Mark Rudman: 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").

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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").

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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.

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Not only are his poems lovely in some traditional way but they manage to be so while questioning the assumptions of that way.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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I think that Bronk would agree with Chamfort that when you have Diogenes' lantern you also need his stick.

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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.

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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")

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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.

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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 . . .

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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").

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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.

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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").

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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.

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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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Mark Rudman: Toward a Reading of the Poetry of William Bronk Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Mark Rudman Criticism Target William Bronk
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 01 Jun 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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