Susan Schultz: Comparing William Bronk and John Ashbery


Ashbery, John. Flow Chart. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Bronk, William. Living Instead. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1991.

I was in a large class at USC when he [Schoenberg] said quite bluntly to all of us, 'My purpose in teaching you is to make it impossible for you to write music,' and when he said that I revolted.-- John Cage

William Bronk and John Ashbery, despite their radical stylistic differences, both face what critic John Ernest has termed "a metaphysical stalemate." Although Ernest is writing about Bronk, his description of that poet's paradoxical project resonates for the reader of Ashbery's work as well: "he is passionately devoted to the belief that there are no grounds for belief, and to the conviction that all convictions are ultimately fictions" (145). Both write what one might call "postmodern spiritual autobiographies" (145), memoirs of minds that are alienated from the very divinities that they sometimes invoke. And the two poets who take so much from Wallace Stevens--Bronk a snowman, Ashbery a comedian of the letter A--share that poet's sense that supreme fictions can only be approached, but never achieved. Even more radically than Stevens (but in accord with Emerson, who believed that poets took dictation), Bronk and Ashbery locate the wellsprings of their poetry outside themselves. Ashbery writes toward the end of Flow Chart: "I'm more someone else, taking dictation / from on high, in a purgatory of words, but I still think I shall be the same person when I get up / to leave, and then repeat the formulas that have come to use so many times / in the past[.]" Bronk's version is more direct; when asked in a rare interview if "the poem exists outside of you and you're transcribing it," he responded, "Of course, where else? Do you think it's something in your goddamned head?" (39). 

Bronk and Ashbery both fulfill Robert Pinsky's injunction, in The Situation of Poetry (1976), that poetry  be discursive. Yet Pinsky's definition of discursiveness also goes to the heart of what divides them. "On the one hand," he writes, "the word describes speech or writing which is wandering and disorganized; on the other, it can also mean explanatory--pointed, organized around a setting forth of material" (134). Bronk's material, however spontaneously it comes to him (his notebooks are apparently clean of revision), is always organized and explanatory, written in a poetic legalese that alerts the reader more to the necessity of silence than to that of speech. Ashbery's poetry, on the other hand, has always wandered and seemed to argue for the value of language as a fruitful noise--a field of possibility rather than a fixed matrix.

Bronk's three recent volumes, Manifest; and Furthermore (1987), Death Is the Place (1989), and Living Instead (1991), have been what the poet himself has called "freeze-dried Bronk"--his severe deconstruction of the actual demands that his language become more spare, his poems shorter than they were (and they were never epic in length or intention). Bronk's version of poetic self-destructionism follows; here he satirizes the social world of appearances

In a presence vast beyond size, a presence that seems an absence, we hide and play with us as dolls. We give us names and addresses, dress us up in clothes, make loves and resumes, battles, furtively say where we came from and tell each other stories about ourselves.                                             ("Playtime," 73)

In "The Camera Doesn't Lie" he goes further: "We are, of course, without any areness at all / and that's the only way we are." Thus for Bronk "there are no ideas in things," to which he feistily adds, "Take this, William Carlos" (27). Unlike Williams and Whitman, whose poetry he does not admire, Bronk turns to Thoreau at his most ascetic and most Baudrillardian: "Whitman liked the image, and Thoreau didn't care for the image; that's a big difference between the two of them. Whitman's idea was to erect a pretty picture and pretend that was reality. Which God knows is as American an idea as there is: we keep doing it over and over again" (19). 

Even Bronk's favorite structure, the house, lacks the permanence readers of poetry associate with images, since "No form we make is a form we can live in long" ("Formal Declaration"). Instead, we are our own, haunted, houses: "We are like houses to live in. / It lives in us; we are the house. / We thought we were tenants. That was all wrong," and "There aren't any people; there are houses that house. // Tenant, I am haunted by your presences" ("Habitation"). Likewise, he demystifies the places that we have used traditionally to define ourselves:

 Eden too, even Eden, we  made up. It means we always wanted a place  and never have one--had to make them up and stories about them: Troy, Jerusalem, old world, new world, once found, believed, then     lost.                             ("Homecoming," 73)

Bronk's vision is so focused, so certain, that he writes the same poem time and again. This can be seen as a virtue, if indeed it be the truth, but the reader may grow impatient, finally, with so many approaches to the same impasse. The images provided in "Walleted" and elsewhere, which only occasionally appear in Bronk's work, are the field in which Ashbery operates, though Ashbery's suspicions are probably no less strong than Bronk's--suspicions that the truth is concealed, rather than revealed, in particulars. 

If the obvious question about Three Poems (1972) was why they were written in prose, then it's fair to ask of Flow Chart why Ashbery wrote it as a poem, albeit in long Whitmanic lines. (Ashbery, doubtless, prefers Whitman to Thoreau.) Ashbery told an interviewer who asked about the genre-problem in Three Poems: "I wrote in prose because my impulse was not to repeat myself" (quoted in Howard 41). This anxiety about self-repetition earlier inspired Ashbery to make his most radical experiment, the Tennis Court Oath volume. Flow Chart takes a different tack, rather like Gertrude Stein's when she claims that she markets not in repetition but in "insistence." Ashbery acknowledges his repetitions, but typically denies that repetition is what we think it is (I am reminded of Ashbery's remark that his work is not private, but about everyone's privacy). Instead, he finds novelty in what gets repeated; "one is doomed, / repeating one self, never to repeat oneself, you know what I mean?" (7). And much later, a Steinian adage: "Repetition makes reputation." Even instances of forgetting do not faze Ashbery, for "one can lose a good idea / by not writing it down, yet by losing it one can have it: it nourishes other asides / it knows nothing of, would not recognize itself in, yet when the negotiations / are terminated, speaks in the acts of that progenitor, and does / recognize itself, is grateful for not having done so earlier" (115). Thus one repeats even what one has forgotten. 

Repetition anxieties also contributed to Ashbery's early refusals to write an autobiography; he once told an interviewer that, "My own autobiography has never interested me very much. Whenever I try to think about it, I seem to draw a complete blank" (Bellamy 10). Ashbery's poetry has for the most part evaded his biography. What distinguishes Flow Chart from much of Ashbery's previous work is its frank approach to the progress of Ashbery's career. 

Yet Ashbery does not, finally, repeat himself in Flow Chart; if his wandering discourses bear structural similarities to previous work, then the vocabularies he uses are richer still than any to which we've become accustomed. Flow Chart, true to its title, includes the languages of Wall Street, guerrilla war, the wild west, big government (at times he sounds like a lyrical Alexander Haig), and sports ("If he wants to / wind up sidelined, in the dugout, that is OK with me") (169). The final third of the poem employs archaic language, the "thee's" and "thou's" of Hart Crane and John Donne. In addition, Ashbery admits new situations to his poetry; one section introduces a mentally retarded woman in a hospital. 

The contemporary political situation also presents itself more overtly in Flow Chart than it has in Ashbery's past work: "Each year the summer dwindles noticeably, but the Reagan / administration insists we cannot go to heaven without drinking caustic soda on the floor / of Death Valley" (175-6). So much for "morning in America." 

So much, also, for Ashbery's harshest critics, whose calls to arms Ashbery answers in Flow Chart. Frederick Pollack's attack on Ashbery, in the New Formalist anthology of criticism, Poetry After Modernism, is typical. Pollack claims that Ashbery is "a consumer," not an "investment broker," like Stevens (one assumes he means a broker of taste). 

Endlessly eclectic, it thrives on attempts to anticipate it, and creates an atmosphere of unfocused irony which dissolves satire and corrodes values. It destroys the past by sentimentalizing it until memory itself becomes first questionable, then laughable. Finally, when there is no value, anything can be equated with (sold for) anything. I am describing, among other things, a poetic. (24-5).

If, as I am suggesting, the book is about the history of one poet's mind, and engages almost all of the discourses of his time, these criticisms sound more hysterical than reasonable. Ashbery's self- consciousness is ironic, but not valueless. Pollack's uneasy conflation of "value" with "investments" is precisely the misuse of language that Ashbery habitually points to--not through polemics, but by exploding the clichés he so ably repeats. [11] Ashbery's promiscuities of language suggest a radical suspicion of its powers; one trades at times in things one distrusts. Yet Ashbery does not share Bronk's repulsion to the surface languages that divert us from a silent truth; he does not blame the messenger, as several of his passages about language attest. Ashbery finds the search for the Logos as inherently doomed a project as any: "They all would like to collect it always, but since / that's impossible, the Logos alone will have to suffice. / A pity, since no one has seen it recently" (33-4). Ashbery re-validates the image, though not as a stable construct. In a beautiful section of the poem, he writes:

            You may contradict me, but I see life in the dead leaves beginning to blow across the carpet,     paraffin skies, the beetle's forlorn wail, and all at once it recognizes me, I am valid                                                                 again,     the chapter can close and later be mounted, as though on a stage or in an                                                                  album                                                                         (91)

His account of his earlier days reflects his enjoyment of appearances, something I find lacking in much of Bronk's work. He begins a section in a library, then recounts his exit, ending this cross-section of the poem with typical humor:

    Sometimes an important fact would come to light only to reveal itself as someone else's discovery,         while I felt my brain getting chafed as everything in the reading room took on an unreal,         somber aspect. But outside, the streetscape always looked refreshingly right, as though scene-         painters had been at work, and then, at such moments, it was truly a pleasure to walk along,         surprised yet not too surprised by every new, dimpled vista. People would smile at me,         as though we shared some pleasant secret, or a tree would swoon into its fragrance,         like a freshly unwrapped bouquet from the florist's. I knew then that nature was my         friend. (94)

That this vision of nature includes its imitations by artists--the scene-painters of this passage--hardly matters to Ashbery, whose sense of beauty depends on accretion, not on diminution. Ashbery, unlike Bronk, absolutely revels in simulacra, the world as seen through bad movies about the world. This section ends with an encomium to the (real) real:

        I have only the world to ask for, and, when granted, to return to its pedestal, sealed,         resolved, restful, a thing of magic enmity no longer, an object merely, but         one that watches us secretly, and if necessary guides us through the passes, the deserts, the windswept         tumult that is to be our home once we have penetrated it successfully, and all else         has been laid to rest. (96)

[13] The poet's prime temptation, according to Ashbery, is not language, but careerism; Ashbery is "a sophisticated and cultivated adult with a number of books / to his credit and many other projects in the works" (177). He is also a celebrated poet, one who knows the temptations of self-promotion: "All along I had known what buttons to press, but don't / you see, I had to experiment, not that my life depended on it, / but as a corrective to taking the train to find out where it wanted to go" (123). He pokes fun at others' impressions of him as a descendent to Whitman, with his "barbaric yawp":

Then when I did that anyway, I was not so much charmed         as horrified by the construction put upon it by even some quite         close friends, some of whom accused me of being the "leopard man" who         had been terrorizing the community by making howl-like sounds at night, out         of earshot of the dance floor. (123)

This "old soldier" (124) confesses to the power of the critic ("an old guy") to read his mind, a power that forces him back on himself: "you suddenly / see yourself as others see you, and it's not such a pretty sight either, but at / least you know now, and can do something to repair the damage" (124). The creation of a reputation, with the collusion of the critics, is "a rigged deal" (125), but one that the poet earns responsibility for by "looking deeper into the mirror, more thoroughly / to evaluate the pros and cons of your success and smilingly refuse all / offers of assistance" (124).

Where Bronk disdains Whitman, who markets in images, Ashbery sees himself as a less-tyrannical bard, one whose identity accrues through the voices around him, rather than one who demands that his reader share his every assumption. Continuing the train metaphor, he writes, "I see I am as ever / a terminus of sorts, that is, lots of people arrive in me and switch directions but no one / moves on any farther" (127). The poet is merely an "agent" (216), in all nuances of the word, from ticket agent to co-conspirator, who directs us to the now open bridge that ends the poem as inconclusively as Whitman did when he left his "Song of Myself" without a final period:

                                                    We are merely agents, so that if something wants to improve on us, that's fine,         but we are always the last to find out about it, and live up to that image of         ourselves as it gets projected on trees and vine-coated walls and vapors in         the night sky: a distant noise of celebration, forever off-limits. By evening         the traffic has begun again in earnest, color-coded. It's open: the bridge,         that way. (216)

If Bronk maintains the Cartesian dichotomy between body and mind, with the sole proviso that the mind is not ours, then Ashbery purposefully confuses the division, acknowledging no separation between thoughts and the images that help us to think them, or that think through us. Douglas Crase is doubtless right when he claims that Ashbery's poetry is strange to us only because it gives us back the world in which we live (30). That is also--paradoxically--why his poetry is more "habitable" than Bronk's, which is far simpler (in the best sense of the word). Ashbery's vision, however difficult, is inclusive, Bronk's exclusive, swearing its audience to a silence every bit as strenuous as his own. His refusal to be shaped by that world means that he is at once less and more radical than Ashbery; that his revolution is also a reaction (as poetry approaches silence) means in a practical sense that Bronk's career may be foreshortened in ways that Ashbery's is not.



Bellamy, Joe David. American Poetry Observed: Poets on Their Work. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984.

Crase, Douglas. "The Prophetic Ashbery." In Beyond Amazement. New Essays on John Ashbery, Ed. David Lehman. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980. 30-65.

Ernest, John. "William Bronk's Religious Desire." Sagetrieb. 7.3 (Winter 1988): 145-152.

Howard, Richard. "John Ashbery." In Modern Critical Views: John Ashbery. Ed. Harold Bloom. NY: Chelsea House, 1985. 17-47.

Pinsky, Robert. The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and its Traditions. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.

Pollack, Frederick. "Poetry and Politics." In Poetry After Modernism. Ed. Robert McDowell. Brownville, Oregon: Story Line Press, 1991. 5-55.

Weinfield, Henry, ed. "A Conversation with William Bronk." Sagetrieb. 7.3 (Winter 1988): 17-44.

From Postmodern Culture v.2 n.2 (January, 1992). Copyright (c) 1992 by Susan Schultz.


Criticism Overview
Title Susan Schultz: Comparing William Bronk and John Ashbery Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Susan Schultz Criticism Target William Bronk
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 01 Jun 2015
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