In Memoriam: Bill Berkson (1939-2016)


Truly, “it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward.”

Of Bill, what can I tell you that is not perfectly obvious in his person and all of his work?

Photo: Moses Berkson

We went to different schools together. Where we studied the same lesson, that “love’s best habit is in seeming trust.”

The last of Bill’s mobile telephone number, 1609, is the year the London publisher Thomas Thorpe had printed, for the first time, William Shake-Speares SONNETS. I didn’t call Bill but that I dialed that date, so often to make one, walking and talking with him, since when I don’t know, forever it seems.

“How curiously it had all been revealed to me! A book of Sonnets, published nearly three hundred years ago… had suddenly explained to me the whole story of my soul’s romance” – Oscar Wilde, 1889, picking up on what those poems recite. That they coalesce into a quṭb, a pole of orientation for a lifetime, its diction and music so exactingly precise as to be opaque to all but those who are compact in their vision of the reality of angelic presence, its unfailing care. I haven’t known anyone with more sensible, practical awareness of this, in himself and in others, than Bill; nor anyone more gracefully able to express it.

Anyway, strangers in Paradise. John Wieners thought Bill a prince among poets and said so. Kismet’s a Turkish word (qismet), after Arabic al-qisma, both meaning ‘one’s lot, fate.’ It needn’t only be felt darkly, as doom, it can just as well be felt as sweetly as a kiss. Nor need the romance of a soul’s memory only work backward.

Bill’s poetry, since Lawrenceville, terrifically accomplished as naturally as his behavior, along with his writing on art and his lectures– no ‘discourse,’ poetic or otherwise, rather real talk– its fleet precision, lots and lots of it irrepressibly antic, his ever increasing, excited curiosity, his White Queen’s memory never trapped by nostalgic retrospection– ever Janus-like, existential indignities be damned, getting on with it, getting it done.

You can do no better than to revisit Heinrich Heine’s 1855 preface to Poèmes et Légendes, the passage apropos Gérard de Nerval, found dead January 26 of that year, the year before Heine, after years of great suffering, would himself die too young in Paris, whose writings would be incinerated several decades later in Berlin. Heine’s words are not those of tribute but rather of profound affection for a friend who “truly was more soul than man. I would say the soul of an angel, however banal that expression.”

Once on the radio I heard Miles Davis tell a story about a dream he had had sometime after Gil Evans had passed. They were very close friends. Evans appeared to Miles in his dream. Miles asked, “Why did you have to die, man?” Evans replied, “I couldn’t do it any other way.”

Being human, who can? Moreover, what means that little word “it”?

I read Dante’s dream near dawn as “The Dream (of art and life) – O’Hara’s words– the dream that isn’t merely true, but more to the point is prophetic. The dream of beauties Rose, that it might neuer die.

Like I said, what can I tell you?

Thus Bob Creeley writing his feelings for Willem de Kooning in 1979– as of “friends and heroes and teachers” (Bill)– “So—what’s left to say that he hasn’t? Surely you’ll see that point. Therefore – ‘it’s a personal thing…’”

The “thing” = “consummate human grace.”

Duncan McNaughton lives in San Francisco. His most recent book TINY WINDOWS (Auguste Press, 2014) is inscribed ‘to Godfrey & Berkson.’


Bill and I met up on June 10th for our “late morning / noonish gnosh” at Savor on 24th Street in San Francisco. We were celebrating our new books on the heels of our joint reading at the Green Arcade on May 31st: “the pleasures of last night must be followed by food and book giving,” read Bill’s email.

Savor’s entry was noon-shady when Bill in his fedora walked through the glass doors in silhouette. We hugged and went to sit in the sun where he gave me shrinkwrapped copies of a book of Allen Ruppersberg’s drawings and the New York Painters and Poets tome— I was shocked to receive this big brick of gold from Bill but he was skeptical (or bemused) that I didn’t even have it yet! Then he pulled out a copy of Invisible Oligarchs, his Russian travel journals that we had just wrapped up on UDP and said,

“I’ve been waiting to use this inscription but I saved it for you—” signing the book and handing it to me:


The waiter comes and Bill orders: Ice tea lemonade / Wheat toast with butter / Crisp bacon. I get the snow crab sandwich—“Great choice!” the waiter raves. I tell Bill that Oligarchs has great buzz— a review is in the pipes— “Who’s writing it?” Bill asks shrewdly— I’ve forgotten, will forward…

Bill wants to know if Matvei Yankelevich has said anything about his take on IO— nothing yet, but I tell Bill the story of little MY running his tricycle into Brezhnev’s shins at a summer dacha town outside Moscow, and Bill likes it. I tell him we must send a copy to Keith Gessen, friend of the Presse and writer on Russia for such magazines as the New Yorker. I am grateful to Keith for introducing me to Takahashi Sushi that night Matvei proposed to his now ex-wife, down on one knee at Astor Place— red wine in paper bag! Bill grins— and now I remember the poet Kevin Opstedal telling me how much he loved to make Bill laugh. But, he wonders: Can you get a table at this sushi joint? Must go early, I tell him. Doors at 5:30…

We talk shop. Where to send new poems? not enough mags we’re thrilled with. My sandwich arrives, looks like a dreepfried crab in a Murphy bed, Bill crunches on his bacon, we are gossiping about magazines, weblinks, hot young writers, cold leads and the kind of writing that, while good, draws too much attention to itself. I tell him I’m looking for writing that’s less intentional. He smiles again and I think (whether or not he agrees) that he takes pleasure in my opinion— and this makes me feel happy and confident: it helps me see myself in the League of Poets. And now we’re talking about our days as autograph hounds. He remembers dodging cops to get baseball stars to sign glossies on the platforms of Grand Central Station in the early 50s— and I rifle my wallet for my Willie Mays autograph, which I’ve carried on me for 35 years, and find it’s vanished! Lunch is over and as we’re saying goodbye at the stoplights Bill yells out, “Love to your wife and girls!”

When Cedar Sigo called to tell me that Bill was gone, a part of me went with him. We were undergoing a transformation from poetry collaborators into close friends. Bill was my ally in poetry and I was proud to be his friend. I’ll always remember the time I was driving out to teach my class at San Quentin, when Bill called. I happened to know he had just received his first copies of Invisible Ollies, as he sometimes called it, and pulled over just after the bridge. This was a man who’d once told me that one of his lifelong ambitions was to publish a book with zero typos.

Had we cracked the code? I answered the phone with my heart in my throat, and heard Bill’s voice: “It looks great! Connie and I both love it. I’m happy.”

Julien Poirier lives in Berkeley, where he teaches, edits and writes poetry. His latest book, Out of Print, was published this year by City Lights.