Poet and Art Critic Bill Berkson Dies at 76

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Poet and art critic Bill Berkson (Photo: Courtesy of Nina Lewallen Hufford)

San Francisco poet, art critic and teacher Bill Berkson has died at the age of 76. He was a longtime professor of art history at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Berkson’s stepdaughter Nina Lewallen says Berkson suffered a heart attack last week.

Berkson was born in New York City and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970, where he taught for a while in the California Poets in the Schools program.

Berkson moved easily between the worlds of art criticism and poetry. He wrote for Artforum, Aperture, Modern Painters, Art on Paper, and other magazines, and collaborated on work with artists such as Philip Guston. But he also published more than 20 volumes of poetry, with roots in the post-modern New York School that included Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and Anne Waldman.

Lewallen says the family is planning memorial services for both San Francisco and New York.

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Here's Berkson's poem “Christmas Eve,” excerpted from his book Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems, published in 2009:

Behind the black water tower

under the grey

of the sky that feeds it

smoke speeds to where a pigeon

spreads its wings

This is no great feat

Cold pushes out its lust

We walk we drink we cast

our giggling insults

Would you please

leave the $2.50 you owe me

I would rather not talk about it

just now                 Money bores me I would like

to visit someone who will stay

in bed all day           A forest is rising

imperceptibly in my head

not a civilized park

I think it would be nice this “new

moral odor” no it would not mean

“everything marching to its tomb”

The water tower

watches over us            Is there someone

you would like to invite        no one.