From the archives: Bill Berkson on Edwin Denby & Frank O’Hara (2011)

July 16, 2012

The literary event not to be missed this week features a poet who will not be reading from his own work, but rather from the work of two other poets. One of them was also an art critic, the other a renowned dance critic. And two of them share a special interest in a singular silent film star.

On Wednesday, August 31st, 2011 the San Francisco poet Bill Berkson will read from the work of Frank O’Hara and Edwin Denby at Moe’s Books in Berkeley. According to the store website, Berkson will read and comment upon selections from O’Hara’s and Denby’s poetry and prose, including one of O’Hara’s longer poems, “In Memory of My Feelings,” along with a selection of Denby’s sonnets and passages from Denby’s dance criticism and two essays on the painter William de Kooning.

Bill Berkson reads from the works of Edwin Denby & Frank O'Hara at Moe's Books in Berkeley

Bill Berkson reads from the works of Edwin Denby & Frank O’Hara (pictured)

Berkson – a poet, critic and Professor Emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, is uniquely qualified to present the work of O’Hara and Denby. He knew them both. Associated with the New York School of painters and poets, Berkson was in the thick of things in New York in the 1960s.

In 1959, Berkson was a student of poet Kenneth Koch at the New School for Social Research. And it was through Koch that he was introduced to poets and artists then active on the New York scene; those associations led to close friendships with O’Hara and such artists as Philip Guston, Alex Katz and Joe Brainard. Berkson’s first book of poetry, Saturday Night: Poems 1960-61, was published by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York City in 1961.

Berkson is the author of more than a dozen collections of poetry including Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems (2009), as well as collaborative works, monographs, catalogues and books of prose such as The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings 1985-2003 (2004) andSudden Address: Selected Lectures 1981-2006 (2007). A longtime contributor to ARTnewsArt in America, and Artforum, Berkson has also worked as an occasional curator.

Edwin Denby (1903-1983) is widely acknowledged as one of America’s finest dance critics, as well as an accomplished literary writer. In 1935, for example, Orson Welles and John Houseman asked Denby to adapt the French play Horse Eats Hat. Scored by Paul Bowles, it was performed as a Works Progress Administration Federal Theatre Production.

Ambivalent about the publication of his own poetry, Denby long worked as a dance critic. In 1936, at the behest of composers Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, he began writing a dance column for Modern Music. In 1943, Thomson drafted Denby as dance critic for the New York Herald Tribune. His seminal reviews and essays were later collected in Looking at the Dance (1949),Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets (1965), and Dance Writings (1986).

“Marine and Sailor,” a 1961 painting by Alex Katz depicting O’Hara and Berkson, is included on the cover of this recent collection of the two poet’s collaborative writings.

Denby’s books of poetry includeIn Public, In Private (1948),Mediterranean Cities (1956),Collected Poems (1975) and The Complete Poems (1986). As Moe’s website puts it, his sonnets and longer lyric poems and libretti represent the “civilized wonder” Denby said poetry might best aspire to.

Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) was one of Denby’s closest friends. To some degree, O’Hara’s poetics reflect the compositional approach of the New York School painters. John Ashbery has said, “Frank O’Hara’s concept of the poem as the chronicle of the creative act that produces it was strengthened by his intimate experience of [Jackson] Pollock’s, [Franz] Kline’s, and [William] de Kooning’s great paintings of the late 40s and early 50s and of the imaginative realism of painters like Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers.”

Of late, O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency (1957) has gotten a couple of shout outs on the hit TV show, Mad Men. It is an exceptional book whose lyrical and vital verse just goes on its nerve. Also, don’t fail to read his wonderful Lunch Poems (1964), which were published by City Lights Books. Berkson, it should be mentioned, is editor of In Memory of My Feelings (1967), a posthumous collection of O’Hara’s poetry published by Museum of Modern Art in New York and illustrated by 30 leading American artists; and with Joe LeSeur, Berkson put together the engagingHomage to Frank O’Hara (1978).

I first saw Berkson read his poems at the Intersection for the Arts in the Mission district back in 1986. My interest in his work was renewed a few years later when I came across a poem in the back of O’Hara’s posthumous Donald Allen edited volume, Collected Poems (1971). The poem was called “F.Y.I. (Prix de Beaute).” Prix de Beaute was also the title of French film starring my favorite actress, the silent film star Louise Brooks.

The actress floats beneath the text of a poem

The actress floats beneath the text of a poem

I asked Berkson about the poem, and he told me that he and O’Hara had attended a screening of the Brooks’ film in New York City in 1961. And both wrote poems because of it.

O’Hara wrote “F.Y.I. (Prix de Beaute),” which references the actress. It was first published in a small literary journal. Berkson wrote “Bubbles,” which was based on some of the essays Brooks was writing and publishing in film journals in the 1960s. “Bubbles” was likewise published in a small press mag and later collected in book form in Lush Life (1984).

In 1997, Berkson allowed me to print the poem as a broadside. It was one of a small series of poems inspired by / or in homage to the actress which I’ve desktop published in small autographed editions over the years. A scan of the broadside – which depicts an image of the actress floating beneath the text of the poem – is shown here.


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