What are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Many?

Bill Berkson

Gertrude Stein: as Gibson Girl; at 28; later; and with Alice B. Toklas

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. . . ones who were overwhelmingly particular about what they were adding
to themselves by means of their arrangements . . .

                   – Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts

We were designed for Paradise.
                   – Franz Kafka, Blue Notebooks

The rest of this talk* could be heard quite intimately as being about Bernadette Mayer and me and then the rest of everybody here in Paradise, or by another name, Arcadia or the Golden Age—or if that’s no good, call it Poets’ Heaven. But it takes a while—and several permutations—for that putative “everybody” to get there...

To begin with: in 1967 or so, after a few weeks of receiving Bernadette’s student poems in my workshop at the New School for Social Research, I scribbled on the top sheet of one set of them, returning the bunch to Bernadette: “Enough Gertrude Stein for you” (meaning her work sounded so obsessively Gertrude that whatever Bernadette was there seemed muffled by association); so then, at the next class session, Bernadette came up and said, roughly, “I’ve never read Gertrude Stein at all. So why do you say that and what about her?” So that was a joke that continued to be laughable, Bernadette loving to tell it on both of us, for a long time. Bernadette later told it like this:

I had never read Gertrude Stein. So of course I read all of Gertrude Stein afterwards—all that I could get my hands on. Clark Coolidge used to have this agreement that if we went, we both went to the Lenox Library and if we found a book that hadn’t been taken out in 30 years, we could steal it. That’s how we got a hold of a lot of Gertrude Stein’s work. They had a lot of it. I don’t know why, but that’s how we got it. . I was happy that it had already been written. You know what I felt like? I felt like Oh my god, thank god someone has already written this, so I don’t have to write it myself. Ever hear people say that? I don’t know if they really meant it, but I did.

So the funny thing is, I’m assuming that all the new young poets here are reading Bernadette Mayer the way Bernadette eventually read Gertrude Stein. But does anyone now read Gertrude Stein? You’d never know it by the way all the museum shows recently of her and her extended family’s art collecting managed to avoid confronting her work as a serious writer, shunting it, except for her opera Four Saints in Three Acts and a few portraits of prominent artist friends, into a corner—standing there with a kind of untouchable’s cap on, bearing a sign that seemed to read “Do not try this at home.”) The museum bookstores carried nothing but The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and some backup memoirs—delightful, it is true—by others. Time has not been kind. Gertrude herself said she was popular because she had a small audience. In print, as early as 1936, Edwin Denby called Stein “our finest poet.” The determined ones who now say they like the poems and plays and big works like The Making of Americans and Stanzas in Meditation act as though they own her, or anyway they hover (rigorously, it is said) over those works. At least our finest poet John Ashbery hasn’t forsaken her, he who once recognized (and took a mighty cue from) her way of writing with “profound originality, or original profundity” of not so much events themselves as how they happen.

The point is, I’m not here to read you Gertrude Stein’s works or to interpret them; I assume you read them or mean to read them eventually. Nor, as seems to be called for in the headline Naropa topic of the week—”Karma”—am I going to discuss her activities in Nazi-occupied France in the 1940s when she was in her 70s. (There are links to follow in the reading list provided.) But just to feel good about not giving you a talk on her work, I’ll read a passage from her great sex poem “Lifting Belly”—here goes:

Kiss my lips. She did.
Kiss my lips again she did.
Kiss my lips over and over and over again she did.
I have feathers.
Gentle fishes.
Do you think about apricots. We find them very beautiful. It is not alone their color it is their seeds that charm us. We find it a change.
Lifting belly is so strange.
I came to speak about it.
Selected raisins well their grapes grapes are good.
Change your name.
Question and garden.
It’s raining. Don’t speak about it.
My baby is a dumpling. I want to tell her something. Wax candles. We have bought a great many wax candles. Some are decorated.
They have not been lighted.
I do not mention roses.
Question and butter.
I find the butter very good.
Lifting belly is so kind.
Lifting belly fattily.
Doesn’t that astonish you.
You did want me.
Say it again.
Lifting beside belly.
Lifting blindly belly.
Sing to me I say.
Some are wives not heroes.
Lifting belly merely.
Sing to me I say.
Lifting belly. A reflection.
Lifting belly adjoins more prizes.
Fit to be. I have fit on a hat.
Have you.
What did you say to excuse me. Difficult paper and scattered.
Lifting belly is so kind.

Gertrude finished “Lifting Belly” in Paris in 1917, amidst her and Alice B. Toklas’s duties helping with French soldiers wounded in the World War. By the time she began it in Mallorca 1915 just about the only family she had, and pretty much by her own design, and until she died in 1946, was Alice, her lover, typist, cook, seamstress-couturier, and watchdog. In their mutual parlance, as life went on, Gertrude was “hubby” and “petsie” and Alice was “wifey” and “puss.”

The “Karma” I mean to discuss starts out about family, then about those in the family, Gertrude included, who spent time and money and a lot of attention on art, living with it—and lastly something about a vision that, for a while anyway, much of the art, if not the artists involved, or Gertrude, for that matter, notably shared—and we’ll see if some of us do, too.

* * *

The Steins of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, eventually part of Pittsburgh, then Baltimore and finally of Oakland—where Gertrude and her three brothers and one sister grew up—were part of a large contingent of Bavarian Jewish immigrants who arrived in America beginning in the 1840s. Just as later Gertrude in the 1930s would say that “all the good things in the arts” were being done by the homosexuals who gathered around her, in San Francisco when Gertrude was a child and still today, the important philanthropy—and adventurous art collecting—was and is a Jewish affair, done by so-called “cosmopolitans” with names like Sutro, Strauss, Stern, Haas, Lilienthal, Spreckels, Bransten, Fleishhacker, Swig and Zellerbach.

Once they had settled in Oakland in 1880 the Daniel Stein family looked like this, left to right:

Simon, Daniel, Michael, Amelia, Leo, Bertha, Gertrude (on floor), Oakland c. 1880

Simon—second oldest, the one who never left the Bay Area; the one who uniquely was indifferent to his father’s high-culture aspirations and as a grownup stayed to work as a gripman on the municipal streetcar lines that Daniel Stein had developed. (Gertrude liked him, even though both he and Leo considered him “simpleminded.”)

Daniel—the father who came to America with his parents from Weibergruben in 1841, and who made out well in the clothing business and then, in California, wisely invested in municipal railways, so that the family was well off and could travel around Europe and the kids could have tutors and be smart and upstanding;

Michael—the oldest, charged with administering the businesses and the wealth after Daniel died, so that he and the siblings were capable of living well if they managed their allowances carefully;

Amelia (Milly)—the mother, born in Baltimore, a ghostly figure in Gertrude’s mind, mostly interested in keeping up appearances; who died early on from gruesome cancer in 1888.

Leo—the family scholar/esthete, four years older than Gertrude who adored him until he didn’t adore her; in many ways the most complex of all the children;

Bertha—whom Leo and Gertrude also had little use for—”too conventional,” Gertrude said, and “sulkiness actively expressed” and “sloppy oozy female,” though in fact she kept up a correspondence with her for many years after moving to Paris, though then, typical of Gertrude, abruptly cut her off. (For Gertrude, she was too much like their mother, Milly.)

—and on the floor is little Gertrude, aged about 6.

Gertrude, governess, Bertha, Simon, tutor, Michael, Leo (on floor), Vienna, 1876

And there the children are again, with unnamed governess and tutor, in Vienna circa 1876.

* * *

A couple of years ago, three museum shows in San Francisco—two about Gertrude and her family and other connections, and one of Picassos on loan from the Picasso Museum in Paris—got me thinking a lot about this Stein family. This was, after all, the family with all of its extensions that Gertrude tried to make sense of in the 900-plus pages of her book The Making of Americans—and not only there—but The Making of Americans is an analytical, often sublime account of family personalities and how these people of German-Jewish descent developed so as to consider themselves “Americans,” (defining American-ness more or less as they went along—and The Making contains some ideas on the subject), and as you know, some of them got to be famous especially for being Americans living in Paris. An aggregate saga it is, in perpetually interweaving parts, not least of which are the adventures of some members of a well-off but not super-rich second-generation family in building two astonishing collections of early twentieth-century European art.

Leo Stein, Allan Stein, Gertrude, Theresa Fuhrman, Sarah & Michael, Paris 1905

Leo at rue de Fleurus, 1904Michael knew about money; Leo knew art, what it should be and how to appreciate it (he finally got around to writing a book called just that: Appreciation); Gertrude for a long time wasn’t so sure but she had a way of stating things so definitively it was dangerous to disagree with her. Leo was a little like what Gertrude said of Ezra Pound, “a village explainer . . . alright if you are a village.” Michael tended to the financial end so that everyone’s income from the family businesses (street cars and, after the streetcar business was sold, rental properties back home) could be adequately maintained. He married Sarah Samuels, who like Gertrude, was adamant about her own mind, passions and dislikes. In 1902 Leo relocated to Europe, eventually settling in Paris; Gertrude joined him in 1903—for the next decade or so they were inseparable as they had been before; to complete the picture, Michael and Sarah and their son Allan arrived in 1904.

The collecting started slowly. Leo took the lead with Gertrude’s assent (though not always); Leo’s perennial favorite was Renoir. Sarah and Michael soon matched him and Gertrude in this adventure of getting things that no one else at the time, except a few artists, thought worth having. Leo called it “junking.”

Utamaro, Lady c.1795 / Vallaton, Nude / Bonnard, Siesta, 1900 / Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907

All four adults had small collections of Japanese prints, the civilized thing at the time for any household; then Leo bought work by lesser post-Impressionists like Vallaton. Summoning more courage— or whatever impelled Leo and Gertrude when faced with a large-scale nude plainly dripping eroticism—they bought a tremendous Bonnard of his wife Marthe stretched face down on a multi-grooved meringue of rumpled bedclothes. Only three years later, Gertrude and Leo sold this ravishment in order to get Matisse’s Blue Nude.

Cézanne: Bathers, 1874; Three Apples, 1877-8; Bathers, 1892. Picasso: Study for Nude with Drapery, 1907; The Architect’s Table, 1912

Bernard Berenson turned Leo onto Cézanne, and when Gertrude began looking hard at the Cézannes that she and Leo bought, she saw how to write the stories in Three Lives, just as later Picasso would show her how to get through The Making of Americans, and in another way, to become the unbearable genius of Tender Buttons and portraits and much else afterward, none of which eventually Leo—in some ways, the stick of the bunch—could abide.

Matisse: Woman with Hat, 1905; Sarah Stein, 1916; painting Michael in 1916

In the Autumn Salon of 1905 Leo was shaken by what he first described as “the nastiest smear of paint I ever saw”; seeing that the picture had gotten to him, Sarah urged him to buy it, and there began all of their long and short lives with Matisse—intense at first for everyone, but less so finally for Leo and Gertrude. But for Sarah, on through returning permanently to California thirty years later, and until she died, destiny was living out her special passion for the art of Matisse, who in turn dubbed her “the really intelligently sensitive member of the family,” Gertrude and Leo, who was after all the first person anywhere to buy works by both Picasso and Matisse, having defected.

Picasso: 1904 photo; Lady with Fan, 1905; Boy Leading Horse, 1905-6; portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1905-6; Allan Stein, 1906; Matisse: Boy with Butterfly Net [Allan Stein], 1907

Soon after Matisse, Picasso came into the picture, and as far as Gertrude was concerned, he was the one who stayed—in her life, on her walls, for her writing. For his part, Gertrude was endlessly fascinating—her body, her sexuality, her language (they shared a determined ineptness with the French language), her interest in his work, her money (so long as she could afford him).

“Sensitive” is not a word commonly applied to Picasso’s art but many of his works, especially the ones before 1914, answer precisely to that description, for example the portrait of young Allan Stein, Michael and Sarah’s son. Matisse’s two depictions of Allan, two rooms later, are bold but comparatively impersonal exercises in picture making, although in the case of Boy with Butterfly Net, seemingly empathetic to the boy’s mad plunge into adolescence.

Stein may well have been the most portrayed—certainly the most photographed—writer anywhere of her era. Late in life, she confided what was first apparent in her approach to art and artists: that she had “always wanted to be historical.” The inevitable tension between how to historicize oneself as an artist and other, institutional ideas of history is implicit in her unqualified response to Alfred Barr’s attempts early on to get her to give her collection to the Museum of Modern Art: “You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.” (As it happened, she bequeathed her most prized picture, Picasso’s portrait of her, to the Met.)

Gertrude and Alice B. ToklasStudying the personal Gertrude under the various subheads (those given at the Jewish Museum by Thyrza Latimer and Wanda Corn) “Bohemian Stein,” “Matron Stein,” “Imperial Stein,” you find a person—insistently, by her own lights, a genius—alternately courageous and wary, endlessly (often haplessly) self-promoting, too regularly enthralled by her own pronouncements. She could be all smiles and warmly persuasive in her public appearances, and yet her demands on any self-respecting visitor or would-be friend became famously insufferable. It’s easy, though, to see as exemplary in its forthrightness and ardor the way she and Alice Toklas settled into their life together for nearly 40 years, how “by 1910, they had privately pledged themselves to each other as husband and wife” using “the language of conventional marriage to describe their love . . . and dividing up domestic chores strictly along traditional gender lines.” What happened to Alice later—and to the works Gertrude had left behind—is a stunning lesson in familial greed on one side and heartbreak on the other: Gertrude’s will left everything to her nephew Allan and his heirs with the proviso that the art would stay with Alice as long as she lived, and that Alice could sell some of it to meet expenses. But Allan died five years later, in 1951, and his second wife Roubina, intent on securing the works (or anyway their cash value) for her children, had the art impounded in a vault at the Chase Bank, leaving Alice destitute, dependent on friends until her death in 1967. Then, in 1968, a consortium of donors and administrators of the Museum of Modern Art raised funds to buy the works still sitting in their Chase Purgatory: thirty-eight Picassos, a Matisse, thirteen Juan Gris, six Picabias, and so on. (This would make quite an intriguing one-act play: the likes of Jock Whitney, Mrs. William “Babe” Paley, David and Nelson Rockefeller, and the heads of MoMA standing around, as they did, with all these extraordinary works in a room, discussing how to divvy them up.)

Gertrude & Leo’s parlor at Rue de Fleurus, 1905; Picasso: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907; Cézanne, Bathers, c.1880; Matisse: Le Luxe I, 1907

What Leo and Gertrude and Michael and Sarah put together cumulatively serves as a reminder of how hard-won were the glories of the avant-garde’s pre-World-War-I Golden Age. To contemplate what took place just within the first five years of the decade leading up to 1914 is dizzying. It was in Gertrude and Leo’s salon in 1906 that Picasso and Matisse met and where, more often than not, over the next few years, each one saw some painting by the other, a shocker, deep within the terms of painting, that left both artists and their immediate audiences, too, wondering what turn the art would take next. In this brief epoch of largely abandoned or otherwise imploding masterpieces, it’s easy to imagine the two of them repeatedly scaring themselves and each other, courting catastrophe in a kind of delirious one-up-manship (the point being not to scare off or win but to further heighten the game). The most scarifying of all, of course, was Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, an abrupt, nightmarish inversion of the Arcadian dream—that dear sad fantasy of liberality and ease adapted from Cézanne by Matisse, who carried it over from his Fauvist-psychedelic phase to the classic grandeur of the pictures (Sarah’s and Michael’s Le Luxe I was one) done after summering with the Steins in Italy in 1907, the same year Demoiselles got started. The demoiselles may have no clothes on, but they are not in a grove by a stream; Picasso’s brothel concoction is a B-side enactment of an un-modern earthly paradise.

Gertrude at her desk, 1914Would Demoiselles have been to Gertrude’s liking? Leo hated it and all of Picasso that followed from it; hated, too, Gertrude’s writings that ran closely parallel to Picasso in invention; plus, Leo had zero tolerance for the fact of Alice in Gertrude’s life—so finally he moved out, taking his Renoirs and many choice Cézannes with him. In the Autobiography, Gertrude records Alice’s first impression of Demoiselles as of “something painful and beautiful there and oppressive but imprisoned.” By the time Picasso let the picture out of the studio, some nine years after stopping work on it, Gertrude couldn’t afford her old friend’s prices, and anyway it was too big, rough and imposing to be accommodated in any grouping on her household walls. Referred to by Picasso as “my first exorcism picture,” it touches on something—a perennial raw nerve—that he never found again, except, tangentially. After Leo’s departure, the related sketchbook pages leading up to it formed a single line along the wall behind where Gertrude sat at her writing desk. Oddly enough, in a 1914 photograph, occupying a solo spot on the far end of the rung above them, hangs that sputtering icon of painterly overreach, Matisse’s Woman with a Hat [just a slice of it at top center, indicated with pink overlay]. Left with Gertrude in 1914 when she and Leo divided up their holdings. Gertrude sold it soon after to Sarah and Michael to compensate for pictures waylaid in Germany in the course of the war, and Sarah sold it later to cover her grandson Daniel’s horseracing debts.

The Arcadian mode of those years bespeaks both gaiety and angst. For one thing, it sets up a debate as to where the division exists between “primitive” (with its whiff of the “savage”) and “primordial” (a haven for Mallarmé’s “civilized first man”). Bernard Berenson after encountering Gertrude Stein described her as “a sort of Semitic primitive female straight off the desert.” The Edenic impulse is there, too, in the “negro sunshine” that comes and goes in Stein’s Three Lives, her first piece of serious narrative prose finished soon after installing herself in Paris. It’s on display as well as in her Bohemian fashion statements at the time. Non-plussed by Gertrude’s loose hanging corduroy robe, Mary Cassatt wondered out loud if she had anything on underneath or just “the costume of Eve.”

Picasso: Dryad, 1908; Matisse: sketch for Joie de Vivre, 1905-6; Cézanne: Bathers, c.1880; Gris: Backgammon, 1914; Glasses on a Table, 1914

Arcadia or the Golden Age, or of Eden for that matter, are signs of a recurrent desperation, the paradoxical despair that was embedded in modernity, for all its bright inventions, from the get-go—that sense of the insufferable in everyday life that led Baudelaire’s soul to cry out “Anywhere but here, any time but now!”

The mode was enhanced, embodied even, by what Gertrude Stein rightly saw as the “clarity and exaltation” of the other Spanish painter of both her and Picasso’s inner circle, Juan Gris. The most refined of the Arcadians, at some distance from the Matisse-Picasso agon, and softer and subtler than either, Gris achieved the serenity that Matisse frantically reached for and something extra that even Picasso never managed, the confidence that true mystery can come embedded in design. A good clue to how Gertrude’s portraits and still lifes relate to Picasso’s and Gris’s cubist work can be found in her friend Harriet Levy’s understanding of the poems as “vivisectional . . . as if emotions were revealing themselves in their original state of being.”

At the start of my first class at Brown, in 1957—the subject for the course was tragic drama—the professor Gerald Weales looked around the seminar table and said, “You may not know it, but you are all Existentialists.” Weales was about 95% on target. I could just as confidently say to everyone here today: “You may not know it—well, you probably do—but you are all Pragmatists.” You take it as it comes, without any irritable grasping after consistent, stabilizing truth—the odd thing being that contemporary Pragmatist thought, like that of Richard Rorty, derives as much from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism as from William James or John Dewey, Sartre having developed his ideas largely from the same sources as Williams James—Henri Bergson, Charles Pierce—and James of course was Leo and Gertrude’s teacher, so it all fits.

Our pragmatism is a kind of teased-out existentialism. Pragmatism flirts with Arcadia because it is not so sure. Flirtation, says Adam Phillips, “is the calculated production of uncertainty.” It is somewhat like walking or dancing, where one is continually losing and then regaining one’s balance; you can’t be too sure that you won’t find yourself suddenly on the ground with a broken leg. The human condition, as Kafka saw it (and perhaps Cézanne had something like this in mind as well), is an expulsion that makes living in this world inevitable while remaining forever in Paradise, “whether we know it or not.” That way, the historical aspect—first this, then that—blows over. “Break a leg,” as they say, and you may arrive, with no second-guessing, at what Blake called “radical innocence,” coming out on the other side.

Matisse: Bathers with a Turtle, 1908; Cézanne: Bather, 1885; Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1639

The French, who dream only of Arcadia, thought Gertrude and Leo, perceived as rich Americans in Paris, were very droll in their corduroys and sandals; but Gertrude intuited that every American cultivates a Golden Land at heart. The origins of the Golden Age as an idea are obscure. Generally, it, like biblical Eden, represents nostalgia for a past that never happened, just as Utopia is a perfect future seemingly perpetually deferred. Hesiod and Ovid both define the Golden Age largely by what terrible things hadn’t happened yet (“toil and grief”), or else by some remote promise to distract “happy mortals, unconcern’d for more.” No one says there’s no death there.

George Schneeman, Group of Poets, 1969

Anselm Hollo isn’t in this painting that George Schneeman did in 1970 of poets and significant others then living on the Lower East Side, but he might as well have been. (Left to right, they are: Clark Coolidge, Jim Carroll, Gerard Malanga [up high], Carol G [below], Larry Fagin, Tessie Mitchell [below Larry], Dick Gallup [with glasses], Tom Veitch [up top with knees], Katie Schneeman, Joan Fagin, Ron Padgett [next to Katie], me and [above me] Anne Waldman.)

* * *

On the subject of the death of poets, and how plausibly kindred poets form a kind of Arcadia together in (if nothing else) their love of words, their geniality, or if not so genial, at least mutual respect, Jane Dalrymple-Hollo, speaking posthumously in New York at the Poetry Project about Anselm, made clear what he, Anselm, had clarified deeply for her. Some of what Jane said was this:

As I grew closer to Anselm, the degree to which he cherished his friends was revelatory . . . . Anselm told me stories about these dear friends and read their poems to me so they would become part of my world, so I would be in a better position to partake of his world.
        After we were married and arrived in Boulder . . . I began to experience for the first time, the heightened energy and enthusiasm that can occur when individuals feel connected to one another through some kind of shared aesthetic commitment.

The title Jane gave to her account honoring her late husband was “The Company of Poets.” For an amazing number of years, the Poetry Project and Naropa have been manifestations, ever widening in scope, of the company. And it’s such company that, happily, painters in particular have been around to register as a fact of life, a kind of sustenance, like a real-life Arcadia, in the midst of everything else. A few such images should suffice:

Hoitsu Sakai, detail of 36 poets, 18th-century—about which Edwin Denby once said that looking, you could tell what kind of poetry each of them wrote.

Marie Laurencin, “Group of Artists,” 1908: showing Picasso, Fernande Olivier, Apollinaire, and Marie herself.

Laurencin, “Apollinaire & his Friends,” 1909: showing Gertrude, Fernande, unidentified, Apollinaire, Picasso, and so on.

Alex Katz, “One Flight Up”, 1968, details 1 and 2; and “Edwin & Rudy,” 1968: Katz may give his sitters the look of a college education, as Rene Ricard once claimed, but George Schneeman puts his in another world…

George Schneeman, painting of BB, 1969: Here’s George speaking in an excerpt from an interview with Alice Notley:

        “The figures I paint are really idealized figures . . . They’re not in a void, they’re in some perfect world . . . Everybody knows that they’re not where they are. That everything is not what it is. Because if everything were only what it appears to be, they would all kill each other . . . They don’t transcend by doing anything. They only transcend it by seeing, but looking through the levels of what things appear to be . . . It’s totally Platonic.”

BB & Bernadette Mayer, Detroit, 1984

In the 1980s Bernadette Mayer and I began writing letters to each other that contained interview-type questions. We never really finished; we still exchange questionnaires from time to time. (Meanwhile, Bernadette seized our primary question to write her book called Utopia.) But, as you see, in 1984 we paused to talk about this work, which at the time we consider too intimate to be publishable, at George Tysh’s “Lines” series at the Detroit Institute of Art. Twenty-two years later, the span of letters from 1981 to 1985 was published as a book called What’s Your Idea of a Good Time? I’m going to finish up here with first, Bernadette’s and then my responses to the question, which seems forever after to hang in the air around us.



Clément Morot, L’Age d’Or, 1500sFebruary 1981

BB: What’s your idea of a good time?

BM: Not being rich myself, it’s to have a wonderful dinner, drink plentifully of all the wines and beers of the world, talk incessantly, write poems, get ideas, go to bed without guilt, take pleasure in the lust for all the above, sleep late, have many dreams, make notes, wake late, always be with your lover, write as many letters and poems and other types of books as possible, live forever, find good teas, and of course, throughout, be able to deal effortlessly and lovingly with one’s children. And to read and know everything.

Pleasure and glory – can you think of any other reasons for poetry to exist? Yes, still, to change the world! But when you put it that way, pleasure and glory, no, I can’t think of any others. Glories, someone once told me, is a word for the way the light breaks through clouds in shafts of it. Pleasure, purpose and glory, and for love. And lust for poetry! Pretty situation o dear.



Bernadette again, March 6, 1981:


“What’s your idea of a good time?”
            – Bill Berkson

it’s morning, I live on a farm at 10th St. & 2nd Avenue
We yawn like warriors in bearskins amidst our 100% cotton sheets,
Race to get fresh chives from our bowery for our farmer’s omelette,
Enormous rooms, champagne, salmon & smoked ham this morning
(Since the revolution, accomplished pacifically, all artists
Live on large sufficient farms in the city with other poor people
All of whom now have plenty of food, shelter, health services & libraries)).
After breakfast we go to work on books and farms in libraries & fields,
We read the news (The Times is revolutionary), we put on shows,
Our children study music, languages & carpentry in the day nursery,
We skip lunch and swim in the pond instead, then we have a beer,
Afternoons we read, teach children about art and play basketball,
Meanwhile an enormous meal is being prepared of seven vegetables
And a rack of lamb with Homeric wines and demystifying lagers,
We eat in hedonistic postures all the while engaging, for fun,
In a mock rhetoric competition which is won today by Bill Berkson.
Then we read Shakespeare, Kerouac & others aloud to the kids for hours,
After this all the children go to bed without any sort of problem,
We stay up and talk all night occasionally partaking of ancient
Delicacies like English muffins & drinking an elucidating beer,
We might call someone long distance who isn’t here.
We argue about the difference between the generous love poem of Alice’s
And Clark’s more circumstantial, Bob R’s of problems like lattices,
Ted’s of cursive lengths of life, Lewis’s of observations, Gary’s
Of sealing off perfection, John Godfrey’s queer rhymes, some are wary
Of the so-called language & performance schools who seem harsh or
Else all out lf love – without books love is just the signifier!
We don’t smoke cigarettes anymore but a mesmeric blend
Which is the very elixir of life & clarifies all processes of the mind.
At some point our conversation takes us outside on the bowery to see
What’s going on in the rest of the galaxy, we kiss, we plan a trip,
When we awaken the night has gotten longer for our free pleasure
& though we stayed up so late examining every known desire
We still got plenty of rest & get up early nearly effortlessly.
Frequently somebody stops to write a poem or a series of poems
Which is immediately read and published in such a fine edition
That all the world will know it and the author will make money from it.
I’m writing a long prose work about all that exists this while –
You read it & say it is my best work though you think I may be berserk
(But I am calm, unselfconscious, healthy, useful & afraid of nothing
And we are each in love but never mean & always think of everything).

                                                  For Bill,



Lucas Cranach the Elder, Fountain, 1546June 1, 1981, BB to BM:

Ideal dinner? Very untimely of you to ask. I’ve been figuring the endless ordinary required banal ones for this household for days & days. (Ordinarily, I do it anyhow, 3 or 4 times per week.) Right now I would love to eat alone whatever can be sent out from the corner deli – cheese&baconburger, strawberry yogurt, & a bottle of Celray – or go to Ratner’s. Lacking such luxuries, my ideal menu would be: Cream chipped beef on toast, a fine Valpolicella, a dish of figs, & bottle of Calvados. Arugula in the salad, pls. All this imbibed on the vine-covered terrace of the small villa given to me for a season & overlooking a sparkling inland sea. Janos Starker is my only main-course guest, but he eats early in the kitchen & then plays Fauré cello sonatas clean through for me from a wing. We carry on a brief repartee, & then Lynn arrives for figs & Calvados & we have an intimate discussion of Moses’ progress at military school (during which Nanny brings in Mose to say an affectionate goodnight) and other more pressing and amusing matters. Time goes by. At midnight our best friends – including you & Lewis, Ron & Pat, George & Katie, Clark “Susan had to stay behind to supervise building my new studio-wing” Coolidge, & Frank O’Hara—& one or two laughable hangers-on, arrive for an all-night party and poetry & painting collaborative during which everyone’s work achieves new degrees of crystalline utterance, beautiful and sublime and so inclusively declarative it is difficult for the fishermen (who are all wearing Larry Fagin masks) to tell which is better or even who did what. Breakfast, too, is perfect, being waffles with a Kenward Elmslie syrup to beat the band, & real pork sausages ground through the radio that is playing Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” and we all fall out on beds laughing in the Great Hall & go about knowing everything we’ve always wondered in terms of marital practices on satin sheets like pickled herrings in white paper cartons, & Turkish coffee. Around 2 p.m., the Poetry Project staff arrives to wake us & clean up & to bind & frame the night-dawn’s proceedings. Pulitzers & Nobel Prizes are handed around. We retire to our separate studios to compose lengthy acceptance poems in the new strict American metric. Fishermen, bakers, and bricklayers & other stonemasons crowd around at the foot of the villa steps to hear us. I guess it’s right that everyone should go for a swim. Applause at poolside, we take our bows in the sparkling inland sea.

Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse, 1905-6CODA

“Picasso made me tough and quick and the world”—this line from Frank O’Hara’s “Memorial Day, 1950” echoed as I walked through the galleries. What a world: That no special theory emerges from any one or several visits may be part of what makes the serendipity of having all three shows here at once so happy and right. You look and look, and your sense of each picture and the next and the one across from that—or on yet another wall across town—gathers; together they click and make a constellation of shimmering details in and out of time. 

* This talk was originally delivered at Naropa University, Summer Writing Program July 5, 2013


Suggested Further Reading

  • Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans, Tender Buttons, Lifting Belly, Picasso (NB: The shelf of Gertrude Stein’s complete works is probably as wide as that of any 20th Century author. Her poems, operas, plays, lectures, essays, portraits, autobiographical writings and whatnot—all of her entire—a lifetime’s recommended reading.)
  • Bishop, Debray et al., The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde
  • Wanda M. Corn & Tirza True Latimer, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories
  • James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company
  • Brenda Wineapple, Sister Brother: Gertrude & Leo Stein
  • Harriet Lane Levy, Paris Portraits
  • Christine Stansell, American Moderns
  • Fred Rosenbaum, Cosmopolitans: A Social & Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area
  • Leo Steinberg, “The Philosophical Brothel,” October, Vol. 44 (Spring, 1988)
  • Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Studies In Modern Art, Museum of Modern Art
  • Bill Berkson & Bernadette Mayer, What’s Your Idea of a Good Time?
  • Bernadette Mayer, Utopia
  • Hesiod, Works and Days
  • Ovid, Metamorphosis (esp. Book 1, lines 89-150)
  • William Shakespeare, As You Like It
  • Harry Levin, The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance
  • Joseph J. Rishel, Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia
  • Bill Berkson, “What Are Masterpieces & Why Are There So Many” <http://www.artcritical.com/2011/07/31/steins-picasso>

    For details regarding Gertrude Stein’s and Alice B. Toklas’s activities during the Nazi occupation of France, see:
                [Both entries are by Charles Bernstein; the first contains what looks to be a complete dossier of pros & cons & in-betweens in the form of links on the topic.]

BILL BERKSON's recent books include Expect Delays; Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems; a collection of art writings, For the Ordinary Artist; Not an Exit, with drawings by Léonie Guyer; and another words-and-images collaboration, Repeat After Me, with watercolors by John Zurier. He is Professor Emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, a contributing editor for artcritical.com, and a corresponding editor for Art in America. He is working on a collection of autobiographical writings entitled Since When: Memoirs in Pieces.