Bill Berkson is a true New York City child. He was born in Manhattan’s Upper Eastside in 1939 and attended Columbia University and the New School for Social Research, where he studied with Kenneth Koch in 1959. It was also Koch who introduced Berkson to many of the New York School poets like Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman, with many of which he collaborated in the following years.
Berkson left New York in the 1970s and moved to California where he began editing and publishing a series of poetry books and magazines under the Big Sky imprint. He also started to focus more on his work as an art critic. He was teaching art history and art writing at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1984 to 2008 and still holds the position of professor emeritus today. Berkson has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, Artspace, the Poets Foundation, the Fund for Poetry, and the Briarcombe Foundation.
My response to his work focusses on his poem “Melting Milk”.
I was taught to think of it as an aggregate. Collection of items that are gathered together to form a total quantity. Melted trees to wet concrete. The shiny glister of the drop on the flat surface: broken sunshine. It is June and I have gathered my quantities in shaky cupped hands. I was taught to think of it as the world. He poured me a Whiskey Sour on clear crystal ice cubes. That was yesterday; I am passing today. Running down the page like quicksilver. I am room temperature. Call me tepid. I cool a little more with each surface augmentation. I cool a little more with each plunge. I was taught to think of it as I sat on the steamy side of the window. I am liquid. Now approaching Airdire. Drumgelloch. Running down a diagonal path across our lives: downhill. Always subject to gravity. Slipping down the drain pipe with the withered leaves of last spring. I was taught to think of it as a light solution. Watered down toxic goo. I trickle. Syrupy contemplations. I was taught to think of it as little as possible.