Bill Berkson’s A Frank O’Hara Notebook, review by Levi Bentley

Bill Berkson’s A Frank O’Hara Notebook (MIT Press, 2019)

Review by Levi Bentley

A Rosetta Stone of Bill Berkson’s sense of Frank O’Hara

What occurs first is the shock of touch, a feeling your hand has wondered into contact with Bill Berkson’s ballpoint script, which you imagine you may be in danger of smudging. The script, unselfconscious, sometimes illegible, drops you into the center of something that you must turn over, puzzle at, reconstructing a portrait. The precision and kindliness of that trace suggests so strongly the presence both of Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara, their friendship, that you feel you might be in someone’s living room, ready to jump and hide the private notebook under magazines as Bill returns. It has the intimacy, immediacy, nostalgia power of a recent relic, carrying the feeling of being in an inner-circle. The reproduction is careful and complete, casually unaffected, it duplicates in detail the original within a hardcover of understated book cloth over bookboard. Its unadorned weight, somewhat dated, helps give it the weight of a religiously thorough facsimile.

The record left there — careful, factual, generous — shows in Bill’s estimation a Frank O’Hara who moves with ease through a life caught up in an artistic and social scene, which he seemed to navigate with evenness and grace. Bill’s Frank is both contentious and deeply loveable, charming, someone who “leaves his debts paid.” We see through Bill’s eyes the outline of a man who made people want to write back to him through poems before they had met. And yet there is little more detail than this within the outline. It is a rough sketch with a few strikingly detailed features There is the mapping of several pieces of Frank’s career, a careful timeline of the dates a set of poems were written, a curriculum for teaching Frank’s work, a (condensed) library — each detail suggestive in its selection. There is a strength, a sureness of hand in knowing that even an enthusiastic piece of praise would have been a diversion, that what’s wanted is not superlative laden, but a piece of the hem of the mystery that made Frank O’Hara and his work so magnetic. Studying the materials keeps us in the daily, grounded reality of the facts and the poems. Bill records with candor and without bitterness both the warmth and imperfections of their friendship, the moments of mismatch, then leads us unfailingly back to the work.

As I turn it over, (interior heavy, glossy) I read non-linearly. I flip around to parse the density of Bill’s hand, looking for emotional clues, googling poems and sets of poems to see if I agree with Bill’s groupings of Frank’s poems, feeling active and in conversation with a life I will not get to consider in full, only in striking pieces, from a distance. This is where loss enters. Bill leads me as I reconstruct, inevitably through projection, a whole person out of bread crumbs. Frank O’Hara’s poems themselves remain the realest and largest pieces of the puzzle, pieces we had all along. The partialness allows Frank room to breathe at the center. There is a wisdom to the openness with which Bill’s private accounting does not seek to claim, explain, or otherwise diminish someone to whom he felt close.

Why, dear reader, do we need this on our shelves? Much like the facsimile of Emily Dickinson’s poems The Gorgeous Nothings, (published by New Directions in 2013) its strength is found less in what it does and more in what it undoes. It undoes the myth of monolith and allows us a temporary bewilderment of first contact, leaving us to wander through the fragments of encounter which would build into critical essays. It is the seed, the hub of possibility which generates Bill’s more formal work. It models for us a possibility of engagement, the beauty of a mind caught up in romantic friendship. I think with some regret about the work of my friends who I have not documented or written about so rigorously. The possibility of keeping a notebook for tracking their creative work for the purpose of being accurate and responsible in reviews, introductions, anthologies in the future strikes me as a kind of revelation. This is the kind of holy work, the domestic labor of literary citizenship that keeps this small world real and turning.

The New York Times obituary describes Bill Berkson as “the ever-present third man from the left in the group photographs that chronicle the era.” He had grown up on Fifth Avenue, born to a prominent journalist father and fashion-publicist mother at a time when paper journalism was a powerful center of social life in New York. He grew up within a world of celebrity and cocktail parties, and would have felt immediately at home in the heady milieu that Frank O’Hara cultivated along with other core members of the New York School of poets (Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, John Ashbery, James Schuyler) who were engaged largely with the work of young painters. And Frank was his key to that world.

O’Hara worked as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art from 1955 until his death in 1966, and his poems applied a formal meter, casual affection, and sense of speed (“I have stopped thinking, like a sled dog”) to the representations of daily life populated with names and details of his visits to the studios of prominent young painters. Berkson joined him at the MoMA shortly after their friendship began.

Bill’s own poetry and critical work is beyond prolific, following in the footsteps of this documentation of heady emotional, philosophical dailiness. He was first introduced to Frank’s work as a student of Kenneth Koch’s at the New School, and responded to it strongly, writing poems to Frank immediately in the wake of that experience. He met Frank in person shortly after and was soon caught up in the world of those poems, the first of the second generation of what would be the New York School, orbiting and collaborating in a friendship that he later called a cultural education. They wrote a collaborative long poem together called The Hymns of Saint Bridget. They played muses and guides and champions of work to each other and others of that small scene. Frank wrote over a dozen poems explicitly mentioning Bill. Bill was later an art critic writing for ArtForum among other prominent venues, and his and Frank’s interests and social worlds had become strongly interwoven. It is perhaps unsurprising for the child of journalists that a record of what attentiveness and care looked like for Bill, was that within such a full social life, and investment in immediacy, he decided it important to dedicate a whole notebook to Frank, and record such things as the order in which a set of poems were written. It is perhaps the marker of a child of a journalist that he would later recuse himself from writing about Frank at length.

Although many felt close to Frank and his “flame thrower affection,” Bill Berkson said he felt too close to Frank to write a biography of him: “I got dizzy in his regard and affection.” Ron Padgett’s essay appearing in the middle of A Frank O’Hara Notebook explains a “powerful radiance of friendship infused with love prevented [Berkson] from taking on the standard role of biographer,” Still, he talked about him in lecture, taught his work, edited and wrote the introduction to Poems Retrieved, and edited with Joe LeSueur, Homage to Frank O’Hara. These latter were published after Frank’s sudden death on Fire Island.

Whether or not there is or was ever a sexual relationship is less important to speculate on, perhaps, than the essential libidinousness in the way of living life that Frank seemed to have invented and epitomized.

Frank O’Hara’s sexuality comes up in the Notebook only in passing, explaining that a recorded reading of his is not televised because his voice is “too fruity.” As a contemporary reader, one longs perhaps for a more straight-ahead reckoning of how sexuality and identity played out or did not play out in Frank’s life, but instead we are given neither a denial nor a completely clear image. After puzzling through the handwritten facsimile, there are two brief essays embedded in the center of the book, then the text reproduced in type, and accompanied by the text of a digital file where Bill kept a few further notes. The reproduction in type is useful for settling confusions about particular words, and serves in contrast to increase the weight and warmth of the handwriting. I love that the introductory essays are held for the middle, making the reader wander through the text alone before providing a frame.

As I read the volume on the train, a ticket collector stops to ask whether I am a comic artist. I realize that I am open to the spread holding Bill’s pictorial diagram of “Sleeping on the Wing”. How many poems could be mapped this way? There is a whimsy and seriousness here to it. There is a line tracing Frank’s mind rising from the city and drifting out over the Atlantic, with lines and phrases of the poem mapped out, the lines sailing towards “The Kingdom of the Self” before swooping down into the image and the awakening at the end of the poem. The beauty and casual charisma turns me around and around again. I keep coming back to it.

A baffle is a device which restricts the flow of gas or liquid, creating little circular eddies in its wake with its productive obstruction. My brain turns in little circles behind the pages of this text, which acts as a baffle. In the sense that I am stuck on it, it baffles me.

There is almost nothing more here than what we have already in terms of big picture information, and yet it’s little details about phrases, social engagements, dates, rooms and who was in them, sharpen, change everything. Frank O’Hara gets more real in the pages the more time I spend. What’s here is what Bill must have felt in danger of forgetting in the blaze of his direct engagement, suffused with the light of their friendship. That’s why the dates, the quotes, the lists. All the clues to who, what, where, when exactly this or that encounter happened that might be important later. The more time I spend, the more he might be in the corner at a party, in intent conversation with someone else, just a few intermittent phrases escaping to be overheard. I might make out something more about this man who pulled men into relation with him with his easy intellect and energy and the direct address of his poems, this poet whose poems were secondary to living, but not really separable, Frank, who made living the thinking and feeling and poems seem breezy while acknowledging they seldom were.