About William Bronk's Poetry
TOWARD A READING OF THE POETRY
OF WILLIAM BRONK
William Bronk's poetry begins where philosophy leaves off: in the enactment of an idea, in the testing of a proposition. Each poem addresses itself to a central question of existence, not only why we are here but where we are. He merges dialectics and lyric: "And oh, it is always a world and not the world" ("At Tikal").
This is where modern philosophy is weakest: in motivating force, in addressing itself to the central questions: "Has there ever been, will there ever be, / not now? No, always. Only now!" ("The Now Rejects Time and Eternity").
Poetry has become ego-centered or centerless, narrative or language based. Bronk is neither. Bronk distills, resisting the nominalist impulse: "Flowers, I know you, not knowing your name" ("Flowers, The World and My Friend, Thoreau"). Naming, in Bronk, is always mysterious—a first and last time.
Not only are his poems lovely in some traditional way but they manage to be so while questioning the assumptions of that way.
Bronk has always been more interested in discourse than "the object." The poems may begin at any point in an inner dialogue and this is what accounts for their difficulty. But the questions themselves form a kind of grid for his imagination.
What can we know, what can be known? What does it mean—to think? We reflect—but on what? Experience, but what is that? What is the role of words in this epistemology?
Thinking about the world changes the world. Awareness breeds a paradox—it makes the fullness of the world dissolve. The moment we imagine something is known it slithers away. We exist (but where). We imagine we exist. Consciousness is forced to grapple with the problem of the present tense. Memory is comfort. And yet the difference I detect in the sounds of cars and trucks going by on their way to the harbor, which a moment ago occupied my attention, means nothing to me now. Bronk replaces memory with thinking. Only the edges of events have meaning. Yet the substratum is constant: desire, love. We understand what we see in how we feel.
I think that Bronk would agree with Chamfort that when you have Diogenes' lantern you also need his stick.
A friend who is steeped in Derrida and Lacan tells me she wants to write her dissertation on the theme of desire in contemporary poetry. She has not noticed this concern in several poets born around the time when Bronk had already focused on desire as a central theme. Bronk's lyric investigations precede deconstruction, even structuralism.
Bronk's work brings up the question of metaphysics and poetry. Is it possible to write philosophical poetry now, or does it become philosophy? Bronk has never been afraid of ideas. He courts ideas without embracing them. But he does more than test them out. His poetry is an imaginative investigation. into the truth:
Ideas are always wrong. Their separateness
causes a threat to neuter each other out
and leave us without a world as it does here:
heavens and styles collide meaninglessly.
("Blue Spruces in Pairs, A Bird Bath Between")
Bronk will go directly to the heart of the matter without "building" an argument. In this sense his poems make me think of a magnificent ruin: they leave us to infer the before and after (though he might deny the existence of either). Broken off, they still infer a lost grandeur. He remains in pursuit of a center he does and does not believe exists. He employs a halting rhetoric, a severe ambivalence toward eloquence. He demands to be read slowly. And we would always like his poems to go on after they end.
Yet we do not want to go on to the next poem, but rather return to the beginning:
We came to where there were trees, if there were trees . . .
Bronk, like Stevens, has "studied nostalgias" and left them too as part of the backdrop, the discourse that remains unspoken. He is often linked to Stevens because he grasps that there is no separation in poetry of language that represents ideas and that which embodies images. But Bronk refuses to gratify the reader's thirst for imagery. "Human is not / to be something we know, but to be as the Jews say God / must be, without an image" ("That Something There Is Should Be").
There's so much fog here as I write that I can hardly see my hand. Bronk's poems, with their hard-edged abstractions, are like those clear spots in the fog, a short lived hiatus from the engulfing mist.
Nothing remains unknown, nothing is known. Each moment is the destroyer of certainty. All places are one place. Here and there and nowhere are not opposites in his world where "our life, such as it is, / is elsewhere" ("The Subsidy").
Yet his reflections are localized, as close to a certain region of New York State as Hardy's poems to Dorset. With his radarlike sense of the local, he shows how the occasion can serve as measure, arresting flux to engender discourse.
There is always an urgency propelling Bronk's work, awakening us to the life we have.
We make the best of it as best we may,
totally bewildered in a bewildering world
where things are given to us we don't know why.
("The Difficult Gifts")
from "Toward a Reading of the Poetry of William Bronk." SAGETRIEB 7.3.
The single great constant in the poetry of William Bronk is desire; specifically, desire for the world, which can never be known as a totality. Despite the self-limiting fact that consciousness is aware of its inability to experience this totality, it continually struggles for the achievement of its goal. Cut off from any ground of belief, secure only in its desire, consciousness therefore creates a world, which despite its insufficiency in metaphysical terms nevertheless allows for the rendering of form--the poem. Within the limits of their self-created worlds, Bronk's poems unfold as a phenomenology of desire, and this is why, when they are read as a single body of work, they echo each other so hauntingly that they seem like endless variations on the same theme. Bronk's poems actually move through wide registers of emotion emerging from many essential human situations. But these are all abstracted into a kind of intellectual music, sensuous in its meditative complexity and at times overwhelming in the force of its rhetoric. Regardless of their "subjects," however, almost all the poems embody that philosophical moment adumbrated in the last stanza of "At Tikal," the final poem in Bronk's first published volume, Light and Dark (1955):
It is always hard like this, not having a world,
to imagine one, to go to the far edge
apart and imagine, to wall whether in
or out, to build a kind of cage for the sake
of feeling the bars around us, to give shape to a world.
And oh, it is always a world and not the world.
From "William Bronk: The World as Desire." Contemporary Literature 23.4 (Fall 1992): 480-492.
Confronting the conventional formal strategist (and concomitant aesthetic ideologies) of his time, Bronk chooses to situate his poems precisely in the space between abstract philosophical speculation and the immediacies of lived experience. Bronk's discourse largely consists of language variously challenging not only the assumed generic and epistemological limits of modern poetry, but the occasions of its utterances as well. Even the many Bronk poems which nominally focus upon the discrete, the particular ("My House New-Painted," "The Beautiful Wall, Machu Picchu," "The Tree in the Middle of the Field," etc.), soon pass into a realm of abstraction, which almost miraculously retains the sensuousness of the object-world through the poet's mastery of his linguistic instrument. Thus to a reader accustomed to most recent poetry, Bronk's work may not appear very much like "poetry" at all. But it is just those qualities of the verse which put some readers off--its tremendously compressed but flexible syntax, the radical austerity of its diction, its relentless suspicion of metaphor, its disdain of mere imagery, its seamless sense of measure, and the resolution of its closure--which make other readers sigh in relief and exclaim 'At last!"
From "The Singular Achievement of William Bronk." Sagetrieb 7.3 (Winter 1988): 75-82.
What Bronk is doing, in my view, is proceeding along a path that is parallel to the via negativa of the mystical tradition. To the anonymous fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing, for instance, the only true knowledge is of God; but since this knowledge is utterly beyond our reach, all that is possible for us is to cast aside our false knowledge of the world and, by admitting our ignorance and putting off our vanity, enter into that "cloud of unknowing" in which alone it is possible, not to "know" God but to intuit his presence. Similarly, on the level of subjective content, Bronk's statements reflect a position of radical skepticism or even nihilism; but the aim of the poetry is not negation but, through negation, to evoke what in rational terms is ineffable. Poetry, in Bronk's sense of it, thus has a function which is somewhat analogous to that of the spiritual exercises practiced by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing--but with this essential difference, that whereas the mystic's language is merely the vehicle of his spiritual exercises and is of no importance in itself, the poet's language has a resonance that in some mysterious way embodies the ineffable (or, to employ the parlance of aesthetics, the Beautiful). Since poetry is composed of language and since it emerges from the statement system of language, it is of course absurd to say that poetry embodies the ineffable. How can we speak what cannot be spoken? This paradox is, however, at the root of lyric poetry, as it emerges from the statement system of language to approach the condition of music.
The mysterious relationship between form and content is in a certain sense more advanced in Bronk's work than in any other contemporary poetry (and in a way that makes me think of his poetry as bearing an emblematic relation to the condition of poetry in general) because the paradox that obtains in all lyric poetry is thematized in his work. Rather than avoiding the statement system of language--out of which the poem emerges but into which it is constantly in danger of being pulled back--Bronk confronts that system (and its limitations) directly, making it the means to an end rather than the end itself--although, as we observed earlier, to compose poetry is not, in the first instance, the point of his endeavor. To say that Bronk is ultimately a mystic whose poetry follows the via negativa is perhaps only to say that in the end, lyric poetry is itself a form of mysticism, perhaps the most extreme form of mysticism, an attempt on the part of language to evoke the ineffable in and through itself. "It is hard to believe of the world that there should be / music in it" as the poet tells us in "The Nature of Musical Form." And when we try to explain what music is, we go in circles--"as though we could say of music only, it is."
From "The Cloud of Unknowing: William Bronk and the Condition of Poetry." Sagetrieb 7.3 (Winter 1988): 137-144.
Over the course of more than a half century, William Bronk has produced a body of work unparalleled in arts and letters. His is a poetry of sinuous statement yet one that is musical, refined and deeply ruminative. His essays are rigorously investigative but also deeply passionate. Through his poetry and prose, separately and together, he has propounded a uniquely skeptical account of the human condition. As Paul Auster has commented, "Bronks poetry stands as an eloquent and often beautiful attack on all our assumptions, a provocation, a monument to the questioning mind." Bronk frequently indulges himself in abstract speculations and plays off them, in order to resolve quandaries he finds they contain, through unexpected turns of thought or simply raw upsurgings of a voice that owes nothing to logical procedure. The very fact that humans possess the capacity to think of the world, most of all in the abstract, deeply fascinates him but equally strikes him as problematic. Thus it can be said that Bronk is a philosophical poetespecially in the sense that abstraction, itself, is ultimately what he struggles with, as he weighs the apparent truths of conscious reflection against the compelling and at times competing truths of palpable experience determined by the emotions as well as the dimensions of physical space and time.
What must be kept in mind when reading Bronk is that, notwithstanding the profoundly philosophical nature of his writing, he is a poet, not a philosopher. He is a poet, though, of enormous intellect, whose unstinting meditations can be hauntingnot least because he is a poet of compassion. A writer heretofore not associated with Bronk, but with whom comparison is useful in trying to comprehend him, is Samuel Beckett. Becketts gaunt style, its economy, is similar to Bronks. What is most memorable about Beckett is the unforgettable despair the characters in his novels and plays affirm, in their abandonment of belief in anything. There is this dark side in Bronk. However, there is something else too. Often with great feeling, he will turn away from the implacable data his probing consciousness has assembled, and, quite irrationally, cling to the present"lean down /and feel the massive earth beneath my feet," as he says in his poem "The Rain of Small Occurrences"despite his having apprehended its final meaninglessness. This contradictory turn, often an espousal of sheer love for the world, is more in keeping with the writer who has been his greatest influence, Henry David Thoreau, and less like Beckett. Bronks detailed renditions of natural landscapes especially match Thoreaus in their acuity.
Bronks growth as both writer and thinker can be gauged by the development of his poetic language. This is, first and foremost, a language that interrogates his everyday existence. The language of skepticism has always addressed the great human questions, and Bronk takes his place within a tradition that has been most fully articulated by Blaise Pascal, who viewed the processes of reason as inevitably having to end in doubt. Although we live with uncertainty and error, however, nature and God intervene in our predicament; we are not only rational, but instinctual. Likewise, Bronk views knowledge as grounded in language and/or perceptions we express either rationally or axiomatically, while such expressions cannot denote reality. Still, Bronk can speak of reality because he intuits it residing somehow beyond the strictures of language or formulas he himself has constructed through the act of reflection.
from The "Winter Mind": William Bronk and American Letters by Burt Kimmelman (Madison and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University, Press, 1998). Copyright © 1998 by Associated University Presses, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
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