“Why should I look at this [art] instead of out the window?” asks Bill Berkson in one of the prose poems from his stellar new collection, Expect Delays (Coffee House Press, 2014).
This question implies that ethics — i.e., how one responds to another, or even how one chooses to spend a minute of one’s short time on earth — ought to be part of aesthetic judgments. “Aesthetics is the ethics of the present” is how he restates this ethos in “Songs for Bands,” another poem in this new collection.
By inserting a question about where one chooses to look — which originated in Berkson’s teaching work at the San Francisco Art Institute — it’s as if he is daring the reader to ask a related question about reading, along the lines of, “why should I read a poem in Expect Delays instead of the incoming text on my phone?”
Expect Delays offers myriad answers.
For starters, this new collection opens up a new stage in Berkson’s long poetic career, as it includes his most autobiographical poems, many in the form of acrostics celebrating the lives of his friends, his mother (on her one-hundredth birthday), his wife and his son. The personal content doesn’t preclude formal inventiveness. The collection works in prose-poetic meditations and elegant aphorisms, weaving in contemporary culture, rounding out its absurdities and complexities with wry qualifications, historical particulars and unexpected reversals.
Longtime readers who seek out Berkson’s idiomatic poetry for its unfashionable blend of erudition and circumspection will find that here in Expect Delays, too. There are piercing intimations of mortality, alongside those slightly deferred joys that occur when one is present and attentive — “racing with the moon” is how he describes such a mode of existence in one new poem, while in another, “To cater excess of air/A favorite of the colors/This side of the angels.”
Expect Delays is divided into four orderly sections, taking its reader into its mazes of rumination and investigation. The poems move confidently through detours, which locate thought in feeling and draw insight from emotion. Frequently, the routes follow artistic or pop culture signposts. As he explained recently to students at the University of Pennsylvania, he sought in this new collection to “set up variable tensions,” and to “slow down” the hurried contemporary reader.
In one poem that almost serves as a secret credo for the book, the speaker appropriates a letter in which Mozart argues for preserving the material integrity of one’s art form while being consumed in emotional disorder. In other words, stoicism is a prerequisite for any artist of any temperament once it comes time to actually create.
Another poem comes at this from another angle in the form of a haiku-like elegy for the Confucian outlaw “Omar Little” from HBO’s The Wire. As that character showed, self-awareness, fairness and resolve are values that can transcend one’s problematic circumstances.
In Berkson’s poetic universe, intuitions and enigmas materialize within the plainest utterance and from the refashioned language of others. In one new poem, the simple category “still life” becomes another way to indicate a variety of suffering within which “the street contains many still lifes.” Another poem deflates its speaker through a backhanded compliment about celebrity, courtesy of the cashier at a Whole Foods supermarket. Listen and learn wherever you are, Berkson’s poetry seems to teach, and does so by way of example. It’s a lively discipline.
Berkson’s first location was Manhattan where he was born in 1939. He began writing verse within — and against — the straight-laced climate of the 1950s. Drawn back to his native city even as his schooling seemed to propel him elsewhere, he was writing poetry actively by the time he enrolled in a workshop at the New School led by Kenneth Koch. Koch’s wide enthusiasms extended to the lyrical tradition of English Romanticism as well as such surreal yet colloquial twentieth century French poets as Pierre Reverdy and Jacques Prévert. Whatever the particular convergence of influences, they worked well for the young Berkson. His first book, Saturday Night: Poems 1960-1961, was published by Tibor de Nagy when the poet was just in his early twenties.
Berkson was shaped by the wit, humor, and freewheeling vernacular speech associated with his fellow “New York School” poets, who often referenced movies, music, artworks, city locations, and even one another’s names in their poems. But even in its early manifestations, Berkson’s poetry differed from his loquacious New York School peers, unfolding in more compressed forms with a graceful slowness, and couched in a restrained uncertainty much like the interrogative poetics of Wallace Stevens and Robert Creeley. As in Stevens and Creeley — and, for that matter, in a poetic philosopher like Nietzsche — the philosophical excitements of the writing come through their respective styles of language, not from a worldview or system constructed by the text.
Perhaps leaving New York City helped Berkson further refine this approach. Following a productive period as a teaching poet and a participant in and writer about the downtown art scene throughout the 1960s, Berkson took off for the San Francisco Bay area. He has resided there ever since, and figures like Joanne Kyger and Philip Whalen gradually became his approximate West Coast generational peers in poetry. And for these past four and a half decades, he’s built up a profile as a bicoastal presence in both the poetry scene and in the ever-changing landscape of art criticism. In the latter field, he’s known as a prolific, no-bullshit spokesperson for late Modernist American art in its multiplicities —Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Alex Katz, Philip Guston and George Schneeman are just some of Berkson’s favorite touchstones.
In certain respects, these two vocations of poetry and art writing overlap. Berkson has collaborated with painters and painters have graced the covers of his poetry books with their art. His art writing has a poetic bias, advancing its arguments through an informed, intimate point-of-view.
Conversely, often referencing visual art and events in cultural history as catalysts, his verses scrutinize the given world with a critical acumen matched by a kaleidoscopic openness, an openness which the poem itself cultivates rather than quells. As he puts it in the new poem “Monogram,” his poetry seeks, “To divulge a surplus/A clue if not a key.”
Berkson’s poetry is blissful approximation, teasing out lucidity without supplying neat closure, as in the finale of “Anhedonia,” in Expect Delays:
Difficult it is, regardless of what
Is said or put to writing
In the end.
Say we do as we please—tacit approval
Of a faulty transcription, sentence
Taken down, in a kind of rapture.
Frequently his poems have reflected about and then rearranged ordinary language in order to achieve a clarity that retains the suggestiveness of metaphors and dreams. He does this to call attention to overlooked realities, as in “Shelter,” from his collection Copy of the Catalogue (1999), in which he asks, “Do you recall the words to fog/or flotsam slipping legs into the laundry bag?”
Coming across such creative instigations in Expect Delays, I thought that our brave new world — in which reality seems constantly at our fingertips and increasingly out of our reach — can be improved by Berkson’s invigorating skepticisms, his colorful concreteness, his nimbleness in trying out alternative perspectives and his willingness to call out doublethink embedded in contemporary American discourse. It’s a tough row to hoe, of course.
Reality isn’t up for grabs in his poems, even if its interpretations constantly are. In that sense, interpretation is a welcome responsibility and a restoration. And although these goals inform Expect Delays, they are ends that he set forth early and often in his poetry career. In, “Out There” a poem from the 1960s dedicated to Jasper Johns, the young poetic persona cautions that, “reality won’t make itself over for the fact that you sense something.”
In many ways that core belief underpins every one of his poems, including “With Impunity” from the current collection, which sets out for “The province, the region, the sect/The zone of last clouds in which is spotted the Final Face.” That cryptic Dickinson-like finale leaves the reader with ample room for interpretation. Such as: where we are heading is unpredictably guided by where we have been. Or, the “Final Face” we each as individuals will eventually discover is, by its subjective nature, as distinctive as the person who seeks it.
Since the goal of the quest can’t be totally defined in advance, Berkson seems to say, go find original ways to approach it. And if that approach leads you to contradiction, so be it. In “Brick,” the speaker is content with aspiring to a “limitless springtime for opposites.”
And limitless oppositions, as well, for this poetry is cognizant of its political and cultural environments. With frequent invocations of post-Cold War hangovers and associative riffs that take on the fundamentalism of both Goldman Sachs and Dick Cheney, the long prose poetic section “Snippets (Further Songs for Bands)” notes how religiosity has mired the United States in narcissism, a “collective solipsism, an ethos of personal salvation that does without ethics ‘because Jesus tells me so.’”
Reading such lines, I wondered why more contemporary poets can’t get as occasionally angry as this. Similarly outraged, the poem “Accounts Payable” uses sexual metaphors to show how the globalized world is a corporate stratagem within which non-monetary value evaporates and relationships are reduced to transactions.
Throughout Expect Delays, such cracks are — to paraphrase Leonard Cohen — where the light gets in. Even death can be enlivening, as it is for the figure in “Egoics,” who snaps himself out of a somnambulant state by mocking himself as one of those who are “dead and don’t know it.” In “Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea,” death is framed as “a certain semblance of knowing…without which nothing works.” And while he’s at these edges, lyricism provides beneficial elevation. To underscore this, Berkson supplements the lyrical surfaces of his own new poems with translations of poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, Boris Pasternak and Alexander Pushkin.
Visual art provides further elucidating psychic jolts. The long narrative poem, “Constanza,” set at the Getty Museum, exploits an emergency in which visitors cannot access the room exhibiting Bernini’s sculpture “Costanza Bonarelli.” While postponed from seeing what he came for, the speaker projects his fertile imagination back through the entanglements of seventeenth-century European politics, patrons and artists, finding analogies in their related fictional iterations, even in the film version of The Three Musketeers, all the while keeping a poetic eye on the Keystone Kops comedy occasioned by the present museum mishap.
“Expect delays” — an all-too-familiar traffic warning that Berkson says he sees constantly flashing in and around him in San Francisco — is an instructive mantra for the present time in which thoughtful patience has been supplanted by mediated distraction. This has ethical consequences; distraction is a form of absence. Killing time is a way of killing ourselves. But the lags and gaps we experience in our lives will generate sustained meaning when we draw on our creative resources to bridge them.
Festina lente — “make haste slowly” — was the Greek idea adopted by the Romans and later applied to the art of writing in the seventeenth century by Nicolas Boileau, and it is revived in spirit throughout Expect Delays. “Longevity isn’t for sissies,” Berkson writes in “One and All, but Who’s Counting.” In that paraphrase of Bette Davis’s quote, “Old age is no place for sissies,” Berkson seems to suggest that if we can’t trust the classical thinkers when it comes to handling the passage of time, we’d best take Bette’s word for it.