every poem seemed very suggestive, inspiring, for poems to write.” By the time the two poets met, Berkson had already dedicated two poems to FO’H. The two did finally meet in the spring of 1959 at a party at Jane Freilicher’s house:

I remember mainly elbows—one of Frank’s & one of mine—on the white mantelpiece. I don’t even recall being introduced to Frank, tho probably Kenneth did the introducing, or what was said. Whatever it was, it must have been interesting enough to keep both Frank’s & my elbowing  elbowing  elbows on that mantelpiece for a most of the few hours evening. Frank then invited me to visit him on 9th Street and to bring some poems, which I did a few days later.

And there it is: elbows to poetry to the beginning of a life-long mentorship. Long after O’Hara died, O’Hara was still influencing, shaping, editing, Berkson.

One of the more sobering lists is a catalogue of people close to O’Hara who died way too young, most notably Jackson Pollock:

1956 & A STEP AWAY FROM THEM

FO’H ®30: June 27, 1956

            Starts I.M.O.M.F that day

July 29—VR Lang dies (age 32)

¯

early August/next week: LaTouche dies (38)

¯

Sunday 8/12 hears of Pollock’s death

at age 44, crash of Saturday 8/11

A Step Away From Them

            Aug. 16, 1956 Thurs.

(Pollock’s funeral 8/15 Wed.)

“I.M.O.M.F” is Berkson’s abbreviation for O’Hara’s amazing elegy, “In Memory of My Feelings,” and you can see Berkson creating an FO’H timeline of grief and poetic creation that he clearly believes shaped the poem. Elsewhere in the journal, Berkson lists dozens of O’Hara poem titles with the dates of their composition, in an attempt, I think, to map O’Hara’s canon onto personal and public events: Pollock’s death, Billie Holiday’s death, the loss of a lover, Miles Davis getting mugged outside Birdland, visiting Larry Rivers’s studio, talking with Ashbery. What catastrophes within and without O’Hara make O’Hara O’Hara? What events within and without O’Hara make Berkson Berkson?

Another recurring motif is how aesthetic friendships form through difference. Berkson learns that O’Hara had read some of his poems before they met (thanks to Koch), but O’Hara dismissed them as derivative of Koch. Similarly, when O’Hara first shared new poems with Berkson, Berkson claims to have found them “too soft and sentimental, too gloppy.” He says to O’Hara: “I don’t think being in love is very good for your poetry.” Later, when O’Hara witnessed Berkson working and reworking poems, fretting over revision, O’Hara advised him to put the poem away. If the poem isn’t cooperating, FO’H tells him, just start a new poem. The various ways to make art—that sense of process over product—became a kind of glue, rather than a wedge, for these figures. Berkson regarding O’Hara; O’Hara watching Rivers; Guston teaching Berkson; Berkson ordering experience and memory.

There are many reasons to love A Frank O’Hara Notebook even if you don’t love Berkson or O’Hara or even 1960s New York art world gossip (if such a thing is possible). For one, the book is a masterpiece of design and production. no place press is a collaboration among art critic and gallerist Rachel Churner, artist Jordan Kantor, and designer Geoff Kaplan, and their attention to aesthetic detail is remarkable. Because the notebooks are reproduced in color, in absolute scale, it feels like you are reading the actual pages. Drawings and scraps of paper stuck between pages are captured as they were. Every detail is preserved to enhance not just the reading experience but the experience of interacting with an archival object that is at once also a personal artifact. To make issues of legibility less of an issue, Kantor has painstakingly transcribed Berkson’s handsome script into typeface, preserving line breaks, capitalization, and illustrations. He also provides a list and brief description of every person Berkson includes in his journal. With the permission of Lewallen, two previously published essays by Berkson about O’Hara accompany the transcribed pages. All of this is sandwiched between Lewallen’s afterword and a brilliantly Padgettesque forward by Ron Padgett. Thus, the book is effectively two books and sort of three. The totality makes for an absolutely fascinating testament to the intoxication of artistic creation and cross-fertilization. In this way, A Frank O’Hara Notebook functions as a necessary companion piece to the marvelous fiftieth anniversary edition of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which includes never-seen-before facsimiles of letters to and from O’Hara and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights first published the book in 1964.

“In times of crisis,” O’Hara writes in one of his best poems, “we must all decide again and again whom we love.” One of the beautiful things this beautiful book makes clear is that both O’Hara and Berkson had some beautiful moments making those decisions.

***

On September 26, join Jordan Kantor and Connie Lewallen at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco for a discussion of the life and work of Bill Berkson, and of A Frank O’Hara Notebook.


Dean Rader’s debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book of the year. He was won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2016 Common Good Books Prize, judged by Garrison Keillor, and the 2015 George Bogin Award from the Poetry Society of America, judged by Stephen Burt. He writes and reviews regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and The Huffington Post. Two new collections of poetry appeared in 2017: A book of collaborative sonnets written with Simone Muench, entitled Suture (Black Lawrence Press), and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon), about which, Publishers Weekly writes “few poets capture the contradictions of our national life with as much sensitivity or keenness.” More from this author →