Bronk, William 1918–
Bronk is an American poet and essayist concerned with the themes of time, space, and the nature of reality. With a pared-down simplicity of line and an often imageless clarity, he creates a poetry of place, a poetry of statement. Often meditative and experimental, his work has been compared to Wallace Stevens's in its use of form and recurring motif.
More than most collections of poetry, William Bronk's The World, the Worldless … possesses an unbroken thematic unity. Existential anguish links poem to poem, so that lines from one might easily be coupled with those of another. It is not, however, a poetry of despair, for it begins with an acceptance of the fact that "We are here. We are here," and it recognizes our need "to make / a world for survival …," since "One is nothing with no world." But Bronk will not settle for man's comfortable, conventional falsities and pretenses. For religious orthodoxy and promises of salvation he holds no hope: "Nothing is coming but what is already here"; and yet, for all the uncertainties of human existence, there is one truth: "we are, somehow we are." Whether or not we find satisfaction in Bronk's philosophy, his poetry of statement impresses with its clarity and precision of language; it manages to make metaphysics a subject of human emotion rather than a grand abstraction. (p. 47-8)
Robert D. Spector, in Saturday Review (© 1965 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 13, 1965.
["The New World" is a collection of] essay-meditations on the architecture and algebra of space and time of the Incan and Mayan religious temples at Machu Picchu, Tikal, Copan, Palenque,… by one of our finest—though largely uncelebrated—poets. Lucid, precise, abstract, capable of infinitely slow movement and graceful, careful observation, the prose here is of a high order of excellence, a celebration of mystery and wonder, but human in its scale and its syntactical arrangements. It permits an excursion into the mysteries of Time and Space and Numbers….
In all his poems as well as here, Bronk's sensitivity is generated through his contemplation of architecture and habitation, by the details of a grand concept as well as the space it encloses. It's as if he has found and written, always vitally aware of the relationship between the sashes and beams and lintelings of his mill life and the seemingly more obdurate ideas in stone of the May an craftsmen. One of his finest early poems in the collection "The World, the Worldless" … considers his grand Victorian Hudson Valley town mansion….
Every new volume of his poems is engraved with terse statement, a high seriousness and strong uncluttered feeling. With each new volume he seems to be determined to make his utterance all the more specific, determined and quiet, as if he wrote his poems in the voice and with the mind in which we all truly sometimes think, beautifully and sublimely, through our perceptions…. (p. 12)
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William Bronk writes about time and space; he writes about motion, the "motion" of interrelationships: people, places, objects, ideas. Like Wallace Stevens, a poet whom he resembles in some respects, he writes about the mind's motion, the processes of cognition. And he writes about these matters over and over again…. Like most major talents he holds on to a few ideas, and makes of them, over the years, his "quarrel with himself." (p. 222)
Over the years Bronk's diction has become sparer, his forms both more experimental and more crabbed—he is now writing quatrains and tercets—but the deft syntax, the mastery of "pause" and effect, the easy amplitude of statement, rarely too much or too little, and the refusal to yield imagery over to discourse …, are evidences of this ruminative poet's unvarying stance. Bronk is remarkably even, and remarkably urgent. Our poet is a poet of argument.
Bronk's concern, as that of Stevens, is for reality. In Bronk's case, however, and it is an inevitable distinction, the attention is for the actual physis of metaphysics…. Fictions and tentative orders are not so much contemplated as they are assailed. The result is not an act of imagination as will, but—in language that seems to do its own thinking, bare, hesitant, probing—a finally resolute recognition of, and concession to, Mystery…. Bronk does not pray …, but his surrender, in poem after poem—"On Credo Ut Intelligam," for one, from That Tantalus—comes as close to meditation as it can without becoming forthright prayer. He examines his consciousness the way some people examine their conscience. (pp. 223-24)
Time must be spent comparing Bronk with Stevens because no appreciation of his work can ignore the affinities between the two poets. Bronk himself states the problematic nature of influence, in his interview with Robert Bertholf, in Credences. "I stopped reading him (Stevens) entirely. Not because I disliked him or had grown tired of him, but simply I didn't want just to be a Stevens imitator." (p. 224)
Both poets are heroes of consciousness. Both poets delight in the exercise of a fugal intelligence that harries a subject, sniffs around it, seems to proceed by fits and starts, turns it over, seems to let it go, and then quickly retrieves it. The repetition of a key word, for instance, that sends it caroming, like a motif, through the whole poem, is characteristic of the style of each man. Both poets, in our seemingly "innovative" day, keep up the good work for the five-stress line, using it in intricate, clever, and effective ways. There are places Bronk defies the standard foot, and like Hopkins' sprung rhythm, really returns to Anglo-Saxon accent verse, five-stress lines where each stress is associated with irregular syzygies of unaccented syllables. The variations make for great drama and emphasis. Most importantly, the dramatic situation of their poems—Bronk talks and talks to someone much more often than he describes—makes for an identity authentically presented from poem to poem, from book to book.
There is no gallicism to Bronk, however; he lacks the easy blague, the sense of intrigue for the subject. Humor exists, the bitter humor of Melville, perhaps, whom Bronk has studied. Melville wrote about the whiteness of the whale; Bronk writes about the irreality of reality. His feeling of history, as he roams the American continents, reminds me of Hawthorne a bit. Like Hawthorne, and like few North American writers today, he senses, and responds in organ tones, to the American past, the past of both Americas, the past before the white man, the pre-Columbian past—Hawthorne would not have called it that—and like another poet obsessed with the primordial past, Neruda, Bronk has gone up to Machu Picchu, and dreamed of time…. (pp. 224-25)
Bronk is American of a kind closer to Neruda and Paz, in their equating of man and time in the continuum of man's fate, than to Charles Olson, who also visited the Yucatan peninsula, and for whom, too often not to be noticed, locale and "polis" took precedence over the individual. Bronk sees the Incas, and the Mayans, names them in poem after poem and prose after prose, and he sees himself…. [For] Bronk ancient mountains and modern cities coexist in the flux of time and space in which man is trapped. That is why his startling connections are always so utterly contemporary, and personally relevant. Man is not man-in-history, or man-as-savage, but man. No other poet in the United States is quite like this. Gary Snyder comes to mind. William Carlos Williams came near in his essay on Benjamin Franklin, his essay on Alfred Stieglitz, but the cause of Williams was the lost chance, the American Dream…. Bronk's emphasis is on how same man can be. Bronk takes the human condition out of the time-frame of possibilities and probabilities, and...
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In "Light and Dark,"… William Bronk's first book of poems,… some anxious children in a car ask, "Where are we now?", to which the poem's narrator replies, "Pretty soon, pretty soon," suggesting that the answers we would like to hear are not always there. The narrator goes on, in this poem entitled "Some Musicians Play Chamber Music for Us," to instruct us that the worlds we seem to share are created worlds; like pieces of music, they are "composed, oh wholly and well composed." The tone is muted, the language spare, unable to alleviate either curiosity or uncertainty, yet the voice compels, even consoles; it is a strangely humane whistle in the dark.
Such an effect pervades the entire corpus of...
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