out on a limb

by maxgoldb

Saddened to learn of the passing of three humane observers, a writer (Bill Berkson), filmmaker (Peter Hutton), and photographer (Bill Cunningham). All three made work with good manners – inviting, occasional, light on its feet. Berkson’s criticism, in particular, is one of the places I go to remember why I write.

Aside from economic considerations, criticism is a public opportunity to be articulate about something that most people ordinarily let slip away into tangential mutterings: your supposedly silent, non-verbal, on-site responses to works of art. I think of it doubly as commercial expository prose and/or (as Carter Ratcliff once remarked) “language somewhere in the vicinity of what it’s talking about.” What makes poets’ criticism valuable, I think, is that they are interested in these situations of looking not as frames of judgment but as observation for observation’s sake: they write to find out what can be said in relation to what they see and hopefully to be communicative of some common pleasure in seeing. Can you say what you see? Can it be described? Or is the feeling of two-way recognition between the looker and the work more interesting to tell about? Pleasure in writing criticism is often connected with the surprise of vernacular – the words that sensibly spring to mind when the mind’s eye is on a sizable patch of orange paint seen some hours or days previous. Poets are less interested in evaluation and motive. They know that the best one can hope for is the equivalent vitality of a parallel text, and to that they bring a technical proficiency as befits the job. (“Poetry and Painting,” 1984)

There are, to be sure, many more direct instances of Berkson’s “parallel text[s]” I could have quoted from, but I am grateful that from time to time he arranged his thoughts into these kinds of statements of principles (though nothing so heavy as that). And then, of course, he can’t help himself: the “sizable patch of orange paint,” the pitter-pat questions (“Can you say what you see?”), the fresh-plucked Ratcliff quotation. (Looking through my own little notebook of quotations, I see that many were first sourced in Berkson’s essays.) I only ever met him on the page, but that meant the world to me.