Monday, June 20, 2016

Twin Obituaries

We keep losing people.

That's life. 

This last week two poets whom I knew, and had published early in their careers, both died within 48 hours of each other: 

Bill Berkson

Blue Is the Hero

Ted Greenwald

Common Sense

Both native New Yorkers. Both men I would not have had the occasion to know, had it not been for our mutual connections to the world of poetry. 

Bill died at age 76, Ted at 73. 

Ironically, both men suffered from the identical medical condition later in life--lung failure as a result of life-long smoking habit. 

It gives me pause to note that. Both my parents were heavy smokers--both two-pack unfiltered Camel people. Our house smelled strongly of tobacco, and I became inured to the smell, and the bad air, as I grew up. Later, when I went back to visit, I was nearly overpowered by the effect. I never smoked. There was nothing about smoking that I saw in their addiction that would have drawn me to the habit.   Yet neither died of lung disease, my Stepfather Harry dying in an automobile accident at about age 72, and my mom dying at age 84 from heart failure.

Berkson was heavily identified with Frank O'Hara at the beginning of his career. Bill became the official/unofficial keeper of O'Hara's flame over the years, editing his poetry, tending to his legacy, and moving beyond the association that had been so important to the both of them until the older poet's death in 1966. That was almost 50 years ago, hard to believe. Bill would pursue dual careers in poetry and art criticism in his later adult life, both successfully. Sophisticated, cosmopolitan, charming, confident, witty, and generous--an impressive man. 

Ted Greenwald, a confirmed and unashamed devoted New Yorker, was a much less visible cultural figure, without Bill's social connections and background. There was something essentially genuine about his "working clothes" approach to poetry and to his life. I like to think of him as an "urban primitive" who spoke the language of the street, but knew his art inside and out. 

My contact with these men over the years would hardly suggest we were close. But I always felt a kinship with them, and the deeper implications of what their respective artistic investigations and commitments stood for. 

I live in earthquake country, right on top of the fault line, and in the middle of a notorious slide zone. You never know when the earth might just start jiggling and shifting under the your feet. 

The death of these two men is a seismic shift in my life. Things will never be the same again. 

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