Sudden Address, Selected Lectures 1981-2006 by Bill Berkson
(Cuneiform Press, 2007)
[First published in The Poetry Project Newsletter, Oct./Nov. 2007, Edited by John Coletti]
“The continuous right-angled skin of the city.”The Sweet Singer of Modernism)
James Schuyler (quoted by Bill Berkson in his essay, “Sensation Rising,”
“love, of a not yet visible asia, is
the barely sensible skin of plants. “
from souljam, k. Iskender (from Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry)
“not ‘words to choose to call up visual representations,’ but the reverse: visual representation to call up words.”
Robert Duncan (The H.D. Book)
The following two quotations from the essay, “Poetry and Painting,” in Bill Berkson’s Sudden Address contain the heart of what Berkson says about art, and more importantly, about writing, poetry, as part of the totality of artistic activity:
“Just when you have been glued to a screen, in the street you see people or a slice of sky, and the sensation is continuous. Your ordinary vision is suddenly invigorated or heightened. That sustenance has some staying power. I know I owe some of the presence of my alertness to looking at paintings… One should not get too entranced by the materialism of art.”
“Any divergence from the ‘everything’ principle is obfuscation, which often is necessary as a ground, to add surface. Surface is the great revealer. Both poetry and painting have surface, but with poetry the location of the surface is harder to pin down. With paint, color, the issue of revelation becomes paradoxical. As Robert Smithson reminds us, ‘The word color at its origin means to ‘cover’ or ‘hide’…”
The history of the second half of 20th century art can be understood in terms of a subtle, yet critical, dialectic which exists in relation to the idea of surface (or skin), of the relationship of this surface both to the painter (artist) and the viewer -- even a more persistent issue underlying this dialect: if the two are separate (producer/consumer) or in the final analysis, inevitably, inexorably, they must be the same?
On the one hand, one has Clement Greenberg’s tautological view of surface where the fundamental act art, and the artist, can perform is to reassert the flatness of this surface, its aggressive, disillusioning materiality. In this concept, the reaction to such surface is instantaneous, like a bat hitting a ball (its vision instantly released). It is important to realize that in this concept the viewer is split away from the surface (indirectly from the artist) and put in a position of a consumer, an observer, a judge, an investor.
On the other hand, one has an idea of surface where, in Berkson’s words, “the sensation is continuous.” What does this continuity consist of? One can compare Berkson’s words with Greenberg’s principles. In both, the surface, the artistic object, propagates beyond itself. In Berkson this involves the heightening of “alertness.” Consumptive value is replaced by “sustenance” and a judgment of flatness by invigorating “vision.”
The most profound characteristic of the second concept of surface, a skin which is a skein, is resistance, which makes instantaneous release impossible. For Berkson, a confrontation with this second kind of surface affects confrontations with all surfaces, including the texture of language; that is to say, poetry. Poetry is a heightened sustenance of attention originating from the ambiguous, retentive surface of painting.
For this to occur, the viewer must respond, in Berkson words, with a “ complexity of seeing” which unfolds a perceptual weave which takes place in time, through a movement of language at the center of which is the eye. This is not a poetry of images, or even metaphors, but in Robert Duncan’s words in The H.D. Book, “not ‘words to choose to call up visual representations,’ but the reverse: visual representation to call up words.” The poem written with the eye materializes the complexity of seeing, its perceptual process, in real time, as a movement to an unheard mental music. In this dialectic skin possesses the materiality of space (not of a carton), bending by time, as space does. Time is a continuous present, while perception unfolds, walks its process through the eye. The experience of reading the poem and its writing, and the originating experience of looking at a painting (in “dumb” wonder) merge as a continuous, single performance.
Berkson calls this point of union between sensation and thought a “demarcation,” releasing the language locked in the body of the painterly surface into the parallel skin of a poem. For Berkson (as in photography) “a silence as full as light” is at the heart of this process:
“In Vermeer… the point of entrance is precise and realistic: surface, wall, threshold… the whole image strikes eye and mind instantly in equal measure like a natural light, a reminder that light is substantial, has pressure and weight…. The ideal conception is that technique is… an ongoing state of attention like affection that lasts.”(“Idealism and Conceit (Dante’s Book of Thought),” Sudden Address)
“Light and space are vector fields, and with gravity thrown in, the balance of matter, if you see balance, is a continual demarcation: let it go at that and call it door.” (“Idealism and Conceit”)
“In art, materials tend to assert their own values. Fresco wall painting -– fresco buono, as they say -- thrives upon a literal crystal effect, ‘a chemical reaction based on the behavior of lime…. ‘The plaster dries and re-crystallizes, the pigment particles are locked among the crystals. Thus the colors become an integral part of the wall’s surface, to endure as long as it endures’” (“Idealism and Conceit ”)
”’Declarative’ is one component of the surface; others are a silence as full as light, and a countenance that functions as a forward edge.” (“Idealism and Conceit”)
“Truth is face to face with every facet –- or nuance -- of fact. By nuance, every word of a poem gathers the poem’s surface energy. By the nuance of its surface a painting we might call ‘great’ actualizes its place in the culture that bred it (“History and Truth,” Sudden Address)
Berkson is saying that the poem transforms the light inherent in the painting surface, its “vector” field (the motion the word suggests), through the complexity of seeing, into a language of light, poetry inherently being a language of light. How does this transformation, the opening of the threshold occur? By a movement from facet to facet (of a painting surface or of a diamond), from nuance to nuance. In that way sensation, “fact,” is transformed into “thought.” Berkson suggests a poetry of light is a poetry of mental, spiritual motion, its darts and unfolding, something in another occasion I call “eda”. This motion extends beyond the surface of the painting to poetry, to history, to culture (a surface of duration, not instantaneity), for example, to Dante’s walk through the pratfalls of The Inferno (which Berkson compares to the tribulations of Buster Keaton), to Baudelaire’s wandering in the arcades of Paris or to Frank O’Hara’s riffing off the “rectangular skin” of the city in his ecstatic walking poems of New York.
Because such a surface possesses resistance, autonomy (notice the word “crystal,“ suggesting light, used three times to describe this quality), it can not be totally appropriated. A plethora, a nest of unuttered words remain buried in it. (Berkson’s word for the initiation of this process is “confrontation,” between the poet and the superior surface of a painting, very much like a translator’s feeling of lack in front of the totality of the poem he or she must translate.) Therefore, the demarcation, the movement from facet to facet in a poem is full of gaps. The gaps constitute the “silence as full as light” in a poem. While motion (light) creates a music of the eye, the gaps create a music of silence, heard by the soul, beyond the frame of either the painting or the poem. This way, Greenberg’s tautological surface, celebrating the materiality of its own flatness, is transformed into something else, a skin, its sensuous complexity a gateway to a spiritual space:
“The truest response to a painting or poem is another poem.... In Michael Blackwood’s movie of Guston at work, you get to see the beautiful gesture Guston makes as he walks slowly back towards the painting to put on more paint: He’s sort of swimming through the air like a Chinese dancer, and the hand not holding the brush is blocking off a certain area of the composition as he zeroes in [italics my own]. ” (“Travels With Guston,” Sudden Address)
Bill Berkson’s Sudden Address is, through seven essays written over twenty-five years, an extended meditation on transforming the surface of painting into a poetry, language of spiritual essence. The first three, “Poetry and Painting,” “Travels with Guston” and “Idealism and Conceit (Dante’s Book of Thought),” lectures given between 1981 and 1985, focus mainly on painters. The last four, “History and Truth,” “Walt Whitman’s New Realism,” “Frank O’Hara at 30,” “’The Uneven Phenomenon’ – What Did You Expect?,” lectures given between 2005 and 2007, express a view of American poetry developed from the idea of skin and surface explored in the earlier essays.
It is not within the scope of this review to present in detail the subtle movements, sudden diversions of Berkson’s thought. I leave such pleasure to the individual reader. This reader at least became addicted to them, waiting for the next hit, and, when the book was finally over, he felt a sweet kind of sadness. Suffice it to say, Berkson suggests, as I tried to show in this review, that sensation turns into thought by means of a mental walk through resistant space, in a dialogue with it.
I would like to end this review by pointing to a “purloined letter” moment in the reading of this book which points to the subtlety and heart of its achievement, namely, the book’s title. Given there are seven lectures in the book, one expects the word “address” to be in the plural. Suddenly one realizes what is being “addressed” is not the audience, but the painting’s surface; a single, continuous activity which has gone on through Berkson’s life as a human being and a poet and through this book, “I feel, old man,/ seeingly, in the calligraphy of sudden thought.”
Murat Nemet-Nejat is the author of The Peripheral Space of Photography (Green Integer, 2003) and editor of Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry (Talisman House, 2004). He is presently working on the poem-in-process "The Structure of Escape" and translating the Turkish poet Seyhan Erozçelik's poetry book Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds, which will come out from Talisman House in 2008. His essay, "Ideas Towards a Theory of Translation in Eda" is available in The International Exchange for Poetic Invention blog.