First and last a poet, certainly, but also a great writer on art. He was there at the birth of the short-form review, mostly written by poets, and became an exemplar of that unforgiving form, wherein every word must hold. He knew more about painting than anyone I’ve ever known. I especially recommend The Sweet Singer of Modernism and Other Art Writings 1985-2003, and his book on Ronnie Bladen.
My personal introduction to Bill came in 1981, when I took his class on the sublime, and then another on “Vernacular Poetics,” in the Poetics Program in San Francisco. Later, we became friends. There was no one I would rather go to galleries and museums with than Bill. We argued constantly, about aesthetics and politics, and there was no one I would rather argue with, because the stakes were so high.
In an interview I did with Bill in 2006 for the Brooklyn Rail, he said:
“If art is a form of social behavior—and I can’t imagine it being taken as anything else—it exists as a sort of conversation: you can make something and pass it along, across the room, so to speak. You show it. The addressee may be specific or a phantasmagoria.”
And in one of his last letters to me, he wrote:
“Best we fumble along, ‘irrelevant’ belles-lettrists that we are . . . . Poetry, as all the art people would tell you, is beside the point. No cultural currency, they say, because the attendance figures are so low. Phooey. Poetry strikes back, gloriously beside the point.”