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, "Bronk’s 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 poet—especially 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 haunting—not 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. Beckett’s gaunt style, its economy, is similar to Bronk’s. 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. Bronk’s detailed renditions of natural landscapes especially match Thoreau’s in their acuity.
Bronk’s 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.