Thursday, June 21, 2018



Dearest Annie, You Wanted a Report on Berkson’s Class: Letters from Frances LeFevre to Anne Waldman edited by Lisa Birman
(Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, New York, 2016)

Apart from having an unusually long title, this book is very much of its time. In addition to the letters, it comes with an introduction by Bill Berkson and an afterword by Anne Waldman. There is also a useful glossary of names giving brief biographical details of most of the people who are mentioned in the letters.

Frances LeFevre was Anne Waldman’s mother by second marriage. When she enrolled in Bill Berkson’s poetry class at the New School in downtown New York, she promised to keep her 21 year old daughter, who was in her final semester at Bennington, informed on the readings, writings and discussions that took place within the class. Her letters do much more because they give us an illuminating snapshot of the wider poetry scene from March through June 1966, and pronounce on the culture of the time. They also offer us intimate glimpses of family life and the handing down of mother-daughter advice in an open and honest manner on everything from poetics to personal relationships. LeFevre immersed herself in the artistic world of the sixties, meeting poets, composers, actors and artists, attending readings, concerts and galleries. She moved with ease within a wide circle of friends and acquaintances a number of whom, her daughter included, would go on to become eminent figures in contemporary American arts and letters.  

LeFevre was also a poet in her own right and twelve of her poems written between 1963 and 1977, some of them the result of workshop assignments in the style of other poets, are printed at the end of the book.

The early New York School comes alive in these pages. We read about happenings, discussions and experiments and catch a sense of the urgency that was bringing about change in the world of poetry and writing in general.

In his introduction, Bill Berkson highlights the conservative world into which he had been invited by Kenneth Koch to lead the class. Not long beforehand, it had been difficult for institutions to accept “Bill” instead of “William.” He was known in catalogue listings as “W.B.”  Despite these hangovers from a not too distant past, the New School in the sixties was already in full swing. The bulletin listed John Cage’s courses in Experimental Composition and Mushroom Identification (the latter categorized under “Recreation”), Rollo May offered classes on ‘Zen and Existentialism” and Frank O’Hara lead a workshop there in 1963. By 1966, the writing faculty included, beside Berkson, Kenneth Koch, LeRoi Jones, Arnold Weinstein, Jose Garcia Villa and David Ignatow.  Henry Cowell and Martin Williams taught music, Joseph Chaikin theater and William K Everson a course on film. Later in the decade there were a series of readings by “young poets in the vanguard tradition,” including Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Aram Saroyan and Jim Brodey.

LeFevre was 55 when she joined Berkson’s class. This was a fairly average age for those attending writing classes at the New School in those days.  Most of the older students tended to be women whereas the younger ones were of mixed gender and generally more ambitious about being writers. That said, what struck me most about reading these letters was the sheer commitment and intensity that LeFevre invested in the project. Poetry was not just an abiding interest, it was also a way of life.

Some of her other classmates included Hannah Weiner, Peter Schjeldahl, Bernadette Mayer, Michael Brownstein, “a couple of blondes and one nondescript dame.” The assigned readings are interesting. Some of them go back in time (Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare, Wyatt, Milton, Drayton, Keats, Shelley, etc) while others are contemporary (Pound, Williams, Ashbery, Ginsberg, O’Hara, etc.) and quite a lot of the readings are from works of prose (Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses; Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) as opposed to poetry:

“Daddy is really amazed that we talk so much about fiction – he thought poetry was something entirely apart.”

The letters contain some fascinating insights about the difficulty of communicating a particular scene to the reader…

“He [Berkson] also warned us that it’s almost impossible for you to convey your own visual image or memory to anyone else linguistically, whether you’re telling a story or describing what someone else wore or whatever. He said try telling something funny you saw just by describing it as a picture and it’ll fall flat unless you also employ some tricks of language or narration, like wit, suspense, quotation, contrast, irony.”

…or how, in the 1920s-1940s, exegesis had a way of becoming more important than the poetry:

what Berkson described as the ‘close reading’ attack, which takes the poem as a thing to be opened up like a mechanical clock to see what makes it tick, tracking down each symbol, Freudian myth, literary allusion, classical reference, etc. According to Berkson, this had a destructive effect. In his view, the leading critics of this school, I. A. Richards, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, etc., took poets away from the main business of writing poetry.

LeFevre herself holds some firm views too. Reading some of the critics of the recent past and listening to some of the drivel on radio readings (her words, not mine), ‘I know that there’s no precise correspondence between quality and recognition at all, even though it’s a nice warm feeling to have somebody – even just one person – really ‘get’ what you mean. In the millions of words of poetry written in English alone…so few lines have been memorable. Most of them are in Shakespeare, still. This doesn’t depress me – on the contrary I find it truly exciting that any at all really make it up to some special height.”

The book also contains some interesting material that has nothing to do with the class: the moment LeFevre, “as thrilled as a schoolgirl about a movie star,” discovered that she was sitting behind the distinguished composer Elliott Carter at a concert of his music in New York City; a moving account of Marianne Moore getting into difficulty struggling to give a poetry reading at the Loeb Center, NYU, when she was nearly 80 and physically frail (“the audience of course was totally sympathetic and gave her enormous applause at the end”)  and an account of some of the statements –some might even say prophecies – made by Marshall McLuhan at the YMHA one evening in May 1966.

As with any publication of this kind, where the correspondence is all one way, the reader longs to know the nature and content of the letters that were written in reply. This is why the afterword at the end, written by Anne Waldman, helps to put a few things in context, and is a very welcome addition to the book.

Credit should go to Lisa Birman for her editing skills and for the way in which she has been able to put together such a comprehensive account of this correspondence between a mother and a daughter which has given us an intriguing insight into US American poetics in what has been described as a seminal moment in time.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, editor, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His latest book is Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017). He is a regular reviewer for several journals and his work has been translated into Dutch, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.