Since When – Bill Berkson

from Bill Berkson‘s book of memoirs and appraisals, Since When, just out this week from Coffee House Press, in Minneapolis, and unequivocally recommended.

on Allen Ginsberg

“…It took me almost thirty years to relax about being in the same room with this poet, whose close-up stare in Harry Redl’s photograph I had. stared back at for hours, holding a copy of the “San Francisco Scene” issue of Evergreen Review and listening to the accompanying LP with his familiar New York tenor (viz “drear light of zoo”) on an expurgated version of “Howl”. My first sight of him was from a distance in Paris on the Place de l’Odeon during summer 1958

The next spring, we were introduced at the Cedar Bar by Paul Goodman, who I had just met during intermission at the Living Theater between sets of a reading by Edward Dahlberg and Josephine Herbst (Im the crowd that same night I caught a glimpse of William Carlos Williams). Allen slid into the boot at the Cedar Bar to greet Goodman. Still in my junior-beatnik phase, I had just read publically for the first time at the Seven Arts Coffee Gallery near Forty-Third Street on Ninth Avenue, preceded by a young Haitian poet and Jack Micheline. I was reduced to silent posturing while Paul next to me and Allen across the table traded remarks on the poems of John Milton – a razzle-dazzle master class cum poet-scholar cutting session for this cute kid’s benefit.

By now most people know how great are the long poems – “Howl” and “Kaddish, at least –  but there should be a separate selection, as with W.H.Auden, of the great shorter poems – ““Sather Gate Illumination”, “The End”,Wales Visitation“, “City Midnight Junk Strains” and some of the even breezier, occasional pieces from Planet News

Later, we sat together in Bobbie Louise Hawkins‘s gazebo, Boulder, summer of 1994. I had left one marriage and not quite settled into the next. Allen spoke of his sadness of getting “divorced” from Peter Orlovsky. We were suddenly two men of a certain age discussing our marital trouble.

“Joy and suffering at a certain point becomes one taste, because it’s existence itself, the crying over existence, not non-existence…..The tears are an appeciation of existence and the beauty and mortality and sadness of leaving existence. And the suffering of existence which is so deep it’s joyful. To exist is joyful just by its very nature of existing even if its suffering existence. Grief is not unadulterated pain. Grief is als mixed with a sense of majesty and finality and realization of ultimate reality. That’s why people weep, because they realize that the ultimately real is ultimately real…. and irrevocably so. There’s only one life and this is it.” – Allen Ginsberg – What Happened to Kerouac?, 1986

“How are you today?” Allen’s matter-of-fact greeting brought me up short near the big tree where the crowd attending Frank O’Haras funeral was just dispersing. I had cried out, “Oh , Allen!” wanting to let go – let my hair down, so to speak – after the formalities graveside. When Allen died, Larry Fagin said, “It’s as if the sidewalks have disappeared.” Strangely what seems most absent now, much as all that high, vibrant purpose and those goofy asides, is his grand stability.”

His portrait of Allen is just one of a myriad portraits and observations in this rich and moving posthumous collection. Bill’s humility and intelligence and savoir-faire are greatly missed.

As the poet Ron Padgett puts it:

“Imagine an ideal friend, someone of good character, honorable, congenial, smart, well-read, judicious, articulate, self-aware, open-minded, and socially graceful, a gifted writer at the center of New York’s and the Bay Area’s artistic communities for sixty years. That ideal friend is Bill Berkson, and in this marvelous book he tells the true and fascinating story of his life and times.”

Peter Schjeldhal writes:

“Bill was a still point in a turning world. He made grace and kindness, careful intelligence and everyday happiness, seem properties of a social commons—where you found yourself, when around him, and missed, when not. This beautiful book immortalizes that spell.”

There will be a book-launch for this book next week, Wednesday November 7th, in New York, at the St Marks Poetry Project. For more details of that event – see here

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