Bill Berkson, 1939–2016


In Memoriam

We were sorry to learn that the poet Bill Berkson has died at seventy-six. Berkson’s poems appeared in two issues of The Paris Review, from Winter 1968 and Fall 1970; he was also an accomplished art critic, contributing regularly to Artforum and Art in America. In a column for Harriet in 2013, he wrote of “poetry’s sensational impact”: 

At the edges of meaning, words return to their peculiar physicality, provocative then of unheard-of connotations. A poem’s coherence hangs by a thread. Beside creating a momentum, successive lines can be felt to knock against each other, or else they simply stack. A kind of pattern recognition, never exactly recognizably my own, takes charge …

He was also known to argue that the best art is underpinned by a moral standard. “Art is not just a social proposition,” he told The Brooklyn Rail last year,

but an ethical proposition that involves ethical choices, therefore the proper response to the work of art—whether it’s any good or not, or whether you like it—has to do with whether you think it is right or not. It’s really weird to me that my saying so gets blank stares, or rings up censorial to some people, as though you were going to put the art in jail—no, nor do I put someone in jail because they behaved badly at a party. You just say, fuck that, I think I’ll go talk to somebody else. The upside is: Great, tell me more! That’s marvelous! Or, nobody ever said that before, in that way!

Below is his poem “Rebecca Cutlet,” from our Winter 1968 issue.

Rebecca Cutlet

Such a flow of language!
She moves in a strange world,
essentially legitimate,
or what she gambles he tosses
into the drink with not
so much as a word, and butter
reduces to fat. He takes a chance
that this “revisionism” contends up the pitfalls.

There is a house somebody-or-other and this man in it.
Without being completely satisfactory, this is all
I can let you in on, except to say that “G”,
being the sound of two rear molars and the tongue
pressed hard against the outlet, is not to be found
in the first hundred-or-so pages.
You don’t mind and anyway
it is only after this that the tricks fade
away into indestructible charm, the least
common denominator of what you took this dive for in
the first place.

Follow her through her mind
as you would through a rich moist shaft
that is caving in, but at
the other end of which, where you see her
hopping up and down frantically,
there is sunlight, many photographs and some text.