Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Berkson's Sheer Strips -- Sheer Poetry

Back in the 1970's, I wanted to publish the work of Bill Berkson. I'd seen a stray copy of a typescript of poems he'd somehow left--or perhaps someone had sold it?--of  Blue Is the Hero Poems 1960-1975 [Kensington: L Publications, 1976]--at Serendipity Books, in its then location, on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, which was just around the corner from where I was living at that time, on Francisco Street. I'd been reading Bill's work in the magazines, and I'd become intrigued by its urbane flexibility and charm. Reading over the typescript, I realized that it was a manuscript he must be circulating around in search of a publisher. 
Bill was already a big enough name by this time, having published three or four collections of his work--notably, the stylish Tibor de Nagy pamphlet Saturday Night Poems 1960-61 composed of work he'd done in his early twenties, a copy of which I'd found improbably in a small Co-op Bookstore while still an undergraduate at Berkeley in 1968. (What a great day scouting! I got Berkson's book, O'Hara's Love Poems, Towle's We Take A Drive, and Schuyler's May 24th or so, on that occasion, and I hadn't even thought about becoming a bookseller in those days.)     

Contemporary portrait (from the rear)
Berkson had moved to Bolinas a few years before, and I sent him a letter proposing the collection, hoping for the best. A week or so later, he called, accepting the idea in principle, insisting that we adhere to certain standards of production and so forth, all of which I'd already determined to do before-hand, so the agreement was hashed out in short order. I'd published a group of his poems a little earlier in the poetry magazine I'd edited, L. It seemed like the perfect fit. 
As publisher, I technically had some say in how the book would be "edited" though I knew Bill would be unlikely to credit my taste in choosing his work. I had had some favorites I'd seen in magazines over the years, and was hoping to get those in. A few didn't make it. One in particular, "Sheer Strips" had been printed in his classic mimeo book Shining Leaves [Angel Hair Books, 1969, with a cover portrait of BB by Alex Katz]. But Bill was adamant: "Sheer Strips" was to thin, or too trite, or too clichĂ©'d, or too something. He related how Allen Ginsberg had told him the poem "had everything going on" in it, it was the ultimate camp happening poem of the New York School. On the evidence of that verdict alone, I thought it deserved inclusion, but nope, it was out.   
Bill at about the time I first corresponded with him--maybe a little earlier
Which brings me to his new book Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems [Coffee House Press, 2009], where I find that "Sheer Strips" has been restored to its rightful place among the best poems of the Shining Leaves period circa the late 1960's. 
Another contemporary shot

                                                             SHEER STRIPS

An OK Sunday
                            "folks down at the fountain--
                                                                                 they're not our people"
the racing season's over
                                 Saratoga's Broadway's
                                                                nearly empty, sunning
the big spruce don't seem to mind
                                                        nor the maples
                                                                                      getting milder
can drive around here and see some great sights
               Skidmore's Texas-style new campus (Texas money encroaching)
                             hear Marshall Hampton and his Hamp for Soul Inc. at the
Grill ("no broken-bottle fighting, please, or outside")
               The Doors on at Performing Art Center ("oooooo")
                            eat good fried chicken at the Chicken Shack
flies on old wire screens
                                           mildew on the mansions
                                                                                        Union Avenue
                                  and downtown
("zero percent chance of rain")
                                 kids milling around with McCarthy buttons
                                   still on, four days after convention
                                   not so glum
they shoot the shit at ease on fences
                                                                 The Red Barn and
         other folks rocking out the porch at the Rip Van Dam the Adelphi
and congratulations Linda and Doug whoever you are
                                         at the Holiday
                                                     Inn, muggy couples
the ceiling lowers, prices down 
                                                   but grass prices up! two joints of soggy
and L'Avventura slips into focus 
                                                      ("Perche, Anna?")
that was last night) Sunday
                                   papers Sunday breakfast (always "missed")
                                                  Sunday Brenda Starr hard to come by here
for the New York Enquirer?"
           well? huh? is it going to be a sun kiss and a hug? un huh? 
                          or the burst you've all been waiting for?
                                       and then what?             
                                              *   *   *   *

A word about this version which I've typed inside Blogger: The original setting provided a lot more space between the lines, an effect which is really crucial to the way the poem functions metaphysically, on the page. You can look at this in two ways: One) the phrases are indeed like "strips" in space--strips of paper, ribbon, plastic, or like those crazy signs that crop-dusters drag across the sky to advertise a business--but they're "sheer" strips, sheer like nylon stockings, you can see through them, but the pattern (or the message) is still visible, like a screen or something. Two) the registration on the line-breaks is mechanical (with the fixed margin for the lines (stanzas?))--the first indent shift goes right down the poem in a straight line, defining space and giving the poem its backbone. There's a kind of regular aimlessness in the mood of floating conversational fragments which drift by; it's a dialogue of observations and remarks which catalogue the social milieus it glides over and around. The address is both glib and ironic (funny) while capitulating to its own exhaustion and angst at the same time.
It's a name dropper and an age-dater. The speaker is, say, young enough to believe in innocence, yet old enough to be cynical about it all. Is that the way we always want to be?--maybe at a certain point, while we're still in the running but no longer guileless to temptations. The social fact of the speaker's class is confident. That was how I usually thought of Bill, perfect equanimity and poise, with a sidecar of curiosity and mild skepticism. Not the kind you meet everyday, but familiar somehow.            
The poem's weather is hot! The way it really gets hot in the Summer on the East Coast, it's damp and sunny and muggy and soggy and the flies are out on screendoors. Stuff is happening outdoors because it's too hot to stay in. The poem hopes for a light breeze, and provides its own just for effect. What to do on Sunday. Last night was Fellini. We've dated ourselves and the poem, because nostalgia isn't what it used to be. The Doors. Eugene McCarthy. Texas money is dirty but New York money is tough. Is this what a hangover feels like? You could quote me. 
The poem has a lovely visual sense--working a little, maybe, off of William Carlos Williams's steps (from Desert Music or Pictures of Brueghel), the easy, casual, occasionally unexpectedly halting, shifting American foot as it walks up the steps of the Metropolitan to check out the latest exhibit. Whose people? Americans, no doubt, scratching in public and making a perfect nuisance out of themselves. It's a lowering of expectations, for sure, a democratic leveling out of alternatives in a city oppressed by merciless temperature. Emotional tourists on the look-out for exotic fly-byes. The poem stands or falls on its details, which parade by like floats made of fake flowers mounted on flat-beds. If it's the Fourth, then fireworks are due. What is the date, by the way?


jh said...

Sept 2 1968

Kirby Olson said...

It's chatty, and fun, but usually a poem has a point.

Curtis Faville said...


Have you ever tried to write a poem of this kind?

Successul ones, like this, inevitably "look easy" but are extremely difficult to make work.

I think of this as a kind of satire, but it's also "close enough" to Berkson's world (of that time) that the speaker is "implicated" in the world it portrays.

The ability to make a poem like this derives from a certain kind of aesthetic separation. You have to understand a social situation from the inside out, but you also need to have a certain distance from it. It's kind of like a fence-sitter, humpty-dumpty, "ahhhhhh, look at all the lonely people...." (Eleanor Rigby)

I also like the way the visual rhythmic setting of the poem is perfectly suited to the slightly stilted pace of the voice--it's not like a voice one would hear over the radio, or in the movies, or at a café. Almost a kind of poetic gossip column.

Also, it's so savvy. It's the kind of poem the New Yorker should have been publishing in the 1960's, instead of the sludge that Howard Moss was selecting. That's what Larry Fagin said--the cartoons were wonderful, but the poetry was stodgy.

jh said...

kirby i think the poem does have a point
the point is
the fact that mccarthy lost the democratic nomination to the stodgy old demofathers
is as seemingly unimportant as anything else one might see

this is sort of like silliman schtick schtuff
only yeah


hay curtis did i get the date right
do i get a booby prize??




Curtis Faville said...

You know, jh, we'll have to ask BB. He'd probably be amused to tell.

Geof Huth said...


Coming into this conversation in media res (even if at the end of it).

Pure New York School, I'd say. Refreshingly retro the experience of reading this. It is like returning to a place I know without ever having been there.

I see no reason for a poem to have a point, per se. It should be, in some way, a unique experience, and what is gained from the poem can (but need not) be quite separate from the poem, which merely nudges one in that direction.

I also see little esthetic value in the difficulty required to create a poem. The exception would be where that difficulty adds to the poem conceptually. Otherwise, what matters is the poem. There are many things very difficult to do that are also almost without value.

But that's not why I'm writing here today. I'm writing only for the coincidence of the fact that I spent all of Friday in Saratoga Springs, primarily on Skidmore College's campus. Moving from almost the end of North Broadway down through the small city. So I was in the venue of this poem without even knowing it.

That's it.

aphon (without sound?),


Kirby Olson said...

The 2nd generation NY School didn't have much impact because they didn't have anything to say. Corso said the bit about the New Yorker long before Fagin, and Fagin must have gotten it from that source and then reused it without attribution. Typical of Fagin.

The Ny School was really only ever Frank O'Hara. None of the others ever meant anything, or had any ideas of their own.

One problem for me with generations is that too many of their members turn their brains off and coast on the stream provided by an innovative talent.

I've written poems like Berkson's, but I hide them. Unless a poem has a point, I think it has to disappear, because otherwise you are wasting people's time.

I'm certainly glad that Fagin's poems never got into the New Yorker. He was at best the eensy weensy spider.

Curtis Faville said...


The First Generation New York School included Ashbery, Koch, O'Hara, Schuyler, Guest, Denby, and (based on age) Elmslie.

The Second Generation includes Berrigan, Padgett, Shapiro, Warsh, Gallup, Fagin, Berkson, Brownstein, Towle, Brainard, Ceravolo, Schjeldahl, Malanga, Waldman, Greenwald, among others.

Like all "school" designations, it doesn't hold together very well under close scrutiny. The Beats--as a group--is even less well defined.

I think it's unfair to lump people together like this and condemn them by association, or by a failure of association. Individuals are individuals. Clearly, Lunch Poems, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, The Crystal Lithium, Mediterranean Cities, The Sonnets, I Remember are all major works. And the other figures published dozens of important individual lyrics. Whether these "toe the line" of the "school" to which they nominally belong is an idle question for me. They define their context, and become signposts in the history of the medium.

Is some of their work overrated and unworthy. Undoubtedly. But that's true of everyone else, and every other group. The Beats wrote a lot of crap, too. And people move on, or die before their time.

Claiming you've "hidden" your great imitation poems is pretty passive-aggressive.

The New York School poets introduced a number of innovations into verse, not the least of which was the geometry of real interpersonal relations. That's something no one else can claim. If you benefited from this, Kirby, then show some appreciation. Otherwise, keep your peace. Review a book by someone in the group, and estimate it on its strengths and weaknesses, irrespective of its author's "associations."

Then at least your opinion has some validity--applied to a specific case. Generalities--like vague notions of "schools"--aren't of much use.