The style of William Bronk’s poetry is American in a way that almost no other American poetry is today. The few parallels might be found in what is left of the Black Mountain movement, with its bent for history, epistemology, and involuted speech, and in the work of A. R. Ammons, with its bent for outdoor things and the fluidity of the forms of being. Bronk’s poetry, in fact, projects a Yankee personality—watchful, reflective, eccentric and, as it were, elegantly plainspoken. His work does not belong to the explosive side of American writing which comes from Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, but to the implosive side which comes from Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson. His work updates this tradition without losing its own slant, and gives to matters such as the meaning of being, thinking, making, and feeling a snap which most current American poetry of a comparable seriousness gives up in favor of styles which show off their learning or take their cue from modern European or Latin American poetry.
In a sense Bronk, like Lucretius, has only one subject: rerum natura, the nature of things. The objects and occasions which get Bronk’s poems going—which might be anything from a photograph or a book on geometry to a concert or a visit by a friend—never keep the poems to themselves but become examples of Bronk’s ontology. His ontology is reductive when it comes to man and his mind and works. He says, “We can be said to be sensible tissues of brief/ duration” (“The Transuniversal Look”). He expresses his outlook, though, without gloom, and though he is matter-of-fact about what he thinks, his tone is not flat or off-handed.
The real is slippery to Bronk; it has no shape. How does man’s mind work in the light of this? Once it rises from the chaotic events in the world of sleep where it has no power, it tries to impose “a grid . . . of form/ and reason” on the real, but it does not work (“Grids”). The mind finds it hard to accept its weakness; it would rather “leave/ the world for the same world made knowable” (“The Ignorant Lust After Knowledge”). The best the mind can do, it seems, is know its own limitations. It can explain the history of objects, but it cannot understand the history or the explanation (“Memorial”). It can look at a person who cannot move from its scrutiny in a picture, but it cannot know “who is there” behind it (“My Father Photographed with Friends”). It can make a pattern out of the world’s pieces, but the pieces never agree with the pattern, the world as a unity stays clear of it (“Some Musicians . . .”). The mind may go so far as to have “reasonable” views about the nature of things, but these views are false (“The Difference”). The “measures” the mind comes up with “measure themselves,” not anything they are put to (“On Divers Geometries”). The senses themselves are as limited as the mind in that they are “inward,” in retreat from things (“How Indeterminacy Determines Us”), though sometimes they are much better off than the mind in that they “seize the world” while the mind “gropes the way,—/ lost” (The Mind’s Landscape . . .”). The firmest thought the mind can have in the end is “that our being is/ and is unalterable” (“The Wonder of Our Contrariety”).
Thinking for Bronk is not a cold act, even if it is useless. The mind is passionate; it will not take no for an answer as it pursues “a world of solid shapes” it knows it cannot have (“Loew’s World”). The mind at least knows that feeling “does exist/ as hopeless and meaningless as the universe is” (“Colloquy on a Bed”). Feeling can even behave like the mind by making it do what feeling itself would not—that is, “to disbelieve visions, to disbelieve” (“The Failure to Devise a Better World”).
Bronk views the nature of feeling as raw yearning. He says, “One sees desire not/ as something to satisfy but to live with” (“The Ignorant Lust After...
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