Bill Berkson Papers
Scope and Contents
Poetry and personal papers of the American poet, art critic, teacher, editor and publisher Bill Berkson comprised of literary manuscripts, correspondence, drafts, notebooks, lecture notes, interviews, Big Sky Books and press records, photographs, audio recordings, broadsides, and rare publications.
The archive spans from 1960 to the present day and documents the poet’s extensive body of work, his collaborations in and among the realms of visual art, media, and literature, and his affinities with the poets and artists of the New York School. Accruals are expected.
- Berkson, Bill. (Person)
Conditions Governing Access
Collection accruals from 1998 through 2016 are unprocessed and available for research pending review by archivist. Contact the archivist for more information.
Conditions Governing Use
Copyright for works by Bill Berkson is retained by the author and his Estate.
Poet, art critic, teacher, publisher, and sometime curator, Bill Berkson entered the worlds of art and literature in his late teens. Associated with some of the most prominent writers and artists of the New York School, including Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch, Berkson, a native New Yorker, was influenced by and increasingly involved with the experimental literature and artwork of the time.
Born just before the start of World War II on August 30, 1939, Berkson's parents, Eleanor Lambert Berkson and Seymour Berkson,
had come eagerly to New York from, respectively, Crawfordsville, Indiana, and the South Side of Chicago. My father's family were Jews who arrived (there is some mystery as to when) from Lithuania and Odessa. His father, William, was a tailor for an upscale store called Kuppenheimer, and his mother, Bertha (nee Bloom), taught English to immigrants and wrote poetry for the temple newsletter. Seymour's Chicago was the mythological one of gangsters and jazz: ...Some of his acquaintances were among the men killed by Al Capone's mob in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. As a young reporter from Chicago my father went East, then to Rome and Paris, working as the Hearst bureau chief and watching, as he wrote, "the rise and fall of Mussolini" (the fall signalled by Il Duce's pact with Hitler; he later characterized Mussolini as "a thug"). It was during his Italian stay that he met my mother, who was dispatched by the Whitney Museum to undo what he, Seymour, on Hearst's orders, had accomplished by inserting into the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale a Polish society painter's portrait of Marion Davies. About the portrait the Italian authorities, delighted with the uproar (the press nicknamed the pavilion "la casa Davies"), proved stubborn, but, despite the issue at hand and the fact they were both then married, the two young Americans found more of interest in each other. By 1936 they were together in Manhattan.
After ten years at Trinity School in Manhattan, Berkson attended Lawrenceville School. In 1957, he went to Brown University to pursue his undergraduate studies. He returned to live full time in New York after the death of his father on January 4, 1959. Berkson recalls, "Spring semester, 1959: While waiting to get accepted at Columbia for the next term, I decided to take classes at the New School for Social Research. Searching the catalogue, I saw that John Cage, whose name rang some distant bell, was teaching Experimental Composition in a classroom at the school's Twelfth Street headquarters and, in the woods near his house in Stony Point, a course in mushroom identification. Pointless now to wonder if I didn't play it safe by signing up for, instead of one of Cage's offerings, William Troy's relatively standardized modern poetry course (for which I eventually wrote a paper trying to figure out Williams's "variable foot"), Rollo May on Zen and Existentialism, and a poetry workshop taught by Kenneth Koch."
He attended the New School for Social Research between 1959 and 1961 where, with Koch's teaching and encouragement, Berkson's writing and education as a poet flourished: "Kenneth's class was held in the afternoon....Part of each lesson, the fun and suspense, was watching him steer the language toward describing graphically the pleasurable aspects of the poetry he liked-the poetry of Whitman, Rimbaud, Williams, Stevens, Auden, Lorca, Pasternak, Max Jacob, and Apollinaire, as well as of his friends Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery. Then, too, he would make an analogy between some moment in a poem and the sensibilities of New York painting-the amplitude of a de Kooning, Larry Rivers' zippy, prodigiously distracted wit, or Jane Freilicher's way of imagining with her paint how the vase of jonquils felt to be on the window sill in that day's light." In 1963, at the age of twenty-three, Berkson replaced Koch at the New School. Over the next five years his students would include Lee Crabtree, Peter Schjeldahl, Michael Brownstein, Frances LeFebvre Waldman, Jean Boudin, Myra Klahr, Annette Hayn, Charles North, Musa McKim, Bernadette Mayer, Miriam Solan, Carter Ratcliff, Rebecca Wright, and Hatti (later Patti) Smith.
Berkson's first collection of poetry Saturday Night Poems was published in 1961. Hymns of St. Bridget was published in 1975 after Frank O’Hara’s death, as a compilation of poetry written in collaboration with O'Hara during the early 1960s. The two poets shared a close friendship and collaborative relationship. Berkson edited O’Hara’s posthumous In Memory of My Feelings (1967) and Homage to Frank O’Hara together with Joe LeSueur (1978).
Shortly after moving to Bolinas, California in 1971, Berkson founded the little magazine Big Sky and Big Sky Books. Joe Brainard’s Bolinas Journal was Big Sky’s first publication. By 1978, Berkson had published 20 poetry books and 12 magazine issues under the Big Sky imprint.
Berkson is the author of some twenty collections and pamphlets of poetry including Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems and Lady Air. His poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies and have been translated into French, Russian, Hungarian, Dutch, Czechoslovakian, Romanian, Italian, German and Spanish. Les Parties du Corps, a selection of his poetry translated into French, appeared from Joca Seria in 2011. Other recent books are What’s Your Idea of a Good Time?: Letters & Interviews 1977-1985 with Bernadette Mayer; BILL with drawings by Colter Jacobsen; Ted Berrigan with George Schneeman; Not an Exit with Léonie Guyer and Repeat After Me with John Zurier.
In the mid-1980s Berkson resumed writing art criticism on a regular basis, contributing monthly reviews and articles to Artforum from 1985 to 1991. He became a corresponding editor for Art in America in 1988 and has also written frequently for such magazines as Aperture, Modern Painters, Art on Paper, artcritical.com and others. In 1984, he began teaching art history and literature and organizing the public lectures program at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he also served as interim dean in 1990 and Director of Letters and Science from 1993 to 1998. He retired from SFAI in 2008 and now holds the position of Professor Emeritus. During the same period, he was also on the visiting faculty of Naropa Institute, California College of Arts and Crafts, Mills College and continues to lecture widely in colleges and universities. He has published three collections of art criticism, to date, the latest being For the Ordinary Artist: Short Reviews, Occasional Pieces & More.
Berkson received a Poets Foundation grant and a Yaddo residency in 1968, a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1979, a 1990 Artspace art criticism award, a 1994 Fund for Poetry grant, and, more recently, the 2010 Balcones Prize for Best Book of Poetry for Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems (2009).
Berkson was the 2006 Distinguished Mellon Fellow at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and received the 2008 Goldie for Literature from the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He lived in San Francisco and New York. Berkson married Constance Lewallen in 1998, two years after his divorce from his first wife, Lynn O’Hare, with whom he raised two children.
Bill Berkson died on June 16, 2016.
132 Linear Feet
Language of Materials
Poetry and personal papers of the American poet, art critic, teacher, editor and publisher Bill Berkson comprised of literary manuscripts, correspondence, drafts, notebooks, lecture notes, interviews, Big Sky Books and press records, photographs, audio recordings, broadsides, and rare publications. The archive spans from 1960 to the present day and documents the poet’s extensive body of work, his collaborations in and among the realms of visual art, media, and literature, and his affinities with the poets and artists of the New York School.
Books, periodicals, and magazines have been removed and cataloged separately with the added notation "From the library of Bill Berkson".
General Physical Description note
132 linear feet
Regular accruals expected and will be added as they are cataloged.
- Bill Berkson Papers
- Archives & Special Collections staff
- 2016 June
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- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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