Bill Berkson's Sudden Address bridges poetry, painting, and passionate love
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REVIEW A few months ago, at a bookstore in another city, I came across a few copies of the '60s arts and literature journal Kulchur. Scanning them, I discovered that the Bay Area poet Bill Berkson had contributed some film essays and that his writings on cinema were followed an issue or two later by reviews from a fledgling critic named Pauline Kael. The presence of Berkson's and Kael's movie notes in Kulchur reflects a time when the boundary between making art and writing about it wasn't so fixed. Here was Kael, a friend of the poet Robert Duncan, making her first published sojourns into criticism (which were eventually reprinted in I Lost It at the Movies [Little, Brown, 1965]), while Berkson was trying out an essayistic voice that is more vivid and vibrant today, as evidenced by the seven (lucky) pieces in Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 19812006 (Cuneiform Press).
Cinema lights up the poetry of Berkson's friend and mentor Frank O'Hara, so it is slightly less of a surprise, though no less of a pleasure, when Berkson in the midst of a Sudden Address essay about the painter Philip Guston turns a brief mention of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan into a brief blast of instantly classic film criticism. "It's as if [Jean-Luc] Godard's movies had predicted the space of" the assassination footage, Berkson remarks. This comment, while not a direct observation about a particular Godard film, captures and more important, opens up the cramped, antic, and absurdly violent energy of Godard's new wave heyday as well as any of Kael's great celebrations of the director.
Movies are a tangential subject at most in Sudden Address: Berkson might love Louise Brooks almost as much as O'Hara adored James Dean, but the cast that parades through these pieces is more likely to range from Gertrude Stein and Dante to a number of Berkson's New York school or new realist peers and then back to Dante (in relation to Kenneth Koch) and Stein again. These artists and writers, harmonizing motifs within the overall text, occupy a living history quite different from the cold terminology of the academy and much contemporary art criticism. Attuned to the poet's flair for "observation for observation's sake" rather than dedicated to the tedious assemblage of "frames of judgment," Berkson claims that "pleasure in writing criticism is often connected with the surprise of vernacular.... Most critics are Philistines in the sense that they ignore the cardinal rule of art practice, which is never to give the game away."
It would be a matter of hinting, and not one of giving the game away, to suggest that Berkson's passionate engagement with the kinship between poetry and painting a passion that rules Sudden Address's first piece and gradually possesses its last one might have a role in the rise of the Mission school and other painterly Bay Area inspirations of recent years. Certainly a number of musicians and visual artists have looked to Berkson's onetime home of Bolinas as a source of sustenance, albeit temporarily. Born from teaching gigs and lectures at the San Francisco Art Institute and elsewhere, the oratorical style of this book remains energetic throughout. Berkson's roving intelligence stops to enjoy the infant nature of Italian phonetics and puzzles over the sublime. It tellingly notes that Walt Whitman and Charles Baudelaire "were the two most-photographed nineteenth-century writers" and places painter-poet Joe Brainard and critic Clement Greenberg at the intersection of Hans Hoffman's paintings in order to take on Greenberg's famous good-or-bad mode of attack. It also takes issue with former fellow "poet who also writes about art" Peter Schjeldahl's gradual abandonment of poetry.
Sudden Address's cool enthusiasm sometimes gives way to a passion even more at odds with what Berkson deems "the glacial moraine" of postmodernism. Composed in memory of Berkson's feelings for O'Hara's poem "In Memory of My Feelings," the 2006 piece "Frank O'Hara at 30" overcomes the assumed importance and first-name logrolling of many New York schoolstyle remembrances. It exemplifies Berkson's ability to make one style of criticism function as a rich libretto surrounding the aria that is a particular poem or painting. Virgil Thomson attested that when faced with a choice between work, friendship, and passionate love, finding two out of three ain't bad. But Berkson wants to have all three. At its best, Sudden Address embodies that possibility.