Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems, Bill Berkson, Coffee House Press
Portrait and Dream gathers more than fifty years of Bill Berkson’s poetry in all its formed formlessness into one volume. A second generation New York School poet, Berkson was a close friend of Frank O’Hara, and remains an active member of New York’s poetic and artistic community. Reading through Portrait and Dream – no small task due to its size and range – one finds Berkson’s avant-garde agenda struggling to suppress a curt sensitivity which breaks the surface of the poems in rare moments of emotional strength.
Berkson’s poetry has been linguistically inventive from the very beginning. The aesthetic of the New York School often ranked sound and energy before literal sense, and experimentation was considered an end in itself. Many of Berkson’s poems bounce off the mind like radar waves, each phrase forming its own succinct, independent expression while groping toward a nebulous subject, mood or tone. “Sunday Afternoon,” from All You Want, published in 1966, is one example.
What would the new fork bring me? and why
are porticos assuming sulfur? Leave its
cowbells charge is forces on the husks It is
no special translucence we bring to you, Dick and
Scarab, my ring of electric, morning…
The opening question catches the reader’s attention, but the ensuing lines thwart any expectations of continuity or easy comprehension. There are some delightful phrases here, such as “porticos assuming sulfur,” but a casual reader seeking sense or emotional engagement from the poem will be disappointed. Berkson’s more experimental work is as engaging as a Rubik’s cube: some readers will return to his poems again and again, hoping to “figure them out” or gain new insights into their workings. More skeptical readers, however, will be alienated by the poems and frustrated by the suspicion that there is no meaning behind the verbal magic.
Fortunately, Berkson is a consummate craftsman when he wants to be, and his skill with the traditional aspects of prosody stand in stark relief to the sometimes blinding opacity of his forays to lexical limits. Throughout Portrait and Dream one finds individual lines and phrases which delight for their sound, and less often, their sense. Such gems are enough to convince that Berkson isn’t simply slinging words. To provide only two personally pleasing examples: “She lay livid among the party favors,” from “Russian New Year,” and “History itches,” from “History.” Phrases such as these, which are innovative without being incomprehensible, sensually familiar without being traditional, stand out from the difficult poems which surround them.
Berkson’s guiding aesthetic is certainly not sentimentality or emotional lyricism. Instead he favors a cold, at times sterile approach to poetry. Nonetheless, a handful of poems in Portrait and Dream stand out for their emotional acuity. Often these are poems dedicated to friends who have died, or poems that spring out of an equally resonant emotional experience. “Rendition,” from After the Medusa, published in 2008, is one example short enough to quote in its entirety.
The song Willem de Kooning said
He wanted played at his funeralFrank
Sinatra’s “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest
Night of the Week”never happened.
What he got instead was selected
Arias from Verdi’s Aidaa scratchy rendition indeed,
As angelic choirs muttered softly among themselves
In unison: “Aidafucking Aida.”
The poem quietly displays Berkson’s mastery of form in traditional rather than novel ways. The simple narrative utterance is pulled through two quatrains and kept taut by subtle off rhymes: “said/happened/selected/indeed.” Berkson’s linguistic inventiveness, his search for the perfect phrase, is evident in phrases like “a scratchy rendition.” At the same time, Berkson, speaking for his dead friend, is bold enough to make a clear statement on death, music, kitsch, and the wishes of the dying, a statement which gathers strength for its stark succinctness. Berkson seems to have shed his experimental mantle, or at least become more comfortable and trusting of clear emotional statements. Though the final lines of “Rendition” balk at sentimentality, the poem makes clear the narrator’s feelings for his dead friend and his regret that his wishes were not respected. The unspoken fear, of course, is that Berkson’s wishes won’t be respected, either.
Those who have an interest in the New York School or avant-garde American poetics won’t need a book review to convince them to buy Portrait and Dream. It is an essential collection from one of the avant-garde’s most outstanding and longstanding representatives. Readers who seek poems which are grounded in emotional resonance and narrative will be disappointed by much of this collection, however. Nonetheless, the scope of the book shows that Berkson is not an innovative upstart to be scoffed at by traditionalists, but a craftsman who for fifty years has pursued his own voice relentlessly through tradition to bewildering extremes.
Stephan Delbos is a New England-born poet living in Prague, where he teaches at University and edits The Prague Revue. His poetry and essays have been featured most recently or are forthcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review, Zoland Poetry, Rain Taxi and Poetry International.