Bill Berkson’s “A Frank O’Hara Notebook” feels like a magical artifact, a kind of time capsule with the power to transport readers to another era. That era, the Manhattan of the early 1960s, has been so heavily romanticized that trying to see through the fog of myth that has come to surround its artists and cultural icons is at times a difficult task. Berkson’s “Notebook” somehow penetrates the obscuring mist. Holding it, one feels the living presence of its subject, the aura of a writer who helped shape the cultural landscape of his time and who, against the expectations of many, has become one of the most influential American poets of the second half of the 20th century.
Berkson’s original notebook represents the raw material of a substantial work on O’Hara he had long intended to write, but which remained unfinished as of his death in 2016. This handsome edition offers page after page of photographic reproductions of the handwritten notes, drawings and occasional pasted-in photographs and other ephemera that made up the original. I found myself flipping quickly through it, trying to digest what was there, then going through more slowly to savor the idiosyncratic details and pleasurable surprises.
The book provides, in effect, a dual portrait — of O'Hara and of Berkson — while also evoking the cultural and artistic life of New York City in the early 1960s. When the two poets met in New York in the late 1950s, O'Hara was charming, magnetic and, in the landscape of the Lower Manhattan artistic and literary scene, famous, not only for his poetry but also for his work as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. His interest in and involvement with painting and visual artists are frequently alluded to in his poetry and exerted a strong influence on it. Along with the other poets of the so-called "New York School" — John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler — O'Hara changed American poetry, opening a poetic space that was weirder, less formal, more capacious, more spontaneous, more experimental and at the same time more fun.
It is no surprise that he and Berkson were drawn to each other. Berkson was young and handsome, and an idealistic and enthusiastic aspiring poet. As for O’Hara, everyone, it seems, was drawn to him, and when he liked someone, he rewarded them with attention and affection. “Frank received young poets on a plainly person-to-person basis,” Berkson writes. “No pretensions, no pulling rank.”
A year later they would cross paths again in Paris, where they cemented their relationship. Berkson was viewed by many, some of whom wrongly assumed the two were sexually involved, as an interloper. “Almost all of Frank’s friends disapproved of, or at least were bemused by, our friendship,” he has written. He didn’t really care what people thought; what he cared about was being with O’Hara, whose “attentiveness to whatever I had to say . . . pretty well lit me up.” Around this time, Berkson began making regular appearances in O’Hara’s poems.
One of the reasons “Notebook” feels so pleasurable is that its method suits O’Hara’s art. His poetry frequently feels like a cross between a private diary and a collage of found materials, a spontaneously composed assemblage of thoughts, moods and incidental objects that distills the essential texture of a particular slice of lived time. They are filled with private jokes and unexplained references; their accessibility lies not in an eagerness or even willingness to elucidate every detail, but rather in the openness, enthusiasm and perceptible warmth of the sensibility that seems to have generated them. A good example is “Biotherm,” the last major poem O’Hara composed before being killed in an accident in 1966. Readers of “Biotherm” will find numerous tidbits regarding the poet’s life, enthusiasms and daily routines, including a menu for a “Déjeuner Bill Berkson / 30 August 1961,” which includes such items as “Hors-d’oeuvre abstrait expressionists, américain-styles, bord-durs, etc.”, “Poisson Pas de Dix au style Patricia” and “Poemes 1960-61 en salade.” Of “Biotherm,” Berkson writes:
“Portraits are more embarrassing than love poems. ‘Biotherm’ is a portrait of two with some love poetry in it. I remember Frank asking me several times if I objected to the possibility of the poem’s being published: ‘Is it too embarrassing?’ he would say, and I would always insist, somewhat stolidly, that it was his poem and that the ‘me’ part of it wasn’t what mattered.”
Ideally, “Notebook” should be read alongside “Biotherm” and the rest of O’Hara’s “Collected Poems.” In certain respects, it may help decode some of the more obscure or elusive passages in that volume. In addition to the “notebook” proper, this published version provides readers with several supplements, including a transcription of the handwritten notes in the original notebook (essential, given the scrawling character of Berkson’s handwriting), a list of persons referred to, short essays by Ron Padgett, Constance M. Lewallen and Berkson himself, and, most interestingly, “A Frank O’Hara File,” which collects Berkson’s thoughts and comments on O’Hara from a variety of sources.
The result is a literary collage that amounts to a charming, intriguing and insightful portrait of a poet who continues to fascinate. O’Hara was always so present in his poetry that one might mistakenly think he existed only on the page, but, of course, the human writer always transcends the work and eludes the reader to some degree. This book, along with such volumes as Brad Gooch’s “City Poet” and Joe LeSueur’s “Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara,” will help bring readers just a little bit closer to this important, enduring and perpetually charming chronicler of American urbanity and poetic intimacy.
Troy Jollimore’s most recent book of poems is “Syllabus of Errors.”
By Bill Berkson
No Place Press. 278 pp. $45