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Bronk, William (1918-1999) William Bronk is best known for his austere view of the world as well as writing style. His language—subtle, balanced in tone and diction, essential—is possibly the most distilled in all of twentieth-century American poetry. In addition, Bronk is always explicit visually and resonant musically. His work keeps alive a New England poetic tradition, evoking nature and the seasons, winter most of all, and delving into the nature of reality or truth. These concerns were firmly established early in twentieth-century American poetry by the New England poets Robert FROST and Wallace STEVENS, then later by, along with Bronk, Robert CREELEY and George OPPEN, and in the nineteenth century by Henry David Thoreau (an especially strong influence on Bronk), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emily Dickinson.
Bronk was born in Fort Edward, near Hudson Falls, New York where he lived his entire life except for his student years at Dartmouth College and Harvard University, a period of military service during World War II and a brief stint as an instructor at Union College. Even after he gained a wide readership, Bronk shrank from public attention and concentrated on his immediate surroundings. His writing expresses his refusal to compromise his life style and point of view as in his poem "The Abnegation" (1971): "I will not / be less than I am to be more human." He believes that what he knows of the world is only a semblance of the truth at best. Reality exists and he is able to intuit its existence, but it is finally beyond his grasp. Despite Bronk’s asceticism, he was constantly sought out by readers and many poets who would journey to Hudson Falls to visit; for young poets, this trip was something of a rite of passage. Bronk won some major poetry awards, the American Book Award in 1982 and the Lannan Prize for his life’s work ten years later. When at Dartmouth, he met Frost, and his fellow student and friend was Samuel French Morse, who became a well known authority on Stevens. Bronk’s first publishing successes were due to the efforts of Cid CORMAN who printed Bronk’s work in Origin, the magazine he edited, and who published Bronk’s first book Light and Dark, in 1956. Bronk also enjoyed the support of Creeley in his magazine the Black Mountain Review, in the 1950s, and Bronk’s second book, The World, the Worldless, was published by New Directions in 1964 with the help of Oppen and his sister June Oppen Degnan, who was an editor at the press.
This network of fellow poets and editors should not suggest, however, that Bronk was in any sense a derivative poet. On the contrary, his work is original, his poetic voice singular and unforgettable. His language, indeed, is perhaps the clearest and most even in tone in all of twentieth-century American poetry, devoid of unnecessary wording, yet filled with subtle agreements of sound set out in a basic iambic line. Bronk’s poetic statements purport to describe the facts of life; and yet, paradoxically, Bronk constantly writes about the elusiveness of any fact. He finds a compromise he can live with. In his poem "The Rain of Small Occurences" (1955) he writes, "The world is not quite formless; we lean down / and feel the massive earth beneath our feet." Yet the closest to factuality Bronk can come is the poem itself, ultimately a poem that in its sureness, in its reliability of diction, meter and outlook, insists on a reality beyond his comprehension. The best strategy for living Bronk can come up with is to embrace the present, the poem "On the Failure of Meaning in the Absence of Objective Analogs" (1971) suggests: "There is only this whatever this may mean / and this is what there is and nothing will be."
What is knowable, on the other hand, is desire, and Bronk spends a great deal of time examining The Force Of Desire (a title of one of his books, published in 1979) in life. Desire is the "single great constant" in Bronk’s work, Norman Finkelstein writes. So, what is it that Bronk desires? Impossibly, he desires "the world"; knowing the world, all in all, is beyond his capacity. In any case, knowledge is only a logical realization, yet the human condition is not predicated on reason alone. "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" (481)
There are "reassurances" in our daily lives, Bronk states in his poem "The Inference" (1972): "the far trips / the mind can make!" Our peregrinations occur within this world of desire, a world tantalizingly unknowable. "There is a world we know from inference. / It isn’t here and yet we go to it […]." Imbued by desire, then, human existence is never absolutely grounded in certainty and therefore without a real identity, as Bronk explains in the preface to his book of collected essays Vectors and Smoothable Curves (1983). Who and what, and where, are we? We attempt to find ourselves as a way of knowing who we are; the problem here is that no matter how "direct and immediate our awareness may be it is also devoid of external reference and its strength and centrality is uncertain." We are like vectors, merely "proposals of location and force whose only referential field is internal--not ultimately oriented. We can be grateful for their stabilities even aware as we are of an arbitrariness with them." To live with these propositions means we must recognize the tenuousness of life. To be sure, "Reality is brought to mind by the inadequacy of any statement of it, the tension of that inadequacy, the direction and force of the statement" (np).
Bronk’s poem "Some Musicians Play Chamber Music for Us" (1955), in a phrase reminiscent of Stevens, claims that "all we will know are fragments of a world," even through the arts. In "The Mind’s Landscape on an Early Winter Day" (1955), a poem whose evocation of winter rivals winter poems by Frost, Bronk writes, with an unparalleled bleakness that in turn evokes a delicate beauty, of what he calls the "winter mind, the ne’er do well," his alter ego, a "poor blind" that "is always lost and gropes its way […] even when the senses seize the world." The best comfort against the sense of being lost are the stories we live and the metaphors we are. Thus Bronk’s poem "The Wanted Exactitude" (1991) ends in a single-line stanza: "let our metaphor be accurate." Metaphor is as close to reality as he can come. In "The Mind’s Limitations Are Its Freedom" (1972) Bronk asks, "What else but the mind / senses the final uselessness of the mind?" The irony in this statement is not, of course, lost on Bronk, and so it might be a surprise to realize that his contemplation of the human mind is joyful even though "the mind of man" is "frail, deep / in disorder" and "always pushed by the falsenesses / of unreality." It is this unreality that is predicated by desire, and so Bronk has no choice but to embrace that desire. "I want to be that Tantalus," Bronk proclaims in "The Abnegation," "unfed forever." He asks that he be spared all compassion and that his reader notice how humankind "takes handouts, makeshifts, sops for creature comfort." These he refuses.
There is no place to rest in Bronk’s view of existence. Even physical
love is undermined by this restlessness. He accuses his lover, naked beside
him in bed in the poem "Wants and Questions" (1985), of taunting him simply
by "[wearing] those skins and bones." Who is this person and who is he?
As Paul Auster has commented, "Bronk's poetry stands as an eloquent and
often beautiful attack on all our assumptions, a provocation, a monument
to the questioning mind" (30). This is a poetry of sinuous statement and
yet it is musical, refined and deeply ruminative, advancing the most troubling
human inquiries that by definition cannot be answered.
Auster, Paul. "The Poetry of William Bronk." Saturday Review 8 July 1978: 30-31.
Bronk, William. Vectors and Smoothable Curves: Collected Essays.
1983. New Edition. Jersey City, NJ:
Talisman House, 1997.
Clippinger, David. ed. The Body of This Life: Essays on William Bronk. Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 2001.
Ernest, John. "William Bronk's Religious Desire." Sagetrieb: A Journal
Devoted to Poets in the Imagist / Objectivist
Tradition 7.3 (1988): 145-52.
Finkelstein, Norman. "William Bronk: The World as Desire." Contemporary Literature 23.4 (1982): 480-92.
Kimmelman, Burt. The "Winter Mind": William Bronk and American Letters,
Madison, New Jersey:
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press / London: Associated University Presses, 1998.