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Bill Berkson


Born in New York City on August 30, 1939, William Craig Berkson studied at Brown University, Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, and New York University’s Institute for Fine Arts.

During the 1960s, Berkson took on editorial roles at ARTNews, Arts, and the Museum of Modern Art. He also served as the associate producer of a public television art program and taught literature and writing courses at the New School and Yale University.

In 1970, Berkson moved to Northern California, where he began editing and publishing poetry books and magazines under the Big Sky imprint. He also taught in the California Poets in the Schools program.

Berkson soon returned to regularly writing art criticism, contributing to publications such as American Craft, Aperture, Artforum, Art in America, Art on Paper, Modern Painters, and others. In 1984, he began teaching art history and poetry at the San Francisco Art Institute—where he also directed the Letters and Science and public lectures programs—until 2008.

Berkson's most recent poetry collections include Expect Delays (Coffee House Press, 2014) and Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems (Coffee House Press, 2009), winner of the Balcones Prize for Best Poetry Book of 2010.

A prominent member of the New York School, Berkson was introduced to the poets, artists, and musicians of the school by Kenneth Koch, his poetry mentor. Berkson would form many personal and artistic relationships with these writers and artists, leading to collaborative projects such as Ted Berrigan with George Schneeman (Cuneiform, 2009) and Hymns of St. Bridget with Frank O’Hara (Adventures in Poetry, 1975). Berkson’s poetry is known for its variety, ranging wildly in approach, style, and subject matter.

In his review of Expect Delays, Charles Bernstein writes, “Bill Berkson affords the pleasures of raucous refinement and epigrammatic élan in lyrics, translations, gleanings, and reflections. Like dissolving into a ’40s movie or then again a dream of a conversation about new art and old jazz standards, these poems are sad and wise.”

Berkson’s honors include two Fund for Poetry Awards, the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Goldie Award for Literature, and a Poets Foundation Grant, along with fellowships from the Briarcombe Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and Yaddo. He divided his time between New York City and San Francisco. Berkson died on June 16, 2016.

Selected Bibliography

Expect Delays (Coffee House Press, 2014)
Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems (Coffee House Press, 2009)
Our Friends Will Pass Among You Silently (Owl Press, 2007)
Gloria (Arion Press, 2005)
Fugue State (Zoland Books, 2001)
Serenade (Zoland Books, 2000)
Lush Life (Z Press, 1984)
Blue Is the Hero: Poems 1960–1970 (L Publications, 1976)
Enigma Variations (Big Sky, 1975)
Recent Visitors (Angel Hair Books, 1973)
Shining Leaves (Angel Hair Books, 1969)
Saturday Night: Poems 1960–61 (Tibor de Nagy Gallery Editions, 1961)

Bill Berkson
Photo credit: Nathaniel Dorsky

By This Poet



Choice is painful,
Occasion but a drag.

Poems are made by poets,
That's no lie.

"What's wrong with this town,"
A New York driver says,

"There's too much art—and
Too many art lovers!"

"You an artist?"
"Nah, I just drive cab."

Room Tone

Wrestling that old beauty
“Body and Soul”
To the ground

The genus award for epochal comes besotted
Complicity follows like caramel on a sponge mop
Child-bearing babies on stilts

I dreamed you were felled by an unspecified illness
In yours I was rowing a leaky boat, even though
The motor was foolproof and bore hairs

Taken up with travel and foreign visitors
An intimacy implied in big block letters leans
Beside its planar incandescent surrogate

I tend backward haughtily through froth
Abandoned sweetness meaning torpor
Behind gorgeous intervals of removal and need

An alligator in every pot
Keeping company doesn’t count
Dame Kind adjusts her ribbon frills

Give life a shot
Circular breath redemption
At the Door of the Wolf

You heard me

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